The Mitt Romney Turnaround

In the late nineties, the 2002 Winter Olympics were in serious trouble. Undergoing Federal investigation for bribery, bogged down by millions of dollars in debt, and certainly losing public trust, the Winter Olympics organizers relieved their leadership and went looking for someone who could work a miracle. But it was not just the Games themselves that were on the line, America’s reputation as a host country that typically had very well-managed and executed events was at serious risk. After an extensive vetting process to find someone who could take on this insurmountable task of saving the Games while maintaining the utmost personal integrity, they came up with one name: Mitt Romney. Turnaround is his account of the crisis and its handling.

Mitt Romney was at the height of his career. His business was doing better than ever, and he had little interest in leaving his Massachusetts home to go run the scandal-ridden Winter Olympics. But the Olympics organizers were desperate and persisted in attempting to persuade him to come out to Utah. Romney describes how he it gave it some serious thought, after all, he loved the thrill of a challenge – his business was built on turning around troubled companies, and his success stories include the likes of Staples and Dominoes, but he was hesitant to plunge in. The situation changed, however, when his wife Ann got wind of the opportunity, and she put the situation in terms that he could well-understand: The family was well-off and living comfortably, and the company could now be run without him, but America and the Olympics needed him. His consultations with Ann convinced him to take on the challenge, sealing the deal when he asked himself his mother’s favorite set of questions: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”

More so than anything else, this book reflects Romney’s leadership style and all-around competence. Written more like a business book along the lines of In Search of Excellence rather than the typical political fluff pieces written by Presidential aspirants, Turnaround doles out credit to subordinates left and right for their work with the Games. Romney goes to great lengths to mention that, although his achievement was massive, he was not the only one responsible – and in doing so, he inadvertently highlights exactly what made him the perfect manager for the problem.

Well-aware of the taint that the corruption of the previous leadership had placed on the organization, Romney pledged to be completely transparent in the organization’s financial dealings, and released all pertinent information to the public. By opening board meetings and revealing all his business dealings, he was able to restore confidence with the public in the recovery of morals in the organization. But he went further. Romney personally performed a thorough budget review, and eliminated unnecessary programs left and right, going so far as to require board members to pay for their own pizza at meetings. Most importantly, Romney set very high goals for the organization. To give a few examples: the previous record for ticket sales at a Winter Olympics was in Nagano, Japan, where they managed to sell $80 million worth of tickets. Romney made the Salt Lake City Olympics goal $180 million and then ended up surpassing it. He doubled the goal for local sponsorship revenues from $50 million to $100 million, and achieved it, despite the fact that many thought the original goal was ‘pie-in-the-sky’ because Utah only has one Fortune 500 company. The list goes on and on – and between his cutting of the budget and increasing of the revenue, the Olympics not only emerged without debt, but instead with over a $50 million surplus.

Nevertheless, while Romney had a couple years to perform his financial turn-around and this certainly cannot be discounted, he only had a matter of months after 9.11 to beef up the security of the Olympics, then considered a prime Al-Qaeda target. Romney led the movement to ensure to rapidly ensure that the Olympics were as safe as possible for the athletes and guests, and managed the affair without significant incident.

But an important insight is also revealed in reading his book: He’s funny! Talking about newspaper reactions to his budget cuts, Romney lists a bunch of positive headlines and then one editorial that asked “Won’t these cheaper Games make us look bad compared with other Olympic Cities?” Romney writes, “I felt like answering, ‘Not as bad as if we bankrupt and can’t hold the Games at all, dummy’ I saved that answer for a few board members who called to complain about the new frugality, although I left off the ‘dummy’ part” (106). In another portion, Romney talks about complaints regarding the commercialization of the games, writing that critics “complain that tickets are too expensive for average people. And of course, they would blanch at the thought that the taxpayers should pay for the Games. But just who should pay then? The tooth fairy?” (222). And of course, both jokes reveal a strong streak of fiscal conservatism, the former predicting his strong adherence to balanced budgets, and the latter his belief in capitalist solutions.

Interestingly enough, his story also involves both his potential predecessors and his future Presidential rivals. Romney describes George W. Bush as no average President and recites his admiration for the man’s leadership displayed after 9.11. On a visit to the White House in the 1990s, Romney holds a different opinion of President Bill Clinton, joking to his horrified Democratic staffer when he is handed a Secret Service lanyard with a Red ‘A’ on it, “I’m asking why I have to wear the red A around my neck. I’m not the one that cheated on my wife. He should be wearing the scarlet A – not me” (232). Romney has praise for his dealings with Senator John McCain and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson when he goes to DC seeking help, but the most fascinating cameo by 2008 candidate lies with Rudy Giuliani, who not only is described in the book as the torch is moved around the United States, but also is the top reviewer on the book cover, praising Romney’s leadership up the gazoo.

Scattered with literary references, personal anecdotes, and plenty of humor, Romney’s book certainly is a joy to read, but also has information that strikes right at the heart of his ability to lead the country. His most compelling anecdotes end up being about the patriotic fervor he experienced while chairing the Olympic effort, as he talked with our athletes, successfully got US corporations to sign sponsorship deals, dealt with the International Olympic Committee, and met with politicians. Romney’s detailing of the US Olympic Team bringing into the Salt Lake City Olympic Stadium the tattered American flag that flew over the World Trade Center on 9.11 is absolutely heartfelt and will undoubtedly bring a tear to any patriot’s eye. On a much more technical scale, he has two sections that should enlighten conservatives about how he would govern. The first is in the middle of the book, where he talks about how to achieve success in Washington, and he offers three key pieces of advice: Tell the whole truth, find the right fit for what you need, and never never never give up. The second occurs in the epilogue, where he briefly talks about how he went onto become Governor of Massachusetts – and turnaround their $3 billion in debt and troubling economy. Romney says that, as a public servant, he needed to do four things: Know why he was running, assemble the right people, perform a strategic audit of the state’s finances, and then communicate his vision.

In the end, Turnaround allows readers the knowledge that Romney not only has the right ideas about leadership, but also has the managerial competence to get things done. America can rest assured when he becomes the 44th President of the United States.

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