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Mitt Romney: Entrepreneur?

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That's the question I raised last week after surveying his vast, vast holdings and finding little in the way of venture investment. To hear his campaign tell it, the answer is indisputably yes. In an official bio, Romney for President recounts that the candidate "left behind a successful career as an entrepreneur to take over as President and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee" of the 2002 Winter Olympics. That successful career took place as the founding head of Bain Capital, an early and over-achieving private equity company.

But a different answer emerges in an exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, series on Romney published by the Boston Globe (registration required).

Over seven days in the last week of June, the Globe recounted everything from the tribulations Romney's great-grandparents faced as Mormon pioneers to the now-famous incident in which Mitt as a young father loaded his wife and five sons into a station wagon, loaded the family dog into crate strapped to the top of the station wagon, and proceeded to embark on 12-hour journey, stopping only when the eldest son noticed doggie diarrhea streaming down the rear window. (Mitt hosed the effluent off and the family continued on its way.) For our purposes, though, the relevant installment focuses on his career at the Boston consultancy Bain & Co. In 1983, Romney was tapped by William Bain to head a new spin-off which would buy undervalued firms, and use Bain's innovative management techniques to boost profits before selling those firms off.

It's an open question whether Bain Capital truly stuck to that M.O. -- under Romney, it seemed to direct much of its efforts toward leverage buyouts that involved the tried-and-true gambits of roll-ups and lay-offs -- but we'll come back to that. What's most interesting is that when handed this extraordinary opportunity, at first Romney passed. According to the Globe, "Romney explained that he didn't want to risk his position, earnings, and reputation on an experiment in investing." To bring Romney on board, Bain promised Romney that his old job, with an updated salary, would be waiting if the venture failed. Further, "Bain agreed to craft a cover story if necessary, promising to bring Romney back to the consulting firm and explain Romney's return as a matter of his being more valuable to Bain as a consultant." Said Bain, 'there was no professional or financial risk.'

The leveraged buyouts, too, represented risk aversion. "If venture investing requires vision, leveraged buyouts demand precision," the Globe explains. "The venture capital world had too many unknowns for Romney's taste." As Romney himself put it, 'I didn't want to invest in start-ups where the success of the enterprise depended upon something that was out of our control, such as 'Could Dr. X make the technology work?'."

Is the entrepreneurial spirit defined as much by the willingness to take great risk to reap great reward as it is by innovation? If the answer is yes, then the verdict on Romney must be no.

Last updated: Aug 21, 2007




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