|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
It was funny at first.
The young men in business suits, gingerly picking their way among the millwrights, machinists and pipefitters at Kansas City's Worldwide Grinding Systems steel mill. Gaping up at the cranes that swung 10-foot cast iron buckets through the air. Jumping at the thunder from the melt shop's electric-arc furnace as it turned scrap metal into lava.
"They looked like a bunch of high school kids to me. A bunch of Wall Street preppies," says Jim Linson, an electronics repairman who worked at the plant for 40 years. "They came in, they were in awe."
Apparently they liked what they saw. Soon after, in October 1993, Bain Capital, co-founded by Mitt Romney, became majority shareholder in a steel mill that had been operating since 1888.
It was a gamble. The old mill, renamed GS Technologies, needed expensive updating, and demand for its products was susceptible to cycles in the mining industry and commodities markets.
Less than a decade later, the mill was padlocked and some 750 people lost their jobs. Workers were denied the severance pay and health insurance they'd been promised, and their pension benefits were cut by as much as $400 a month.
What's more, a federal government insurance agency had to pony up $44 million to bail out the company's underfunded pension plan. Nevertheless, Bain profited on the deal, receiving $12 million on its $8 million initial investment and at least $4.5 million in consulting fees.
Overall, Bain made at least $12 million on the steel company it created by merging the Kansas City mill with another in South Carolina before the new entity declared bankruptcy in 2001. Bain also collected an additional $900,000 a year through 1999 for management consulting services, public filings show.
Some analysts say Bain should not be blamed for the company's failure, noting that a wave of cheap imports forced nearly half of the U.S. steel industry into bankruptcy during that period. Another company set up around the same time, in which Bain took a minority stake, Steel Dynamics in Fort Wayne, Indiana, thrived.
"GS and Steel Dynamics were about as different as it gets," industry analyst Michelle Applebaum said. GS's core products were vulnerable to competition while Steel Dynamics became "one of the country's lowest-cost manufacturers of steel sheet," a product with more staying power. Steel Dynamics was also a non-union shop.
Former company executives say they were generally satisfied with Bain's leadership, but they say the firm would have been better equipped to weather tough times had it not been saddled with such a heavy debt load.
They also fault Bain for putting inexperienced managers in place and spurning a buyout offer from a competitor. Workers say efforts to cut corners often backfired, driving costs higher.
The Kansas City millworkers, meanwhile, are still fuming, after being left with no health benefits and a reduced pension check.
"Romney cost me lots and lots of sleepless nights and lots and lots of money," said Ed Stanger, who worked at the plant for nearly 30 years.