SBJ/February 4 - 10, 2002/Special Report

Olympics put Romney's rep as rescuer to test

What convinced Romney to take job "was the
importance of the Games on the world stage."

It was only three years ago, before Mitt Romney took over as head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, that the corruption surrounding the 2002 Winter Games seemed as deep as the powder on the surrounding peaks.

But Romney, a former Massachusetts financier and political hopeful, has scrubbed the Games' image cleaner than the newly fallen snow, and on the eve of the opening ceremonies, the biggest bribery scandal in Olympic history has become a fuzzy memory.

Romney, 54, said it wasn't easy.

"I would have found it hard to believe three years ago we'd be in as good a position as we are," said Romney, who lost a bid for Edward Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat in 1994 and left as chief executive of a venture capital firm in 1999 to take the Olympic job. "I never anticipated how many mountains we'd have to climb."

The first challenge was "getting the scandal behind us," he said. The two top officials of the Salt Lake bid committee were charged with bribing International Olympic Committee members with more than $1 million in gifts and perks.

The racketeering and bribery charges against the officials, former president Tom Welch and former vice president Dave Johnson, were dropped, but the U.S. government is seeking to reinstate them.

Romney moved immediately to erase the image of shady arrangements and back-door dealings. He opened the Olympic committee's board meetings and allowed the public to look at its documents. He created an ethics compliance office to guard against conflicts of interest and instituted a code of ethics for all employees to sign.

"Our budgets, correspondence, plans — everything was open," he said.

The next challenge, and one that wasn't as immediately obvious as the first, was reversing SLOC's financial condition. It turned out Romney was the leader of a committee with a $379 million budget deficit.

Romney set about to attract new sponsors, who brought in $100 million, and then cut $200 million from the budget. At his first meeting, he sprang for the pizza, and said it was the last free lunch members would get.

The pizza party was the beginning of the turnaround SLOC officials were looking for when they tapped Romney, who said, "The most relevant part of my background is that I've been part of businesses that needed to get back on track."

Just out of Harvard Business School, where he was a classmate of future President George W. Bush, Romney joined the Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Co. in 1977, rising to chairman. He left in 1984 to head its venture capital spin-off, Bain Capital, a firm that has invested $17 billion in about 140 companies, mostly those in need of revival. He even returned to Bain & Co. to rescue it when it foundered.

"Both Bain and the SLOC were dispirited organizations suffering from leadership crises," Romney told the Harvard Business School newsletter. "Both had financial problems and needed new clients. And both were negatively affected by overly secretive work environments."

It was Kem Gardner, a longtime friend, SLOC member and president of a major commercial developer in Salt Lake City, who asked Romney to take the reins.

"That was not something I had in mind. I told him he was nuts," Romney said. "What convinced me to come was the importance of the Games on the world stage."

And Romney returned the favor, giving Gardner the challenge of heading the committee to recruit new sponsors.

He added that the other key to righting the Salt Lake Games was that "we reminded everybody what the Olympics are about — the athletes, not the old guys in suits. We're a distraction."

In spite of his business successes, Romney may be best known for giving Kennedy perhaps the toughest election battle in his 40 years in the Senate. In 1994, when Newt Gingrich and his "Republican revolution" were taking control of Congress from old-line Democrats like Kennedy, Romney took 41 percent of the vote. By comparison, Kennedy won re-election six years later with 73 percent.

"He was a formidable opponent against Sen. Kennedy," said Jane Lane, communications director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. "He's probably one of the strongest opponents (Kennedy's) ever had."

Despite the acrimonious campaign, in which Romney spent $4 million of his own mone, and Kennedy's camp used advertisements featuring workers laid off from one the companies Romney financed, the two made peace afterward. Kennedy spoke at a fund-raiser for one of Romney's charities and endorsed a new steeple for a Mormon temple in Boston, and Romney visited the senator in Washington.

It was typical of Romney, who seems able to win over even staunch opponents. Stephen Pace, head of the watchdog group Utahns for Responsible Public Spending and one of the harshest critics of the Salt Lake Games, credited Romney's efforts at steering the SLOC.

"I'd give him good grades. He's smart, and has a sense of humor and good instincts," Pace told Ski Magazine.

Soon after arriving, Romney asked for a T-shirt from Pace's group.

"He's not afraid to take time and make you feel important," said Nathan Little, communications director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. "He's not a showman. He comes across as someone you're not afraid to approach."

His down-to-earth style and compassion also shone through in 1997, when a co-worker's daughter disappeared and Romney closed the Boston office and took 40 employees to search for the girl in New York. She was found alive in New Jersey, in part because of publicity from the search.

Romney was named Willard Mitt after family friend Willard Marriott Sr., founder of the hotel chain. The middle name comes from an uncle, a quarterback for the Chicago Bears in the 1920s. He is a devout Mormon who traces his roots to the pioneers who settled Utah with Brigham Young. He spent two years as a missionary in France before college, then left Stanford after a year to join his high school sweetheart, Ann, at Brigham Young University. The couple has five sons.

Romney said he learned the value of public service as a child, campaigning for his father, George, the former American Motors chairman and three-term Republican governor of Michigan, who ran for president in 1968.

When the younger Romney decided to follow in his father's political footsteps, Little said "a lot of people stood up and took notice. He took on the liberal lion of the Senate."

And it only whetted Romney's appetite for future runs for office in Massachusetts. Talk has circulated that he may challenge incumbent Gov. Jane Swift, a Republican, or run against Democratic Sen. John Kerry this year, though others have said the Olympics job won't leave him enough time to campaign.

"I'll always keep my eye open for an opportunity to run. I haven't made any decisions what I'll do after the Games," Romney said, though he did resign his position at Bain Capital, saying he wanted to continue in public service.

With a $1.5 billion Olympic budget, 26,000 volunteers, hundreds of thousands more spectators, and athletes from 80 nations on Romney's mind, Little agreed that he might have to wait for another election cycle to decide his next move. "If there's anyone who has earned a vacation in the Caribbean after this, it's probably him."

Steve Carney is a writer in Virginia.

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