I have watched with amusement in recent days as politicians and media pundits have argued over whether Mitt Romney’s experience as a private equity guy at Bain Capital qualifies or disqualifies him for the Presidency. This discussion is all the more personal because Mitt and I have a few things in common. For one thing, he spent his high school years at Cranbrook Institute—where he is now famously accused of pilfering the hair from a somewhat less assertive classmate. No, I didn’t attend Cranbrook—I attended the much less exclusive Flint Central High School—but I do now live a stone’s throw from Cranbrook, and can therefore understand how a graduate of that fine institution might emerge with, shall I say, a loftier perspective than most.
The other thing Mitt and I have in common is private equity, also variously referred to as venture capital or “vulture capital.” Mitt was the impresario of a successful private equity company, Bain Capital. I was CEO of a company that entertained an offer from such a firm.
Here’s how it went down: In the mid-90s, I was ready to sell my company, Telecom Analysis Systems, which I had started with two buddies in my basement some twelve years earlier. One of the better offers we received was from a private equity firm (not Bain Capital). Their offer? Millions in cash in return for a controlling stake in the company. It was an enticing offer, but after pondering it for a day or so, I refused. Why? Because they intended to fund the purchase mostly by borrowing money against my company’s assets and earnings. That meant that if our business experienced a downturn (and we had just experienced one in the early 90s), the company might not have the resources to dig its way out. The employees who had helped us build our company might be out on the street. Our legacy, the business we had worked so hard to build, might cease to exist. My buddies and I decided to keep looking.
Ultimately, we went with a different buyer—one that paid cash for 100% of our company. The buyer also committed to using their own resources to grow the company. That acquisition took place nearly seventeen years ago. Today, my former company’s sales are more than ten times what they were when we sold. The number of employees has more than doubled, and most of the employees we were so concerned about have prospered.
So what does all of this say about Mitt, and about private equity? Not much. Had we accepted the private equity firm’s deal, we might ultimately have made much more money, or we might have gone down in flames when the tech bubble burst in 2000. Had the latter occurred, it wouldn’t necessarily have been the private equity firm’s fault, because it takes two to tango—them to offer the deal, us to accept it. I didn’t see the private equity guys as evil—they were merely pursuing their own financial interests, and those of their investors. We had to be the ones who protected our interests, and those of our employees.
So does Mitt’s experience qualify him to be president? In my opinion, no. On the other hand, it doesn’t disqualify him either. It seems that this year, we will be asked to determine who will be the best CEO-in-Chief, Community-Organizer-in-Chief, and Commander-in-Chief. The President of the United States must be all of the above.Share