Neil Clark Warren has an enthusiasm for good conversation and the company of others. It was that passion for people that led him into a long career as a clinical psychologist. He also served as dean of Fuller Theological Seminary’s school of psychology from 1975 to 1982. His work counseling married couples gave him the idea to start eHarmony with son-in-law Greg Forgatch in 2000. The site quickly grew to one of the largest online dating services and found a niche primarily with Christian singles. The site raised $110 million from prominent technology investors in 2004 and was expected to go public, though the offering never came about. Warren, who has led the company as chairman since its inception, stepped down from day-to-day duties running the business in 2007. In the years that followed, the company saw a revolving door of chief executives as it lost subscribers to newer dating sites oriented toward younger singles. Warren came out of retirement last year and took over as chief executive. His strategy for reviving the business included asking all but one board member to resign, drastically reducing staff and returning money to investors. Now he’s also looking to expand eHarmony to add job- and friend-matching services. Warren recently sat down with the Business Journal at the company’s Santa Monica headquarters, where the walls are covered with photos of couples that met on eHarmony, to discuss his first year back, his relationship with his wife and why he’s having more fun than ever at 79. Question: Why did you come out of retirement to run eHarmony last year? Answer: When my son-in-law and I left the business, it kind of lost its way. We were losing end-of-period subscribers at a rate of 100,000 a year. We went through five CEOs in a short period of time. I was still chairman. I said to one of our very important board members named Greg Penner, “Do you think I could ever come back as CEO?” He asked, “Do you think you have it in you?” I said, “I think I do. I have a lot of energy and I love this company with all of my heart.”
How do you feel about returning to work at your age?
At first, I didn’t want anybody to know that I was 77 when I came back. Now I think it’s a plus. There are people well into their 80s and 90s like Warren Buffet and Rupert Murdoch that are leading big companies. So I sort of advertise it now.
How have things been since you’ve returned?
Well, first of all, this last year has been the greatest single year of my life. I have loved it. And in a way it was very painful. We asked seven of our nine board members to resign. That was hard. They were all good people but we needed to be able to move faster. At one point, we had 320 employees; we now have 170.
Was that hard for you?
I came back into this office and I was lonely at first. I didn’t know a lot of these people. We started building our own staff. Fourteen people are on our executive committee and all those people are new. We essentially started over again with people more aligned with our mission. We now have a group of people who get along extremely well.
How do you feel about the business one year after returning?
We’re growing at a rate of between 20,000 and 30,000 new end-of-period subscribers a month. We’ve really grown it back up. We’ve gotten big again. We think we will have some stellar years.
EHarmony has announced that it wants to expand beyond romantic relationships. Why?
We realized that if we could make romantic relationships work, people are happier in their work. But people are lonelier than ever before. You can’t make your marriage work if you are unhappy in your work. We’ve got to help people get into the right job. We have a team to build algorithms to allow people to get into the right job.
You recently spoke about how eHarmony’s policy on gay marriage hurt your business. How so?
I hate talking about that because you can’t win. We were required by the state of New Jersey to put up a same-sex site and we did. I had never had a gay or lesbian couple in therapy in my years, so that was a little bit difficult. We’ve had a bunch of marriages, but we lost a lot of Christians. It became big news because we were known, because of my background, as a Christian site. We want every relationship to be great. We know that it’s a very tense issue nationally. But I honestly think it’s going away.
How long have you and your wife been married?
How did you meet?
We met at Pepperdine. Marylyn is a regent at Pepperdine. She also works here. She’s vice president of business solutions, which is funny because if she had all the solutions, none of the rest of us would be needed. She’s here every day.
Do you enjoy working with her on a daily basis?
Yeah, I do every day, except yesterday when she got mad at me. It’s really wonderful to be in this together. I think it must be hard for her because I’m just so into this. I come here every morning by cab so she can have the car. I leave at 7:15 in the morning. We don’t go home until 6. Of course, we share excitement and we share sadness.
What about your children?
We have three daughters and nine grandchildren. We take a big interest in our grandkids. I always say to our kids that I like our grandkids a lot better than I like our kids. And I think they like us better, too.
What drew you to study theology?
I was drawn to theology because I grew up in a very spiritual home. My dad was the most important person in my life. My dad was very spiritual. I wanted to please him so I went to Princeton for three years. I’m glad I did because I learned a lot but I didn’t want to be a minister. I really wanted to do something else with people.
So you went into psychology?
I went to the University of Chicago. At the time it was a top clinical program. I love psychology but it gets pretty grueling to see eight or nine people a day for an hour apiece.
