(Southport, CT) Mitt Romney has been on my mind a lot since January. That month my editor Rick Wolff called and asked if I'd write a 6,000-word chapter on Romney and how Mormonism influences the way he operates. Wolff wanted primary sources and a finished product in three weeks' time.
I felt a little like Ethan Hunt getting a call on his phone: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it ...."
It's not like Romney is particularly chatty about his religion. Nor is anyone else close to him. The Romney campaign doesn't address these questions. Period.
"I understand that," Wolff told me. "But you know what we're looking for."
Welcome to my world.
I owe a lot of my success in publishing to Wolff. He signed me to my first commercial book deal when I was a first-year law student. And he is the one who approached me back in 2004 and asked me if I'd do a book on Mormon CEOs. The idea was to find out how Mormonism influenced the way they do business and how they maintain relations with their families while running big corporations and serving in volunteer positions for their church. I ended up profiling the founder of JetBlue Airways, the CEO of Madison Square Garden, the CEO of Dell, the CFO of American Express, the CEO of Deloitte & Touche, the dean of Harvard Business School, and two others.
Following these guys around at work and spending time in their homes was a highlight of my career. The book – The Mormon Way of Doing Business: How Eight Western Boys Reached The Top of Corporate America – was published in 2007 and was a big hit, particularly among non-Mormons. For me, the best part was the friendships I formed with these execs. We even went on the road together to give a series of forums at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Wharton, BYU, and at a host of other venues.
Jeff Benedict, Rod Hawes, Dave Checketts (speaking), Gary Crittenden and David Neeleman
Those days were pure fun. But I figured they were history. Then Romney emerged from Iowa and New Hampshire as the apparent frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. My publisher decided to re-issue a new edition of Mormon Way with a new chapter and a new cover.
Amazon is selling the book now (get it here). It will be in stores across the country later this week.
The Romney chapter contains six intimate and compelling stories about him, ones you won't hear on the campaign trail. I conducted a lot of interviews for this chapter. A handful was with individuals who have had an up close and personal relationship with Romney. Most of these individuals have never discussed Romney with a journalist.
One of them is Bob Gay. Next to Romney, Gay was the most senior Mormon executive at Bain Capital. And like Romney, Gay is Harvard-educated and had a highly successful father. Gay's father was Frank Gay, who left Brigham Young University before graduating and started working as Howard Hughes' personal driver. Eventually, he became a senior executive at a time when Hughes was the richest man in the world. Hughes made Gay CEO of the holding company that controlled all of Hughes' business interests, including an airline, a TV station, casinos and a mining operation.
George Romney and Frank Gay knew each other, but weren't close. Their sons, however, became very close. When Mitt became head of Bain Capital, he persuaded Bob to leave Kidder Peabody and join Bain in the late 80s. Romney almost didn't get his man, though. Bain was offering Gay a lot less money than he was making at Kidder. So Gay turned down Romney's offer. Twice.
Then Romney called Gay again and asked: "How much more do you really need?"
"About $75,000," Gay said.
That was $75,000 more than Romney was in a position to offer. Gay figured it was a deal breaker. Romney had other ideas. "I'll loan it to you," Romney told him.
He wasn't kidding. Gay said yes and so commenced a long, close friendship. One day, years later, Gay's 14-year-old daughter went missing in New York City. When NYPD couldn't find her, Gay called Romney with five simple words: "Mitt, I've got a problem."
"Bob, what is it?" Romney asked.
"I don't know where my daughter is."
Two hours later Romney called Gay back and notified him that he had shut down the entire office at Bain and was shuttling everyone to New York City. He had set up a command center at La Guardia Airport's Marriott Hotel. A hotline was being set up to collect tips. And people from Goldman Sachs; Bankers Trust; Morgan Stanley; and Price Waterhouse – all firms that did business with Bain – were ready to comb the city for Gay's daughter. "We're going to find her," Romney told Gay.
And they did. "If you really want to understand Mitt," Gay told me, "you have to see him from all these different angles."
Tom Tierney is another one that I spent time with. Tierney is the former managing partner at Bain & Co. He worked as closely with Romney as anybody during a crisis that almost plunged Bain into bankruptcy. He and Romney were business colleagues for twenty years. When I asked him if Romney had ever discussed his religion with him during all that time, his answer was simple: "We haven't ever talked about it."
Romney's silence says a lot about his respect for his co-workers' beliefs and dividing line between business and religion. "On those dimensions we connected quite naturally," Tierney said. "You can tell when a person is spiritually grounded. I don't mean in a holier than thou way. I mean you can tell whether people are givers or takers. Mitt is definitely a giver."
My personal favorite story in the new chapter involves a couple that nearly lost their home in the San Diego wildfires in 2007. Reed and Kathy Fisher were forced to evacuate after their property and the exterior of their home were scorched. They have a son that is friends with Mitt Romney's son Matt, who lives and works in San Diego. One day Fisher got a call from Matt, offering to help clean up the damage.
A few days later, Fisher pulled up to his house and spotted a black SUV parked out front. Two men with earpieces – one in a suit, one in plain clothes – were standing on the sidewalk. They looked like Secret Service agents.
Then Fisher spotted Matt and a couple other guys working to remove a giant tree stump from the front yard. One of the guys was presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on his knees, wearing goggles and using a chain saw. He had been campaigning in southern California and had spent the previous night at his son Matt's place. When Matt told him he had plans to go help a friend, Mitt volunteered to go along.
Reed was speechless. Then one of his neighbors walked over. "Is that who I think it is?" the neighbor said.
"That's Mitt Romney," Fisher said.
Last night I told these stories and did a book signing at Pequot Library in Southport, CT. One woman who bought a book said she'd never vote for Romney. Never. "But," she said, "those stories changed my mind."
Then a guy behind her said essentially the same thing.
Romney's friend Bob Gay said that if you really want to understand Mitt you have to see him from all these different angles. Of course, it's hard to see what the campaign won't show.
Jeff Benedict signing copies of Mormon Way at Southport Sunday night