January 16, 2012
By William D. Cohan
America has been learning a lot lately about “the Bain way.” The damning 28-minute video “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” put out by a pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC, and the new book “The Real Romney,” by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, have shed light on the strategies that Mitt Romney’s old private-equity firm, Bain Capital, used to generate outsize returns for its investors.
Make no mistake: Under Romney’s leadership in the 1980s and 1990s, Bain was a top-performing private-equity fund. According to an internal 2000 estimate, the fund achieved annualized returns of an astounding 88 percent from 1984 to 1999 for its institutional investors, including state and corporate pension funds that invest the savings of millions of American workers. It also made a fortune for Romney, whose net wealth reportedly exceeds $250 million.
For Kranish and Helman, the Bain way is an “intensely analytical and data-driven” approach to studying companies, what makes them successful or not, and how to boost their competitiveness.
The video “When Mitt Romney Came to Town” is understandably less sympathetic. To the filmmakers, bankrolled by the Winning Our Future super PAC, the Bain way is nothing less than “turning the misfortunes of others into . . . enormous financial gains.” The film spends most of its time interviewing people who lost their jobs and much of their savings after working at various companies that Bain bought, milked and sold to generate those huge profits.
Yet, there is another version of the Bain way that I experienced personally during my 17 years as a deal-adviser on Wall Street: Seemingly alone among private-equity firms, Romney’s Bain Capital was a master at bait-and-switching Wall Street bankers to get its hands on the companies that provided the raw material for its financial alchemy. Other private-equity firms I worked with extensively over the years — Forstmann Little, KKR, TPG and the Carlyle Group, among them — never dared attempt the audacious strategy that Bain partners employed with great alacrity and little shame. Call it the real Bain way.