Mr. Clean Scrubs Up The Olympic Games

Mitt Romney puts a new face on the Salt Lake City mess

Mitt Romney's boardroom skills were on full display. Giving his first report as president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the dapper 52-year-old investment banker strode to the podium, powered up his computer slide show, and laid out the bad news: The scandal-tainted Games were struggling not only with a serious image problem, but also with a financial one. Spending had ballooned some $80 million over budget, and new sponsors were badly needed. In the end, warned Romney--only half in jest--Salt Lake City might be able to afford little more than "removable folding bleachers and a skating rink that looks like a Wal-Mart."

It was a sobering sign that the city was a long way from pulling off the Winter Games within its $1.5 billion budget. And behind the image of fiscal rectitude lay an even more important message: Romney was signaling that the lavish gifts of cash, travel, and other perks forked over to International Olympic Committee (IOC) members by Salt Lake City's organizing committee would no longer be tolerated.

Certainly, Romney's squeaky-clean Mormon background, conservative politics, and business experience seem to make him a good candidate for polishing Salt Lake's image. He even sits on the board of the Boy Scouts of America. The problem for Romney, though, is that cleaning up the mess in Salt Lake City is proving tougher than he had imagined when he accepted the job back in February. With both the U.S. Senate and the Justice Dept. investigating alleged graft, the scandal will undoubtedly remain in the news for months. "I feel he has stepped into an empty elevator shaft," says his wife, Ann.

While Romney can do little about the IOC's broader problems, he has his hands full with the tasks closer at hand. His immediate job is to divvy up Salt Lake's limited funds to build first-class ski jumps, stadiums, and media facilities. Romney also plans to hit the road, visiting "every company in the States with sales of $25 million or more" to scrounge the $300 million the organizers still need to meet their funding requirements. Selling the Olympics to new corporate sponsors, though, may not be so easy.

Romney is pinning his hopes on reviving enthusiasm for the Games by setting a new ethical tone and promising to focus more on the sports and less on the business of the Olympics. But sponsors point out that Romney lacks clout, since the IOC still calls most of the shots. And they insist the IOC's recent expulsion of six members isn't enough. "It's more of the same," says David W. D'Alessandro, president and COO of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., one of the biggest Olympics sponsors.

BOOSTER. By pulling the Salt Lake City Olympics out of the muck, Romney wants to give the city the same sort of privately financed civic-image boost that Peter V. Ueberroth gave to Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics. Like Ueberroth, Romney has made his millions as an investment banker, running Bain Capital Inc., a $4 billion firm he co-founded in 1984. Bain has assembled ownership or sizable stakes in some 120 companies, including office-supply chain Staples Inc. and Domino's Pizza Inc.

But Romney clearly wants to move beyond business. His father, George, onetime chairman of American Motors Corp., was a three-term Michigan governor who made a run for the GOP Presidential nomination in 1968. Now, the younger Romney is eyeing politics, too. In 1994, he made an unsuccessful $4 million bid for Edward M. Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat. Cleaning up the Winter Games could help his career plans. "The Olympics can do nothing but multiply his options," says Republican Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt.

Absorbed with his dealmaking, Romney was barely aware of the scandal brewing in Utah until Kem Gardner, a Salt Lake developer and friend, called to scope out his interest. Romney spent the next several weeks talking to Utah's governor, Ueberroth, and others. In the end, he decided that the job "wouldn't be a suicide mission."

Besides, Romney says he was ready for something new. Ever since he went to Paris for two years as a teenage Mormon missionary, Romney has liked a challenge. Then, with only a tiny stipend, he lived in a minuscule apartment with no shower or refrigerator. While his father ran for the GOP nomination, Mitt proselytized among the French, only to have doors slammed in his face. "I was humbled," he says.

MISSING. Back in the States, he married, then graduated from Brigham Young University before heading off to Harvard, where he got degrees in both business and law. After nearly a decade as a consultant for Bain & Co., an international consulting firm, Romney and some friends raised $37 million to found Bain Capital, eventually building it into a player in the buyout market.

But Romney isn't only about work. Bain Capital co-founder Robert F. White recalls the time Romney closed Bain's Boston headquarters and flew to New York to hunt for a partner's missing teenage daughter. Romney and others fanned out, crashing all-night clubs looking for the girl. It seemed like a fool's errand, but the search attracted local TV news coverage. Eventually, that led to the girl being tracked down.

Many in the sports world say Romney is off on another wild chase. But he is counting on sports fans and advertisers to make a distinction between corrupt Olympic officials and hard-training athletes. "It will be the best marketing opportunity for a corporation in Olympic history," he claims. Spoken like a true pitchman, already hard at work.

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