As we gear up for Super Tuesday on March 6 and the primaries move closer to home, let’s take a deeper look at Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney’s career to predict how he might run America. For me, this is personal. I worked at Bain & Co. and Bain Capital during Romney’s tenure and will cast my vote in Virginia.
From my vantage point, there continues to be confusion about the definition of private equity and venture capital, the distinction between the two, and whether Romney’s track record makes him a hero or villain. With the economy the No. 1 issue of this election, let’s look at Romney’s role as an investor to see how he might turn the country around.
Venture capital is all about a vision for what the world might be like in the future and helping entrepreneurs build businesses to get there. A venture capitalist doesn’t run the business; instead, the VC creates an environment for an entrepreneur to succeed, by providing guidance, capital and insight, while removing obstacles. Venture investors buy a minority ownership position in a company, and influence the outcome of the business through their role on a company’s board of directors.
The Kauffman Foundation released a study showing that two-thirds of net new jobs created are by young businesses — those less than five years old. According to the National Venture Capital Association, venture-backed companies account for 14 percent of all private sector employment and 21 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Staples, Domino’s Pizza and Sports Authority are examples of companies Romney helped start during the early days of Bain Capital, when Bain was doing classic venture capital start-up investing. This venture capital experience suggests that he has the background to put in place policies and create an environment in which new business formation will blossom.
As a result of Bain’s early success in its venture investments, it raised more money from investors, seeking strong financial returns, and Bain Capital became a premier private equity firm. Private equity is different than venture capital, as PE firms buy an entire company (often troubled or underperforming companies), using a combination of equity and debt. As owners of the business, they have the ability to pick the chief executive and set the strategy for the company. PE investors make money by growing the business, and making it more profitable. They do this by adjusting three fundamental levers: price (how much you charge for your product — although the competitive market often has a strong say here), volume (how many products you sell) and cost (what it costs you to make each product). Choosing which lever to pull, and pulling it, isn’t always obvious or easy, but businesses today compete in global markets, and have to make tough decisions, quickly.
Private equity is capitalism personified. Winners succeed and losers fail, much as in life itself. To succeed in PE investing, your successful companies have to outweigh those that fail, and make no mistake, failure is a part of business in a competitive world. Bain Capital’s returns during Romney’s tenure were among the best in the industry. His formula worked.
These skills and levers also apply to our federal government: we will need strong discipline and tough love to pull them. At the government level, price is the tax rate, volume is the number of people paying taxes and cost is the sum of the people, programs and interest costs to deliver essential government services. We must apply the right financial strategy or we will fail as a country. Romney has the wisdom to pull all three of these levers at the right time and in the right order, all the while bringing pride back to America and creating an environment that once again says, America is open for business.
This commentary originally appeared in The Post’s Capital Business publication on Feb. 13.
John Backus is a founder and managing partner at New Atlantic Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm based in Reston and Cambridge, Mass. He is the former chairman of the Northern Virginia Technology Council and as technology policy adviser to Virginia governors Gilmore, Warner and McDonnell. He blogs at navfund.com/blog and is at @jcbackus on Twitter.