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In his management-consulting years, Romney and his team used the starkest of images to persuade corporate executives to cut loose unproductive assets. They compared the benefits to "a forest fire--it clears out the detritus even if you lose some animals in the short run," one colleague explained. "We would say to CEOs that all of their different divisions and businesses are like the little hatchlings in a nest," says McCurry, another Bain & Co. colleague. "When the momma bird shows up with a worm, all those little open beaks are down there sending the signal 'Give the worm to me!'" He added, "Where the CEO needs help is to know you can't give everybody what they want."
But here is where Romney's commercial and political worlds began to collide, because deadwood and unfed hatchlings are not images that resonate well with the broader public. Business executives speak of reputational risk, which is another way of saying the public despises some of the things they do for money. The public does not get a vote in the boardroom, but Romney had political ambitions. "You're going to take reputational risk if you're going to amass wealth in a capitalist society, and I believe Mitt had a lot of conflict about that," Wolpow says.
Romney got a taste of the trouble he faced when striking workers from Indiana turned up in Massachusetts during his first run for office, against Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994. Bain Capital had been closing plants and firing hundreds of workers at American Pad & Paper, which faced low-cost competition from Asia. Romney was on a self-granted leave from Bain for the campaign, and when the strikers began telling their stories in Boston, "his initial reaction was, 'Aw, jeez, do we really need to fire these guys right away?'" says an associate with firsthand knowledge. Romney had long before signed on to the plan, and he did not order his partners to change it. In public he said he had tried to save the jobs but was rebuffed.
Randy Johnson, who led the paper union at the time, found Romney's self-defense hard to believe given that Romney was in charge of Bain. "It was destructive, and it hurt people. Don't try to con your way out of it," he says.
There have been times when Romney acknowledged the ruthlessness of the marketplace. Twelve times in No Apology, he embraces "creative destruction," a phrase coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter to make the case for discarding unproductive jobs and businesses in order to free up capital for innovation. "Creative destruction is unquestionably stressful--on workers, managers, owners, bankers, suppliers, customers and the communities that surround the affected businesses," Romney writes. "The pressures these groups put on political leaders to block game-changing innovations can be intense." But Romney and his aides rarely talk about creative destruction anymore. In a lengthy interview, a top campaign adviser declined to say anything about it on the record.
A MAN AND HIS BOSSES