Seemingly alone among private-equity firms, Romney’s Bain Capital was a master at bait-and-switching Wall Street bankers to get its hands on the companies that provided the raw material for its financial alchemy. Other private-equity firms I worked with extensively over the years — Forstmann Little, KKR, TPG and the Carlyle Group, among them — never dared attempt the audacious strategy that Bain partners employed with great alacrity and little shame. Call it the real Bain way.
Here’s how it worked. Private-equity firms are always eager to find companies to buy, allowing them to invest chunks of the billions of dollars entrusted to them and from which they earn hundreds of millions in fees. One ready source of these businesses is Wall Street bankers hired to sell companies through private auctions. The good news is that when a banker puts together a detailed selling memorandum about a company, chances are very high that company will be sold; the bad news is that these private auctions tend to be very competitive, and the winning bidder, by definition, is most often the one willing to pay the most. By paying the highest price, you win the company, but you also may reduce the returns you can generate for your investors.
I never negotiated directly with Romney; he was too high-level for any interaction with me. Rather, I dealt often with other Bain senior partners, who were very much in his mold. In my experience, Bain Capital did all that it could to game the system by consistently offering the highest prices during the early rounds of bidding — only to try to low-ball the price after it had weeded out competitors.
By bidding high early, Bain would win a coveted spot in the later rounds of the auction, when greater information about the company for sale is shared and the number of competitors is reduced. (A banker and his client generally allow only the potential buyers with the highest bids into the later rounds; after all, you can’t have an endless procession of Savile Row-suited businessmen traipsing through a manufacturing plant if you want to keep a possible sale under wraps.)
For buyers, the goal in these auctions is to be one of the few selected to inspect the company’s facilities and books on-site, in order to make a final and supposedly binding bid. Generally, the prospective buyer with the highest bid after the on-site due-diligence visit is selected by the client — in consultation with his or her banker — to negotiate a final agreement to buy the company.
This is the moment when Bain Capital would become especially crafty. In my experience — which I heard echoed often by my colleagues around Wall Street — Bain would seek to be the highest bidder at the end of the formal process in order to be the firm selected to negotiate alone with the seller, putting itself in the exclusive, competition-free zone. Then, when all other competitors had been essentially vanquished and the purchase contract was under negotiation, Bain would suddenly begin finding all sorts of warts, bruises and faults with the company being sold. Soon enough, that near-final Bain bid — the one that got the firm into its exclusive negotiating position — would begin to fall, often significantly.
Of course, some haggling over price is typical in any sale, and not everything represented by sellers and their bankers is found to be accurate under close examination. But Bain Capital took the art of negotiation over price into the scientific realm. Once the competitive dynamics had shifted definitively in its favor, the firm’s genuine views about what it was willing to pay — often far lower than first indicated — would be revealed.
At such a late date, of course, the seller is more than a little pregnant with the buyer. Attempting to pivot and find a new buyer — which knew it had not been selected in the first place, but was now being called back — would be devastating to the carefully constructed process designed to generate the highest price. Once Bain’s real thoughts about the price were revealed, the seller either had to suck it up and accept the lower price, or negotiate with a new buyer, but with far less leverage.
Needless to say, this does not make for a very happy client (or a happy banker). By the end of my days on Wall Street in 2004, I found the real Bain way so counterproductive that I no longer included Bain Capital on my buyer’s lists of private-equity firms for a company I was selling.
When Romney ran Bain Capital, his word was not his bond - The Washington Post