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The Making of Mitt Romney
WEB EXCLUSIVE

Romney's Harvard classmates recall his quick mind, positive attitude

By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / June 26, 2007
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Howard C. Serkin worked his way down the long rows of terraced desks, searching the alphabetized name cards for his seat in Aldrich Hall. He was no stranger to pressure after four years as a nuclear submarine officer in the Navy, but his stomach was in knots this morning. It was the first day of classes at Harvard Business School in 1972.

The gaping room was filled with nervous chatter as students waited for the session to begin. He found his seat and introduced himself to the dark-haired fellow in the next chair.

"He looks up. He smiles. I say, 'Hi, I'm Howard Serkin.' He says, 'Hi, I'm Mitt Romney,' '' Serkin recalled. "Stupid me, I say, 'Where are you from?' He says, 'I'm from Michigan.' At that point, I thought, oh my God, and then I knew: He was Mitt Romney, George's son."

Romney's privileged pedigree was common knowledge to many of his classmates at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, where he was simultaneously enrolled through a joint degree program. But he was only one of many children of the wealthy, the politically influential, and the corporate elite who populated the campus.

His business school class included the son of Kurt Waldheim, the United Nations secretary general, and Michael Darling, whose family gave Darling Harbour in Sydney its name. The class behind his included George W. Bush, whose father was then chairman of the Republican National Committee.

    At the law school, Romney counted among his classmates Susan Roosevelt, the great-granddaughter of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and Edward F. Cox, who was frequently trailed by Secret Service agents and news photographers when he appeared on campus with his wife, Tricia Nixon, the daughter of President Richard M. Nixon.
"When we all got there, for the first week or so, everyone - even the rich and famous - walked around saying, 'What the hell am I doing here? Why did they pick me?' " said Janice Stewart, another member of Romney's business school class. "After several weeks, I figured it out: Everyone I talked to were all internally driven human beings. They had fire in the belly.''

"That was the common denominator," she added. "It wasn't wealth. It wasn't background in a socioeconomic sense. It was this drive to compete with yourself. It was expressed in any number of ways, but it was always there, always present. And Mitt's got it big."

By the time Romney arrived at Harvard, his father had run a major corporation, been elected three times as Michigan's governor, been a presidential nominee, and was serving as a US Cabinet secretary. But despite strongly resembling the elder Romney - full head of strikingly dark hair, square jaw, dazzling smile - he did little to draw attention to his family's prominence.

"The only way you'd ever know he was kin to Secretary Romney - and you'd have to be pretty observant - is that he carried his dad's very beat-up, 40-year-old briefcase, which had his father's initials on the side in faded gold," said Thomas R. Phillips, who belonged to a five-man study group with Romney during their first year of law school and who later became chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

But George Romney loomed large in his son's decision to earn business and law degrees simultaneously. Intent on following in the professional footsteps of his father, who had been chairman of American Motors Corp., Romney expressed an interest in business school. George Romney believed a law degree was a valuable commodity. So his son pursued both.

Together, the two tracks of Romney's graduate school experience offered excellent preparation for the complex world of private equity. His process-oriented legal training taught him to ask challenging questions, to play the role of devil's advocate, and to use an adversarial process in an effort to get answers. Romney carried these methods with him to Bain Capital, where he "brought a truth-seeking background" to his work, recalled one of Romney's former Bain partners, Geoffrey S. Rehnert.

At Bain, under Romney's direction, "people were always very willing to challenge other people," said Rehnert, now co-chief executive of a Boston private equity firm. "That became part of the culture, part of the way we did things."

Business school immersed Romney in a complementary skill set: creative thinking, leadership, teamwork, and the ability to analyze and reconcile conflicting data and differing points of view.

Harvard's joint MBA/JD program was relatively new at the time - it had been launched two years earlier - and was intensely rigorous. Typically, business school is completed in two years and law school in three; dual-degree students earn both degrees in four years, spending their first year at one of the schools, their second at the other, and their final two shuttling between both.

Out of Romney's 800 business school classmates and 550 law school classmates, only 15 earned degrees through the dual program.

"We viewed ourselves as kind of an elite guerrilla band," said Howard B. Brownstein, who graduated from the joint degree program with Romney in 1975 and later worked with him at Boston Consulting Group. "We were small and a little different."

Academically, the law school was more theoretical, the business school more practical. Harvard Law relied largely on textbooks. Studies at Harvard Business revolved around the case study method, in which students dissected real-life business decisions to learn to think like managers and executives.

Romney excelled at both schools, graduating with honors from the law school; becoming a Baker Scholar at the business school, a distinction reserved for the top 5 percent of the class; and impressing many of his peers with his quick mind and skill at building consensus.

Romney's classmates also remember him as enthusiastic and optimistic, noteworthy qualities at that time of war and social turmoil.

"He was just full of energy and excitement about the law and law school," said Garret G. Rasmussen, who, by virtue of alphabetical seating, sat near Romney their first year at law school. "There was nothing jaded about him, nothing skeptical, nothing ironic. He was all positive, and it was a very refreshing style."

Romney was also reliable. The workload at both schools was substantial, and students were often given several lengthy reading assignments to complete by the next day. The preparation was generally too much for one person, so the work was divvied up among study groups. "It was a real treat to have someone like Mitt," said Serkin, now chairman of an investment banking firm in Jacksonville, Fla. "You knew you could count on him."

