A Valentine’s Day Business Special: Famous Workplace Romances

May your Valentine's Day 2015 not involve anything scandalous that could impact your career or business...
May your Valentine’s Day 2015 not involve anything scandalous that could impact your career or business…

Over the past few years, I’ve lovingly filled the annual entry in February’s editorial calendar for Valentine’s Day (VD) with (quasi) business-relevant content. During the dark winter days of December 2014, I plotted how best to populate the first quarter of my blog’s 2015 calendar. The dreaded VD slot taunted me like a stubborn kindergartner refusing to share his or her favorite toy during a play date.

And then it came to me, in a flash of blogging inspiration: CEOs and other business leaders have been known from time to time to follow their hearts instead of their business plans. It seems that corporate passion is not always limited to a new product concept or revolutionary process.

We are all human, including some well-known business bigwigs. Perhaps you’re a true believer regarding that famous Beatles song (scroll to the end). Regardless, I say: think before you send a compromising e-mail or text message and are tempted to enter into a dangerous liaison.

Learn from these (mostly) notorious real-world lessons…

An IBM Intern Unspooled Bill Gates’s Programmable Heart: What can you say about a Duke University graduate who majored in computer science and economics, and whose father introduced her to an Apple II computer at age 14?

Although Melinda French accepted Microsoft’s job offer in 1986, she didn’t actually meet her future boyfriend/husband/partner in philanthropy until 1987. They were seated next to each other at a PC trade-show dinner in New York, but Mr. Bill didn’t take action until months later in the Microsoft parking lot.

Oh, of course he asked her out. But in anticipation of all the business meetings he attended, Bill Gates wanted to know if Melinda would be available in two weeks’ time. (Talk about planning in advance!)

The rest is computing history, and they married on New Year’s Day in 1994. (Sorry to disappoint you, but marital discord isn’t reflective of this particular office romance.)

As it turns out, Mrs. Gates was the primary catalyst for the creation of the William H. Gates Foundation (now the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). So Bill Gates may be the engine with his philanthropic dollars, but Melinda French Gates is the smart, steady pulse of the organization. Victory!

Rupert Murdoch Hit the Romance-Marriage-Divorce Trifecta with a Star TV Intern: Sure, you’re all familiar with Wendi Deng Murdoch’s infamous “Tiger Wife” right-cross that swatted away a projectile pie. It was lobbed by a protestor at hubby Rupert during a British House of Commons interrogation back in 2011.

But that was then, and this is now. The former power couple met cute in 1997 in China.

This tidbit from Business Insider is the flame that turned into a brush fire:

“She started as an intern at News-Corp owned Star TV, and caught Murdoch’s eye during a staff meeting in Hong Kong when she asked an intelligent question and approached him after the meeting…”

By the following year, Deng officially functioned as Murdoch’s “interpreter” during his business trips to Shanghai and Beijing. Although they did marry in 1999 (after Mr. Murdoch divorced his second wife, Anna Torv), Rupert’s extreme May-December marriage with Wendi Deng came to an end in 2013.

Perhaps Rupert was a bit peeved by the rumors circulating that Wendi and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had a kind of thing going on

Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher Let a VP Clear the Runway with His Heart: Love was in the arid Palm Desert, California, air in January 2005 when Mr. Stonecipher and Debra Peabody met at Boeing’s annual executive retreat.

They were meeting for the first time because Ms. Peabody, Vice President of Operations & Commercial Activities, was based in Boeing’s government-relations office in Washington, D.C. (and not the company’s Seattle headquarters).

Sometime after the executive excursion, the newly involved paramours were busted by an internal whistle-blower. This employee allegedly intercepted e-mail correspondence between Harry and Debra that revealed a romantic interlude of some sort.

Mr. Stonecipher admitted the affair to Boeing’s board of directors. In turn, they swiftly dismissed him for an internal ethics violation (Harry was married, Debra was divorced) in early March of that same year.