You must hear some difficult stories.
Oh, my gosh, the reason we started eHarmony is that I used to say that I presided over the funerals of more marriages. When two people are going through the end of a marriage, they are so sad. They are so hurt and angry. Usually the marriage was in pretty bad shape when it started. We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could get the right people together at the beginning.
What were your parents like?
My mom and dad went to country schools in Iowa. My dad went to the Capital City Commercial College in Des Moines, Iowa. My mom was kind of a traditional farm girl. My dad was absolutely brilliant. He was truly an entrepreneur. I know that’s where I got my entrepreneurial side. But because we were so spiritually oriented, he would just get to the place of really doing financially well and then he’d put his brakes on and work more in the church. I haven’t had the same problem.
Are you an only child?
I’m not the only child, but I’m like an only child. One sister is 18 years older and the other sister is 11 years older. My mom was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with me before she knew she was pregnant. I was a total mistake. I don’t think they quite got over that until I was quite a bit older.
So you didn’t grow up with many other children?
I led a lonely life to tell you the truth. I’d go out with my BB gun and my dog and I’d shoot birds and sparrows. I spent a lot of my life by myself.
How did you come to Los Angeles?
They call Long Beach “Little Iowa” because thousands of Iowans moved to Long Beach. So we came out. It was 1943. I was 9 years old. We ended up staying out here. My dad thought he was going to retire. Instead of retiring he became a builder.
What about your mom?
My mom was a stay-at-home mom. She was pretty depressed, to tell you the truth. I think my sister pulled me through that. My sister is still living. She drives everywhere and lives in Huntington Beach.
Who have been the biggest influences on your life?
I had 34 cousins, not one of whom had ever gone to college. My sister married a man who went to the University of Chicago to get his Ph.D. He was really weird in our family. He’d not only gone to college but he was going on to get a Ph.D. He was a big influence on me. It didn’t want to admit it at the time, but now I look back and think, how did I miss that? He bought a Cadillac, I bought a Cadillac. I didn’t know I was copying him.
What about professional influences?
Carl Rogers was one of the great psychologists of his time. He was at the University of Chicago and I went to study under him. He left, but all of his people were still on faculty so I’m a humanist just like he was. There was a guy who was faculty at USC for 30 years named Lee Edward Travis. He was my hero. He was one of the great psychologists in America. He had enormous style as a human being. He was brilliant intellectually and emotionally and I was proud beyond words to be chosen as his successor. He’s the reason I’m Neil Clark Warren. I wanted to have three names like he did.
What would be your career turning point?
I think the turning point for me was when I wrote my first book. We went to Switzerland and took a sabbatical year from Fuller. I wrote “Make Anger Your Ally.”
Do you enjoy the writing process?
I would say that I do after it’s over. I did it for two or three reasons. One was that I wanted my kids to go to the best schools. I didn’t make enough money as dean of the school of psychology. But with the books, I’d get these good advances. When our daughter was at Stanford, that was very high tuition. We made too much money to get her tuition help. So I’d write a new book every year to make enough money to send her to Stanford. You write sometimes for financial reasons. But it turned out to be a good thing because it got eHarmony off the ground real fast.
You’re in many of the eHarmony commercials. Do you enjoy that?
Yes, I must say I do. Because I’ve always been kind of a public person having studied for the ministry before, so I’ve never been fearful or nervous in front of the camera.
What do you do in your free time?
Talking. That’s my favorite thing. I used to play golf. Then it turned to tennis. Now I say I don’t do very much other than have a lot of friends. We do a lot of socializing.
What do you plan to accomplish by being back at eHarmony?
Dominant in my life is my desire to finish my career with a flourish and to do something really significant to change the world. I’m trying to surround myself with people who want to change the world, too. After a while you get enough money and you don’t have that as an excuse anymore for working. You get excited about the possibility that maybe you’ve got some answers that could literally change the world.
NEIL CLARK WARREN
TITLE: Chairman and Chief Executive
COMPANY: eHarmony Inc.
BORN: Des Moines, Iowa; 1934.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree, Pepperdine University; master of divinity, Princeton Theological Seminary; Ph.D. in psychology, University of Chicago.
CAREER TURNING POINT: Writing and publishing his first book, “Make Anger Your Ally,” in 1983.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: His brother-in-law; psychologists Carl Rogers and Lee Edward Travis.
PERSONAL: Lives in Santa Monica with wife, Marylyn; they have three adult married daughters and nine grandchildren.
ACTIVITIES: Socializing with friends.
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