Dan Quayle, a smart-as-they-come businessman? The notion hardly fits with the image of the former Vice-President, who was mercilessly ridiculed by the press for the odd misspelling and occasional verbal slip. Friends long have argued that Quayle was unfairly scorched by Washington's klieg lights, but the public never warmed up to him. He dropped a Presidential bid and left politics in 1999.
Since then, in his second incarnation -- as a globetrotting business leader working with some of the sharpest investors around -- James Danforth Quayle, 58, has proved his friends right. He has carved out a winning role as chairman of global investments for Cerberus Capital Management.
Armed with a hefty Rolodex and a potent ability to get access, Quayle is the classic door-opener. He smooths the way for deals by gaining the confidence of sellers and regulators. Last spring he joked to executives of Cerberus companies that people have one of two reactions when he phones. As Air Canada (AIR ) Chief Executive Robert A. Milton recalls, "Reaction No. 1 is, 'Wow, it's the former Vice-President. Let me pick up the call.' The other reaction is, 'It's the former Vice-President. Why the hell is he calling me?" Either way, says Milton, Quayle gets a foot in the door.
He's especially valuable when offshore politicians are involved. It was Quayle, for instance, who met with then-Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this summer about Cerberus' interest in buying Israel's 26.3% stake in Bank Leumi, Israel's second-largest bank. His first task after joining Cerberus in 2000 was wooing Japanese officials nervous about the firm's bid for the former Nippon Credit Bank. His longtime ties to Japan paid off, and Cerberus eventually bought a controlling stake in the bank, now renamed Aozora Bank Ltd., in 2003. "Quayle has given a broad sense of credibility to Cerberus," says Yoshihiko Miyauchi, chief executive of Tokyo-based ORIX Corp. (IX ), a financial-services provider that also has a stake in Aozora. "Having a respectable person like Quayle earns the trust of people who doubt the company."
Quayle also has shown a keen business sense as a company director, beginning in 1993, when he joined the American Standard Cos. (ASD ) board. "He surprised everybody in the most positive way with his insights, judgments, and ability to net out the issues," says Joseph S. Schuchert Jr., chairman of Kelso & Co., a private investment firm, and a fellow director.
Quayle once made what turned out to be a prescient call when he and the rest of the board rebuffed a takeover overture from Tyco International Ltd. (TYC ) in 1996. Wall Street had lavishly praised the potential combo, but Quayle was suspicious of Tyco's inflated stock price. Schuchert, whose firm controlled Standard, credits Quayle's "good common sense" -- not any gimlet-eyed analyst's view -- for sensing that Standard would be better off far away from Tyco. What's more, Schuchert adds, his "political skills were helpful in bringing the board together" to reject Tyco's approaches. And when Quayle and other directors on the K2 Inc. (KTO ) sporting-goods-company board were split on whether to keep an executive a few years ago, a colleague recalls, Quayle weighed in with the deciding question: "If we were going to hire for the position today, is this the guy we would hire? If he isn't, what are we talking about?" In short order, says K2 CEO Richard J. Heckmann, the executive was history. Quayle is still a K2 director.
Quayle says he hasn't found the transition from politics to business all that difficult. "There are a lot of similarities," he says. "You've got people who have different agendas. It's basically getting people to agree, and I've been doing that all my life in politics." But he admits it has been a learning experience: "I don't hold myself out as a financial expert, but I know a heck of a lot more than I did six years ago. What I do know is how to get things done." And at the rate Cerberus has been snapping up companies, apparently a lot is getting done.
By Joseph Weber in Chicago, with Hiroko Tashiro in Tokyo