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COMMUNITY VOICE

Working with Mitt Romney at 2002 Olympics proved he is a true leader

Monday, October 22, 2012 - 8:49 am

My first encounter with Mitt Romney was in an adverse situation.

He was president of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. My company in Roanoke had been chosen to provide the core insurance program for the games. Quite frankly, our two organizations were in serious disagreement.

As you can imagine, operating an Olympic Games is a huge and complicated endeavor. It requires building in effect a Fortune 500 company from scratch within weeks of being awarded a bid. The winning company then must manage its part of the games in every detail for 17-plus days, finally dismantling quickly after the Olympic torch is extinguished at the closing ceremony.

As the insurer of the games, we were involved from the start: the submission of the bid, the awarding of the contract, the buildup to the games, the games themselves and the dismantling of the organization. I can tell you that the original management group had created a complete mess. Romney was assigned the job of cleaning it up.

My team went into action early when the building housing the oval skating rink collapsed during construction. The Olympic Committee had submitted a claim, but its legal staff refused to cooperate with our investigation of the circumstances.

My claims people could get nowhere with them. As a result, we could not get the facts, could not determine whether the claim was justified. I called Romney to discuss what was quickly developing into a bad situation. He agreed to meet.

I was impressed, as was everyone in the room. Romney allowed each one of us to present our position in full. He provided the leadership that until that point had been sorely lacking. There was an atmosphere of trust.

Romney eventually dismissed our two staffs so we could talk one-to-one. I told him I needed this settled soon. How soon? I said 10 days. He immediately ordered the Olympic staff to cooperate. Within four days I was able to call him to say our investigation had resolved the claim. Forty-eight hours later we issued a check.

That all may sound simple in the retelling. Both Romney and I knew, though, that if trust had not been established the situation could have devolved into an ugly, expensive mess involving sparring teams of high-powered lawyers and the catastrophe that implies. Indeed, it could have endangered the image of the games themselves.

Awhile later the Chicago Tribune happened to publish an article on my insurance company, our family's new restaurant, Joseph Decuis, and our efforts to restore the downtown of our Indiana hometown.

I was told that Romney held up a copy of that article during a staff meeting and said, “These are the kind of people we do business with.”

It was flattering, to be sure, but it was just his way of emphasizing to his executives that it is always best to do business honestly and fairly. That in fact was the management style throughout his tenure as the chief economic officer of the Salt Lake City Games. It is why I believe those games were among the most successful in the history of the Winter Olympics.

My story isn't quite over. Romney, to my surprise, offered me the opportunity to run a stretch in the 65-day Olympic run, “Torch Across America.” Running with that Olympic torch in hand, a beacon of freedom seen throughout the world, was a highlight of my business career.

I of course will always be grateful. But it was my experience working with Romney in a dispute that convinced me he is the “real deal.” The man is a true leader who I believe should not only be president but will become one of the greatest in the history of our country.

Pete Eshelman, founder of American Specialty Insurance, is the president of Joseph Decuis Restaurant and Farm of Roanoke.