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Mitt Romney: Love in Bain

    When Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani finally announce officially, we plan to do a Tote Board column on the importance of announcement speeches. Suffice it to say for now that an announcement provides important clues as to how a candidate approaches the campaign and the office of the presidency – more even that a set of PowerPoint slides prepared by your friendly consultant and leaked to the local newspaper.
    Mitt Romney’s last month was no exception. In his speech in Dearborn, Michigan (in itself a revealing choice in that Romney hasn’t lived in Michigan for years), he spoke often and, at times, eloquently about how “innovation and transformation have been at the heart of America's success.” His premise and promise was that a Romney Administration would revive America economically and spiritually. In other words, if the U.S. were a company, he’d turn it around.
    All candidates and leaders return to their roots often, so it’s important to know what those roots are and why those particular roots are emphasized. Ronald Reagan, for example, was governor of the nation’s largest state but he was affected far more by his work for years for GE as a spokesman. Through this experience, Reagan, the former Democrat, became a staunch convert to the ideals and grievances of corporate America. Add that to his intimate knowledge of Hollywood – Reagan’s personal experiences were like having the best collection of old flicks that exist – and you can see why he was able to use the presidency so well to appeal to the country’s mythic sense of itself.
    Similarly, Jimmy Carter often grounded himself in his naval experience on a submarine under Hyman Rickover, even titling his autobiography from a question Rickover had once asked him, “Why not the best?”  Having that as his defining experience explains a lot why Carter ran his presidency in much the same way a nuclear engineer would, for better or worse.
    For Romney, it’s clear that his defining experience is not his faith – though the press will make a huge deal of it – nor his experience as governor of Massachusetts – a job in which he seemed to lose interest almost daily. Instead, it’s his extensive experience at Bain, a management consulting and later a private equity firm. According to Bain’s website:

    “We work with top management to beat their competitors and generate substantial, lasting financial impact.
    We look at a business as an integrated, cohesive whole. Bain helps companies find where to make their money, make more of it faster, and sustain its growth longer . . ..
    Where appropriate, we work with clients to make it happen - which may mean fundamentally changing the company.
    Our work is most successful when we work closely with clients who are dissatisfied with the status quo.”

    Taking Bain at its word – and it has a lengthy track record – this is not a bad experience for a potential president to have. There are a number of American industries that could do a lot worse than have Mitt Romney as their president.
    But it’s also easy to see where Romney may run into trouble as a candidate. Management consultants work behind the scenes; press scrutiny is not a regular part of the job, as it is for a politician. If they work collaboratively, they tend to work with upper management – not the masses. They tend to have a fairly simple measure of success – money – that may not translate into the more complicated political world. Changing your opinion often is a given; it’s praised as “flexibility.” In politics, in contrast, you can’t pick a position one day and then another the next and expect voters to believe or follow you.
    In other words, while it’s easy to see why the candidate from Bain might appeal to some Republicans (though interestingly, Romney would appear to be far better-suited to the more moderate GOP that welcomed his father and Nelson Rockefeller, not the present, more hard-line sunbelt version), it’s also easy to see why his set of skills might fail to prepare him adequately for a race for the presidency, much less the office itself.
    Mitt Romney for Secretary of Commerce. Maybe things will change, but at this point anything else looks like a stretch.

  • Michael said:

    Interesting analysis, but flawed in one critical area.  Steven refers only to the earliest part of Mitt Romney's career, which was at Bain and Company.  And true, during that part of his career he advised senior management and CEO's about how to run their companies better.

    But the major part of his business career was spent at Bain Capital, which is an entirely different entity (though spawned from the same roots), and there he was not an advisor but a creator and leader -- not just of Bain Capital (which he started from scratch) but also of a whole variety of companies including Staples.

    What's more, he has proven his abilities as a Chief Executive Officer time and time again.

    --At Bain Capital as its CEO and founder, he built one of the most successful venture capital and private equity firms of all time.

    --He returned to Bain and Company as its CEO at a time when the consulting firm was in deep distress and led an impressive rescue effort that restored the firm to its former glory.

    --He took over as, in effect, CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics, which were in deep, deep trouble...and put together a team that not only rescued the games but made them a shining star in the wake of 9/11, when the nation desperately needed confidence building.

    --He was CEO, in effect, of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when it was $3 billion in deficit.  His top-to-bottom shakeup of state government more than balanced the budget...and he put together some important bipartisan initiatives in health care and education, despite the fact that he was a Republican governor working with an 85% Democratic state legistature.

    To say that Mitt Romney doesn't have executive makeup and is only capable of advising senior managers is patently preposterous.  Of every candidate in the 2008 presidential race, no one has half the leadership, problem-solving, and executive experience that Mitt Romney has.  He has done it with small teams in tiny startups (Staples was one little store in Brighton, Massachusetts and a dream when he got involved), with a virtual international Tower of Babel in the Olympics, with a hostile legislature.

    Trying to type-cast a man by what his skill set was during his first 10 years of business is like looking at John McCain's years in a Vietnam prison camp and saying he was antisocial in his formative years because he didn't get out much.

    The breadth and depth of Mitt Romney's leadership experience under difficult circumstances -- repeated again and again -- stands head and shoulders above that of the other candidates.

    March 19, 2007 3:15 PM

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