Mitt Romney often is described as a turnaround artist. No better example of that is how he turned a failure into a success with the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Just before his wife Ann Romney learned that she had multiple sclerosis around Thanksgiving 1998, Utah state leaders approached Romney about taking over the scandal-ridden Olympics to be held in Salt Lake City.
At the time, the Salt Lake Olympics Organizing Committee (SLOC) had paid more than $1 million in bribes to members of the International Olympic Committee to bring the games to Utah. Even before the scandal erupted, the games had a projected shortfall of $397 million. Given the taint, few wanted to sign up as sponsors or support the event.
Prodded by his wife, Romney agreed to take over. He asked Fraser Bullock, one of the seven original partners of Romney’s Bain Capital, to become his chief operating officer. Bullock, a fellow Mormon, accepted.
“It was in the midst of a scandal, and you only know how dark it was there if you were there,” Bullock says. “It was very dark, because the Justice Department was investigating the organizing committee. Prospective sponsors, nobody would answer the phone. We had a budget deficit, the morale was very low. We were the target of every newspaper and news station.”
“The only time I’ve seen him stressed out was at the beginning of the Olympics, when that was really unraveling,” Romney’s sister Jane Romney says.
Romney had a modest corner office on the 13th floor of SLOC headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City with a spectacular view of the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains. Bullock worked with him daily.
Romney brought to the table “his leadership that was comprised of optimism and undaunted confidence that we would get the job done,” Bullock says.
Romney “can see into a situation very quickly,” Bullock says. “He’s very facile with numbers. He’s got that raw intellect which lays a great foundation. And then he’s combined that with a very significant layering upon layer of education and business experience that has given him now the base from which he can make pretty sound judgments pretty quickly.”
At the same time, Bullock says, “He is a blast to work with. He’s very funny, he’s got a wonderful sense of humor; he has endless energy. It’s always hard for people to keep up with him, because he’s going at 90 miles an hour all the time.”
Romney’s style is to be a contrarian. “If you come into a meeting with a presupposed conclusion, he will challenge you,” Bullock says.
“He will take the other view even though he might agree with you, just to challenge the depth of your knowledge and the assumptions you’re making to make sure you’re on solid footing. So he’s not one who widely accepts positions. He is very intellectually challenging of assumptions and positions, which makes for a very healthy debate.”
In meetings, “He will come up with things that people never thought of before,” Bullock adds. “Because of this contrarian style, other people will come up with things they’d never thought of before.”
Romney traveled all over the world to gather support for the Olympics. Meanwhile, he cut back on expenses.
“Mitt is a cheapskate,” says Bullock, who is now managing director of Sorenson Capital, a leveraged buyout firm. “He does not tolerate one iota of waste.”
The board members would hold lavish lunches for themselves. Romney said, “Well, our lunches are now going to be pizza, and it’s going to be a dollar a slice,” according to Bullock. “It saved us tens of thousands of dollars, and it was very symbolic, and people got the message to watch every penny.”
Romney cut back on frills for the games. He reduced the number of flags to be flown throughout the city and persuaded politicians to come up with funds to pay for some of the decorations.
Romney’s enthusiasm was infectious, driving the sales people to set an all-time record for Olympic sponsorships. Just as significant when it comes to a presidential run, Romney tamed the press.
“He’s very candid with reporters,” Bullock says. “He’s very articulate, and he created a philosophy of total transparency. We met with the media every Friday and told them here’s what’s going on.”
At one point, Romney told the press, “Here are our top 10 mistakes,” Bullock says. “Kind of like David Letterman’s top 10 list.”
Then, with the games five months away, hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Romney worried that the games would have to be canceled. He went to Congress to ask for more money for security and worked closely with David Tubbs, a former FBI agent who headed the Utah Public Safety Command, to stay on top of any threat.
“I don’t think I ever saw him flustered,” Tubbs says. “He dug right into the security issues.”
“The question on my mind was, how do I keep a bomb from going off?” Romney tells me. “I’m not going to worry so much about cleaning up after the bomb. I need to make sure it does not go off.
"And at the top of my list was that I wanted FBI agents here in large numbers. I wanted to track anybody that’s coming into this city that represents a potential threat. I want to follow up on any potential threat, but intelligence was the heart of why we were safe in Salt Lake City,” Romney says.
In the end, ticket sales surpassed those of any previous Winter Olympics. An estimated 2.1 billion people around the world watched the games over 17 days, and the United States won 34 medals.
Having faced a budget deficit of $379 million when he took over, Romney ended up with a surplus of $56 million. The money went to fund future Olympics.
When he took the job, Romney said he would accept the offered salary of $250,000 a year only if the Olympics made a profit. When it did, he turned his salary over to charity. In addition, he contributed $1 million to the games.
In the meantime, Ann Romney overcame her M.S. symptoms, which included weakness and numbness. Romney had told his sons their mother — an equestrian — might have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
The Romneys have a home in Deer Valley near Park City, Utah, where they ski. Ann had found Utah reflexologist Fritz Bleitshau, who uses alternative medicine to rebuild strength. He prescribed homeopathic cures, including acupuncture, deep breathing exercises, and yoga.
Apparently, it worked, and today Ann Romney has her stamina back.
On Feb. 18, Romney will speak at the 10th anniversary celebration of the 2002 Olympics that he rescued. As noted in my article, "Media Ignore Romney’s Success at Creating Jobs
," don’t expect to see the story of that rescue in the mainstream media.
“My goal is to make Utah proud, make America proud,” Romney said in accepting the Olympics position. “Sure the managers have messed up big time, but the athletes haven’t, and our job is to go to work for the athletes.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is a New York Times best-selling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. His latest, "The Secrets of the FBI," has just been published. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via email. Go Here Now.
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