Willard "Mitt" Romney's background in many ways suggests a man who was born to be president – disgustingly rich from birth, raised in prep schools, no early exposure to minorities outside of maids, a powerful daddy to clean up his missteps, and timely exemptions from military service. In Romney's bio there are some eerie early-life similarities to other recent presidential figures. (Is America really ready for another Republican president who was a prep-school cheerleader?) And like other great presidential double-talkers such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Romney has shown particular aptitude in the area of telling multiple factual versions of his own life story.
"I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there," he claimed years after the war. To a different audience, he said, "I was not planning on signing up for the military. It was not my desire to go off and serve in Vietnam."
Like John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, men whose way into power was smoothed by celebrity fathers but who rebelled against their parental legacy as mature politicians, Mitt Romney's career has been both a tribute to and a repudiation of his famous father. George Romney in the 1950s became CEO of American Motors Corp., made a modest fortune betting on energy efficiency in an age of gas guzzlers and ended up serving as governor of the state of Michigan only two generations removed from the Romney clan's tradition of polygamy. For Mitt, who grew up worshipping his tall, craggily handsome, politically moderate father, life was less rocky: Cranbrook prep school in suburban Detroit, followed by Stanford in the Sixties, a missionary term in which he spent two and a half years trying (as he said) to persuade the French to "give up your wine," and Harvard Business School in the Seventies. Then, faced with making a career choice, Mitt chose an odd one: Already married and a father of two, he left Harvard and eschewed both politics and the law to enter the at-the-time unsexy world of financial consulting.
"When you get out of a place like Harvard, you can do anything – at least in the old days you could," says a prominent corporate lawyer on Wall Street who is familiar with Romney's career. "But he comes out, he not only has a Harvard Business School degree, he's got a national pedigree with his name. He could have done anything – but what does he do? He says, 'I'm going to spend my life loading up distressed companies with debt.' "
Romney started off at the Boston Consulting Group, where he showed an aptitude for crunching numbers and glad-handing clients. Then, in 1977, he joined a young entrepreneur named Bill Bain at a firm called Bain & Company, where he worked for six years before being handed the reins of a new firm-within-a-firm called Bain Capital.
In Romney's version of the tale, Bain Capital – which evolved into what is today known as a private equity firm – specialized in turning around moribund companies (Romney even wrote a book called Turnaround that complements his other nauseatingly self-complimentary book, No Apology) and helped create the Staples office-supply chain. On the campaign trail, Romney relentlessly trades on his own self-perpetuated reputation as a kind of altruistic rescuer of failing enterprises, never missing an opportunity to use the word "help" or "helped" in his description of what he and Bain did for companies. He might, for instance, describe himself as having been "deeply involved in helping other businesses" or say he "helped create tens of thousands of jobs."
The reality is that toward the middle of his career at Bain, Romney made a fateful strategic decision: He moved away from creating companies like Staples through venture capital schemes, and toward a business model that involved borrowing huge sums of money to take over existing firms, then extracting value from them by force. He decided, as he later put it, that "there's a lot greater risk in a startup than there is in acquiring an existing company." In the Eighties, when Romney made this move, this form of financial piracy became known as a leveraged buyout, and it achieved iconic status thanks to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Gekko's business strategy was essentially identical to the Romney–Bain model, only Gekko called himself a "liberator" of companies instead of a "helper."
Here's how Romney would go about "liberating" a company: A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent. When an LBO is done without the consent of the target, it's called a hostile takeover; such thrilling acts of corporate piracy were made legend in the Eighties, most notably the 1988 attack by notorious corporate raiders Kohlberg Kravis Roberts against RJR Nabisco, a deal memorialized in the book Barbarians at the Gate.
Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company's management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.
But here's the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it's the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.
Now your troubled firm – let's say you make tricycles in Alabama – has been taken over by a bunch of slick Wall Street dudes who kicked in as little as five percent as a down payment. So in addition to whatever problems you had before, Tricycle Inc. now owes Goldman or Citigroup $350 million. With all that new debt service to pay, the company's bottom line is suddenly untenable: You almost have to start firing people immediately just to get your costs down to a manageable level.
"That interest," says Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission, "just sucks the profit out of the company."
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