Even in the casual environment of graduate school, Romney maintained a clean-cut, buttoned-up image.

"He dressed a little more formally than the rest of us," recalled another member of Romney's law school study group, William L. Neff, now a lawyer in Washington, D.C. "Most of us dressed like borderline slobs, and he was a little neater than that."

Romney was already married and had two young sons when he entered graduate school at 24, so his social circle generally comprised other men and women who, like himself, had children and lived off campus; at the time, Mitt and Ann Romney owned a house in Belmont. Romney's academic responsibilities, paired with home obligations, meant he was mainly focused on school and family.

But he still partook in graduate school social life. He was an occasional visitor to Lincoln's Inn, a Harvard Law School social club where students could eat, relax, and meet other students. "He was not just a visitor" to the Harvard campus, Rasmussen said. "He was part of it and he reached out to people and people reached out to him."

Romney also occasionally attended weekend parties and group dinners at Cambridge restaurants such as Legal Seafoods and the now-closed Joyce Chen. The restrictions of his Mormon faith never interfered in these affairs.

"He didn't mind if we were drinking coffee or having a beer, but that wasn't what he did," Serkin said. "We respected him for being true to what he believed in, and I found him to be completely open and tolerant to everybody else."

Romney also involved himself in the Harvard Law School Forum, a student group that brought prominent speakers to campus. One guest Romney recruited was his father. When George Romney arrived to speak, orange juice - prominently labeled as such - was added to the usual mix of soda, coffee, tea, and other caffeinated refreshments.

Romney's classmates were widely aware he was Mormon, but said he never proselytized. Mark E. Mazo, one of Romney's law school study group partners, recalls that Romney offered to discuss his faith with any classmates interested in learning more about it. "He mentioned it once and only once, and it never came up again," Mazo said.

On occasion, Mitt and Ann invited classmates to "family home evening," a Mormon tradition in which families set aside time each week to spend together. Visitors to their house at the time, on Winn Street near Belmont Hill, remember it as modest, without any obvious trappings of wealth.

In spending time with Romney, "you got the feeling you were dealing with a guy with a very strong moral fiber who is very devoted to church and family," added Brownstein. "You're not going to hear from Mitt a joke at anyone's expense, and you're not going to hear any swear words. You know when you meet him and when you're with him that you're dealing with a very serious-minded guy."

When Romney graduated from Harvard in 1975, armed with twin powerhouse degrees from one of the world's most prestigious universities, consulting firms and investment banks around the country vied aggressively to hire him.

"He was an outstanding recruit with exceptional grades, and he was the very charming, smooth, attractive son of a former presidential candidate," recalled Charles W. Faris, formerly with Boston Consulting Group, one of the firms that competed for Romney. "It would be hard to find a higher profile resume ... so everybody was bending over backward to get their hands on him."

Faris was assigned the task of recruiting Romney to his firm, an effort that began soon after the promising young graduate student arrived at Harvard. To woo him, Faris kept in frequent contact with Romney, treated him to occasional lunches and dinners, and invited him to high-profile company-sponsored events. When Romney finished his studies, he accepted a job at the company, then one of the hottest, most lucrative places to work for freshly minted Ivy League graduates.

Bruce D. Henderson, the company's founder, had developed a pioneering approach to management consulting that was revolutionizing the field - and shaking up corporate America. Henderson preached strategic thinking, then a novel concept in executive boardrooms.

Marketing themselves as objective outside observers, the firm's consultants used their analysis to devise operating strategies aimed at making companies more efficient and cost-effective. They applied so-called financial engineering to lower costs, improve productivity, and gain market share. And they spoke a language in which experience curve, portfolio matrix, dog, star, and cash cow were common terms.

"At BCG, analysis was king, clients were paying a lot of money, and you were expected to come in with really significant insights," said Lonnie M. Smith, who attended Harvard Business School with Romney and later worked with him at the firm.

For Romney, whose young family was expanding quickly, that meant often working nights and weekends, and traveling frequently. Faris, who became Romney's mentor at the firm, spent two summers flying regularly with him to Europe, where they were worked for a US client that had operations overseas.

Despite the significant amount of time Romney spent away from home, "somehow he kept his family together and he worked his butt off," recalled Faris, who is now retired. "He was an extremely, extremely good consultant."

In his new job, Romney earned the respect and admiration of many of his colleagues, and had an impressive physical presence that served him well with clients. "When Mitt Romney walks into a room, everybody in the room looks at him," Faris said. "He has that bearing."

At Boston Consulting Group, Romney was part of what several of his colleagues affectionately called "the Mormon mafia," a coterie of smart, talented, hard-working Mormon men who eventually rose to leadership positions at the firm. Today, many of the company's founding principles are considered basic business concepts. But in the mid-1970s, the firm was at the cutting-edge of consulting.

"For me and everybody there, including Mitt, it was a very formative time, and probably more powerful than business school or law school," said Per Lofberg, a former consultant at the company who is now chief executive of a venture capital firm. "You were now applying some of the things you learned in business school, but you were also learning things business school did not teach."

But as the 1980s neared, one rival firm began to eclipse Boston Consulting Group: Bain & Company. And after three years at BCG, Romney made a career change that would change the trajectory of his professional life.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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