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Games Saver

Mitt Romney '75, CEO and president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, plans for a safe and sound Winter Olympics

Mitt Romney with Olympic torch

Mitt Romney '75 doesn't exactly fit the image of a hard hat kind of guy. But the graduate of Harvard's law and business schools grabs his hard hat--stamped with the Olympic symbol--in the same way other people who wear business suits grab their briefcases, as if he wouldn't go anywhere without it. He's leaving his downtown Salt Lake City office, striding to one of the many Olympic sites in the final stages of construction about 100 days before the biggest event that has ever hit this city. And he's in the middle of it all, an omnipresent force in a community that for years and years has been girding, with an equal mixture of excitement and trepidation, for a fortnight in February. The Winter Olympics will go on here, he is almost sure of it, and he has spent most of the past three years preparing for the best and the worst that the Games has to offer. It's not the kind of job where your hands get dirty and your muscles ache at the end of the day. But, considering what he faced when he arrived on the job and what he has faced since then, he has earned the right to call the hard hat his own.

In February 1999 Romney became CEO and president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), a white knight called in to save an organization in disarray and a city in distress. At the time, the Justice Department and the FBI had just launched investigations into a bribery scandal, in which members of the Salt Lake Bid Committee had offered International Olympic Committee officials money and gifts, reportedly in excess of $1 million, in exchange for hosting the Games. (In November, a federal judge dismissed fraud charges in the case against two committee officials; the Justice Department is considering an appeal.) The scandal, said Romney, "dispirited and devastated the psyche of this community and probably the entire Olympic world." There was another problem too. The original budget for the Olympics, about $800 million, had proven to be low--more than $1 billion low, in fact. And the SLOC, responsible for 70 percent of the cost, had secured only a pittance of the $500 million needed in sponsorships to balance the budget. "We were in a severe financial crisis," said Romney.

No one's talking much about those issues anymore. That, of course, is primarily because of the security concerns that have surrounded the Olympics since September 11. But it's also because--long before September 11--Romney worked to solve the problems, something he had grown accustomed to doing in a business career that was a springboard to one political campaign, and perhaps more to come. He made turnarounds his specialty as the founder and CEO of Bain Capital, which acquired or started more than 100 companies, including Staples, Domino's Pizza, and FTD Florists.

"The experience that I'd had before was very much akin to what I faced here, although the complexity and the scale of the challenges here were beyond what I'd experienced before," said Romney.

When he began, he followed the principles he's always followed. He told people the truth, he said, about how bad things were and how he was going to make things better. He brought in people he knew and trusted, including Fraser Bullock, a colleague from Bain Capital who serves as chief operating officer of the SLOC. He implemented stringent ethical standards, opening meetings and making documents available to the public, and requiring employees and board members to report potential conflicts of interest and complete an annual survey of ethical conduct. He evaluated the finances and cut the budget by $200 million. He hired a sales staff and courted potential sponsors, touting the Olympic brand and "the great qualities of the human character that tend to be displayed in these moments on the world stage."

He did all this not only to regain trust and achieve fiscal stability but to place the emphasis back on the athletes. It is perhaps the only goal he couldn't accomplish.

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