Key to Romney's style may lie in his old company's corporate culture

EVAN VUCCI / Associated Press
EVAN VUCCI / Associated Press
Posted: August 26, 2012

When it comes to Mitt Romney's past, Bain and Bain are two.

Before Bain Capital, there was the management-consulting firm Bain & Co., where Romney first worked. Understanding the first Bain and its influence on Romney helps in anticipating his possible presidency. It shines a new light on why the Republican candidate is who he is.

I found out what Bain & Co was all about when I started my career there in 2009. I started in Brussels, in one of 48 global offices that all share the same company culture. It changed my professional life profoundly.

From the first day, I had to achieve results without losing time. I had to see the bigger picture in a situation and control the smallest detail. I had to solve my problems, without depending on others.

Three years later, I can't help but notice the similarities between the style of Mitt Romney and the culture at Bain. That comes as no surprise: The "Bain way" is said to have a lasting impact on all its alumni.

"Everyone runs into roadblocks from time to time," my first manager at Bain told me. "Figures don't match, you can't find the right data to back up our thesis, or someone is unwilling to cooperate with you. That's perfectly normal.

"But I don't want you to come and tell me what problems you have. I want you to come to me and give me a list of proposed solutions. And I want you to tell me which solution you prefer, tell me why, and give me a road map to reach it."

As simple as that sounded, it was a real game-changer for me. I started to notice that everywhere you go, most people would rather report problems than solve them.

Enter Paul Ryan.

When I heard the names of possible running mates for Mitt Romney, I knew the presence or absence of this problem-solving capacity would probably play a decisive role in the selection.

There wasn't much of a choice, then. Many Republicans criticized President Obama - his TARP plan was ineffective, his budgets were too big, his policies harmed businesses. But only a few of those critics proposed their own solutions, and Paul Ryan was clearly the boldest of them.

"OK, so we have this huge debt problem," is what Ryan would consider. So he drafted an austere alternative budget. That didn't bring Ryan a lot of love; he was even portrayed as a granny-killer.

But it showed that Ryan could offer solutions, and it earned him Romney's respect. Thus, Ryan seemed to Romney the best vice presidential candidate.

Being quick and efficient was another Bain trait I had to acquire. Every minute of the day had to be well-spent. You had to meet deadlines. We worked, on average, 65-hour weeks.

My manager told me to schedule work calls in the car, making use of time that otherwise would be lost. Conference calls were conducted as colleagues drove. I soon found myself calling my girlfriend from my car, too.

Our efficient use of time impressed clients. Business solutions came quickly. These habits were meant to better manage our personal lives, as well.

Some of my colleagues did a great job combining the professional and the personal. One guy, for example, had been a semi-professional water-polo player. He managed to keep on playing the game despite the long hours at work.

I thought of this when I heard of Paul Ryan's early-morning fitness sessions in Congress. It would indicate to Romney that Ryan was organized and efficient.

When I was at Bain, I had to be "zero-defect." The smallest detail mattered. My boss criticized me once because I put a table in a PowerPoint slide a tenth of an inch to the left of the text box above it. The content was correct, but that didn't matter.

Once we were seeking to save a client tens of millions of dollars. In the final overview, I made a rounding error, making it seem as if there was $100,000 unaccounted for. It was less than 0.1 percent of the total. But it was considered a serious mistake. Bain expected perfection.

Romney's consulting approach showed when he was governor of Massachusetts: He isn't remembered there for his particularly partisan or divisive policies. He was known for getting the state finances in order and reforming health care and education. He let economic considerations prevail over ideological ones - see Romneycare.

Maybe that is the heart of it: Romney stayed a management consultant. It might explain why some view him as a flip-flopper and stiff speaker. He is simply better at getting a balance sheet in order than speaking to the masses or serving as a moral compass.

Let me be clear: I left Bain & Co. more than a year ago and can only speak of my personal experience. Almost 30 years have passed since Romney left Bain & Co. I do not claim to know Romney's inner thoughts.

But I find the similarities between Romney and the Bain style to be striking, and I think it is a style we can expect to see in the White House, if Romney and Ryan win the election. If Romney's selection of Ryan is a guide, we can expect to see more management-consultant types in the White House.

Whether Romney's political ideals and conservative background would improve the United States remains to be seen. But I appreciate Romney's decision-making and leadership.

What would I expect if Romney gets the chance to be a president with management-consultant reflexes? Expect no overspending and no waste of time. Expect proposed solutions to the toughest problems, no matter how discomforting. And, most of all, expect an economic team assembled to hasten economic growth.

Will Romney succeed? Don't expect me to provide that answer.


Peter Vanham is a financial reporter and a Belgian fellow of the Pascal Decroos Fund for investigative journalism. He is writing for The Inquirer this summer.

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