WASHINGTON — As Bain & Co. head in the early 1990s, Mitt Romney presided over the corporate strategy firm's expanding operations into China and Russia, helping their initial attempts to move into the world's free market system.
Bain's expansion abroad under Romney's leadership came at the same time he was rescuing the firm from an internal financial crisis. Now, almost 20 years on, the Republican presidential nominee views those two countries with suspicion.
In his campaign, China and Russia are prime targets for criticism. Romney says China is an unfair economic competitor and should be charged with currency manipulation. Russia, he says, is "our No. 1 geopolitical foe."
In 1993, under Romney's oversight, Bain branched out in Beijing, where the firm's consultants held a series of management seminars for Chinese government trade officials, according to documents, interviews and media accounts. At the same time, Bain consultants were advising Russian officials and conducting seminars to aid the post-Soviet business privatization campaign, according to State Department files.
Bain joined a 1990s gold rush of U.S. consulting companies that tutored emerging post-Communist nations in Western management structure and strategy. Former U.S. diplomats and experts in the Chinese and Russian economic systems say Bain's involvement came at a critical point when both governments sought Western intervention to absorb fundamentals of capitalism.
"The Chinese got a lot of advice from a wide array of U.S. consulting shops and it had a significant impact on China's ability to develop a more efficient market-oriented economy," said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a veteran China expert at the Brookings Institution. "The consultants were all trying to get in on the ground floor and build relationships with the government."
How useful Bain was to China and Russia in that early period is not easy to assess, mostly because of similar roles played by other strategists and a lack of details about Romney's precise role and the advice provided by his consultants. Both Bain & Co. and the Romney campaign declined to disclose specifics about Romney's involvement and the company's performance. Chinese government officials were unavailable to comment on their dealings with Bain.
Romney has not talked publicly about Bain's expansion into China and Russia or his oversight of the firm's moves there. In his book, "No Apology," Romney describes China's economic success as "free enterprise on steroids." During the campaign, he castigated Chinese "cheating" on trade, and accused Beijing of cyberspying and intellectual property piracy. He also warned of the economic leverage posed by Russia's exploitation of its natural resources.
Although it is not clear whether Bain's 1990s work abroad conflicted with Romney's current stances, Bain's presence in both nations could complicate Romney's foreign policy critique that President Barack Obama has shown weakness in economic and political dealings with the two powers.
"It seems a little hypocritical to be developing economic connections with the Chinese and helping them move into the private sector, then turning around years later and assaulting Obama for being weak on China," said former Tennessee Sen. Jim Sasser, a Democrat who was the Clinton administration's ambassador to China in the mid-1990s.
Bain & Co. is a separate operation from its spinoff, Bain Capital, the private equity investment company founded by Romney that has drawn fire for mass layoffs and overseas job shifts at some of the companies it bought. Romney was a Bain & Co. executive until 1984, when he left to start Bain Capital. He returned to Bain & Co., announced in January 1991 as chairman and chief executive, to rescue the firm from financial turmoil. He negotiated a settlement involving Bain partners, the firm's lenders and federal bank deposit insurers.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Michele Davis would not respond to detailed questions about Romney's oversight of Bain & Co.'s consulting work. She disputed the timing of his departure, saying it came in 1992 rather than a year later. Davis said Romney concentrated on working "intensely to turn around the firm." She added that "no individual businessman can level the playing field with China."
The Romney campaign did not provide any records to buttress its timeline. Corporate documents and media accounts reviewed by The Associated Press from the period, however, show Romney held a top role at Bain & Co. through late 1993.
At least seven Securities and Exchange Commission filings from May to December 1993 by Marriott International, Inc., where Romney served as a director, listed him as "chief executive officer of Bain & Company, Inc." A 1998 Sports Authority SEC filing said Romney was Bain's CEO and chairman to 1993 and a director to 1998. A March 1993 federal credit document obtained by Rolling Stone magazine listed him as Bain's "principal." A Boston Herald news story written in October 1993 by current Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom described him as Bain's chairman and former CEO.
Bain & Co. was not alone in moving quickly into China. Other major consulting firms, including McKinsey and Co. and the Boston Consulting Group, set up there in the early 1990s. But Bain was the earliest, the "first foreign strategy firm to do so," according to the firm's website.
"Bain had as big a role as any other consulting company in bringing China into the free market," said Bob Ching, a former Boston Consulting Group strategist with three decades of experience in China.
Ching and other China strategists say American consultants aided China's state-owned firms in several ways. They set up business plans for state-owned companies. They studied the companies' internal structure, and consultants used seminars to train Chinese officials and entrepreneurs in management practices.
In December 1993, the same month Marriott listed Romney as Bain's chief executive officer in an SEC filing, Bain consultants conducted two days of seminars for Chinese trade officials in Beijing, according to accounts at the time from Xinhua, China's official news service, and other Asia-based news media.
Xinhua's report from Dec. 9, 1993, said 58 Chinese trade officials were trained in "Western ways in enterprise valuation, mergers and acquisitions and in enterprise performance improvement." Other media reports said the officials were involved in China's push to list state-owned firms on world stock markets to reap private funding.
In opening remarks, Gao Shudong, then secretary-general of China's State Economic and Trade Commission, said the training would help China in "speeding up the structure adjustment of the state-owned enterprises." The reports identified two attending Bain & Co. consultants as Beijing-based adviser Rick Yan and Australian Greg Hutchinson.
The Xinhua report quoted Hutchinson as saying that Bain "has a sincere interest in helping China to achieve its goals." Another series of Bain seminars led by Yan in February 1994 used case studies to train officials in "developing entry strategies in China," according to media accounts.
Bain spokeswoman Cheryl Krause said "we don't confirm who our clients are, nor discuss any of our client work."
Yan, who now heads 51Job Inc., a China-based web employment service, declined to comment. Hutchinson, now a Bain senior adviser, did not reply to emails from the AP. Chinese trade officials declined comment and other government officials were not immediately available.
Several former U.S. diplomats based in China in the 1990s said Chinese trade officials were desperate to learn how the markets worked and absorb Western management skills. "If you were working with state enterprises, you were working with the Chinese government," said Sasser, who took over the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1995.
Trade friction dominated U.S.-China relations in the early 1990s, but the Clinton administration welcomed Chinese moves toward free markets. As more U.S. companies flocked to China, consultants used their newfound expertise and contacts to advise them. Bain's early clients with interests in China included Dell, Motorola and Anheuser Busch.
The U.S. also was betting on Russia's transformation, and by 1993 had hired Bain to help transform the post-Soviet economy's small businesses, according to State documents. At the time, Russia's government, headed by Boris Yeltsin, was seen as a solid U.S. ally. Current relations between Vladimir Putin's government and the Obama administration are chillier despite Obama's "reset" effort.
Bain, one of several strategy firms hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development in a $98 million deal headed by KPMG Peat Marwick, sent out teams to lay groundwork with Russian officials in Leningrad and more than a dozen other cities. Bain consultants set up pilot projects, developed commercial property lists and held seminars across the country.
A 1994 internal Bain assessment highlighted the "impressive" pace of Russia's privatization but acknowledged "limited improvement." Bain consultants at times griped about their Russian counterparts and rampant municipal corruption. In a February 1994 note to USAID officials, they also pressed for more money, warning that because of delays "we will be unable to complete our contract deliverables."
That same month, Romney launched his Senate bid in Massachusetts against Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. Romney lost in November 1994, and returned to run Bain Capital, his private equity firm.
Associated Press researchers Zhao Liang in Beijing and Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.