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A passive role in business adopted by Mormon church

April 28, 1982

Salt Lake City

Perched above Temple Square, J. Howard Dunn's office looks over some of the finest property in Salt Lake City - Hotel Utah, the ZCMI and Crossroads malls, and more buildings looking west into the valley.

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Much of it is owned, leased, or managed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) - a fact that is essential to understanding Salt Lake City's future.

But for all the property and political influence the church may wield in the former theocratic capital of Brigham Young's state of Deseret (as it was once called), its larger concerns are pictured on Mr. Dunn's walls.

Large aerial photos of Hawaii decorate Mr. Dunn's offices, where he serves as president of Zion Securities Corporation, the tax-paying property-management arm of the Mormon church.

Hawaii is just one place where the Mormon church owns tracts of land or commercial businesses. There's also a large ranch near Disney World, farms in Idaho, television and radio stations in several US cities, an insurance firm, as well as thousands of church buildings in dozens of nations.

For at least a decade the church has refocused its missionary efforts less and less in the ''land of Zion,'' or Utah, and more and more worldwide. It has divested itself of several businesses no longer considered central to its mission and has sold off land, hospitals, or such institutions as Zions First National Bank.

''We're a very large landlord, but not a dominant one in Salt Lake,'' says Mr. Dunn. ''In the last 10 years, we've consolidated our land into major holdings. Before, we had individual blocks. Now we're concentrating around Temple Square.

''We want to move into property management rather than property development, '' Mr. Dunn states, ''and play a passive role, letting the public take the lead.

''We're not particularly keen in being a competitor in the open market. It creates the wrong impression. We don't want to be known as the city landlord,'' says Mr. Dunn.

But, he adds, the church looks for the same type of return as any developer. The passive role extends as well to the church investments taking only a minority interest in major US corporations.

This year, church membership rolls reached an official 5 million, nearly double that of the 1960s. Just over 3 million members live in the US, while the Utah population of 1.5 million is considered to be 70 percent Mormon.

Faithful members pay 10 percent of their incomes to the church in a tithing system that brings in a steady flow of cash and securities, which requires corporate-style management and investment strategies as sophisticated as those found on Wall Street.

In fact, the church's head offices are located in a building that resembles a bank. And its top leaders, all men, usually bring with them a background in major US corporations before they are called to headquarters in Salt Lake.

''We try to operate the few - and I emphasize that - the few business interests that we do have in a businesslike, prudent way, as any prudent business corporation would do, and use them for the public good,'' says Gordon B. Hinckley, a church president.

The church uses commercial profits to meet its ecclesiastical goals such as welfare services to indigent members and mass communication to the public. A few businesses, such as a clothing mill and the Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institute (ZCMI), are remnants of pioneer days when the church needed to support basic industries.