Who knows what the gentleman did with all his frequent-flyer miles

Walmart Senior VP Julie Roehm’s Alleged Affair with a Subordinate Wasn’t Family-Friendly: This surreal story packs a one-two punch regarding (high-level marketing communications executive) Julie Roehm’s professional and personal morals.

I could fill a lot of space recounting the dirty details for you, but I think this after-the-fact summary from a July 2009 FastCompany article is sufficient:

“In 2006, after Wal-Mart fired Roehm at least in part for accepting a Nobu 57 sushi dinner from Draftfcb, the ad agency she’d recently awarded the retailer’s $580 million account, she filed a $1.5 million breach of contract lawsuit against the House of Sam, prompting a litigious spiral of soap-operatic proportions: Wal-Mart countersued Roehm for having an affair with a subordinate.”

That subordinate’s name is Sean Womack, a (now) former Walmart marketing vice president. The company supposedly obtained one particularly revealing personal e-mail from Shelley Womack, Sean’s estranged wife at the time.

In it, Ms. Roehm told Mr. Womack that “I think about us together all of the time. Little moments like watching your face when you kiss me.” Additionally, the two of them were seen in a physically compromising position at a Fayette, Arkansas, bar by a friend of Womack.

But to this day, Julie Roehm insists no such affair occurred. As for Mr. Womack, he eventually started his own consulting firm. His company offers ideation and branding services under the name TBD Labs.

Julie Roehm had previously been quite successful in the automotive industry at Ford (i.e., the brilliant introductory campaign for the 2000 Ford Focus) and Daimler-Chrysler. But she proved to be more of a “red-light special” (so sorry, Kmart!) than Walmart could handle…

ESPN: An Acronym for “Especially Stupid Philanderers, Naked!” (The Tawdry 2009 Steve Phillips-Brooke Hundley Scandal): I’m not much of a sports fanatic, so this particular tale of illicit workplace lust was news to me. The New York Post had the honor of breaking this story a few years back in 2009.

And according to that article, Steve Phillips, a 40-something baseball sports analyst (and former New York Mets general manager), was a self-admitted sex addict. In other words, he “couldn’t stop the trouser drop” regarding his much younger production assistant, Brooke Hundley.

But Brooke also had a taste for recklessness–see Exhibit A.

After he was fired, Mr. Phillips spent some quality time at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services (in Mississippi–formerly known as Gentle Path Treatment Center) to extinguish his incendiary desire for Ms. Hundley.

If the facility’s name sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s the same place where a guy named Tiger Woods dwelled a bit after humiliating his ex-wife Elin Nordegren. Skol!

Notice my omission of politicians’ love affairs from the VD equation. Those lurid anectdotes could fill my editorial calendar for the remainder of 2015! I think I’ll save that variation of workplace amorousness for next year’s Valentine’s Day post.

Until then, here are some honorable mentions regarding business-related love affairs run amok (well, Jack Welch did marry his Suzy…):

Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric) and Suzy Wetlaufer (she was the Harvard Business Review’s editor at the time)

Brian Dunn (former CEO of Best Buy) and a 29-year-old female employee (allegedly..)

Kenneth Melani (former CEO of Highmark, a health-insurance company) and married employee Melissa Myler

Stephen MacMillan (former CEO of Stryker, a medical device manufacturer) and a former employee of the company (allegedly…)

Historical bonus entry: William Randolph Hearst (yep, the 20th-century newspaper-publishing tycoon) and actress Marion Davies


Be honest: Did my business version of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing hold your interest, or was it just “meh?” Putting aside politicians and Hollywood celebrities, did I overlook an illicit business pairing you consider a must-include entry?

How do you feel about romantic office relationships? Should they be strictly verboten (um, especially for married executives and their sometimes-married subordinates)? Is it acceptable for unmarried co-workers to “hook up” and begin an intimate relationship?

Love is a splendid thing indeed, but not when it compromises corporate-sanctioned rules. Regardless of your marital status, here’s wishing you a scandal-free Valentine’s Day. As the Beatles would say, “All you need is love…”

Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print or web marketing and educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or email By All Writes LLC at lori@byallwrites.biz  for a no-obligation project quote today!

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