June 18, 2013
Finders Weepers: Early Bain Disputes Cast New Light on Its Business
Posted on Sep 10, 2012
By Jesse Eisinger, ProPublica
During the period that Mitt Romney was actively running Bain during the 1990s, Bain had at least three other legal disputes that were similar to the fight with McCall Springer. In each case, a party claimed it was owed money for having brought Bain an idea for an acquisition. When Bain carried out the acquisition, the firm didn’t pay the contractually obligated fee, according to the claims.
Bain fought each in court, arguing that the agreements it had with the parties didn’t cover the specific circumstances of the deals.
The Experian deal was a headline grabbing success for Bain, which was formed in 1984. Great Universal Stores, the British retailer, agreed in November 1996 to buy Experian for $1.7 billion. Bain and Thomas H. Lee had agreed to pay just over $1 billion in February, but had only closed the deal in September.
Private equity firms often claim that they develop companies, helping them to grow more quickly and professionally. The added value that the private equity owners contributed to Experian in a mere seven weeks, however, was minimal.
Eventually, Bain settled with Springer. Brokers and finders learned to craft their agreements more stringently, they say. “If you don’t have a really good agreement, you will be eviscerated in some shape or form,” a person familiar with the dispute says.
Phillip Roman had a similar dispute with Bain in the early 1990s.
In September 1994, Phillip Roman & Co. took Bain to court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, filing a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. Roman claimed Bain had failed to pay it a finder’s fee of $4.3 million for Bain’s takeover of Weider Health and Fitness, a health food and fitness equipment business.
The M&A firm claimed in its suit that it had signed an agreement with Bain in 1990 and brought Weider to the attention of Bain partner Geoffrey Rehnert in January 1993. Bain eventually bought Weider for $390 million. The problem for Roman was that Bain had thrown it over for another finder firm, according to the complaint.
The firms settled the case in December of the same year.
Asked if he felt angry with Bain about the dispute, he said: “At that moment I did. Everybody feels that way when they think they’ve been screwed.”
But his firm worked with Bain subsequently on deals and received fees without issue. Today, “I have no ill feeling at all, not even close,” he says.
Roman added that he had great respect for Bain and its high standards. The companies the firm bought “had to be like nuns,” he said.
In a third case, in November 1992, John Ewing, who had a firm called J.G. Ewing & Associates, approached Bain to pitch it an acquisition of the engineering and design firm Professional Service Industries, Inc. The two sides made an agreement with each other.
Shortly after, PSI’s parent hired the investment bank PaineWebber to auction off the company.
About a year later, Bain bought PSI, but didn’t pay Ewing. Ewing read about the pending deal in the newspaper. His lawyer contacted Bain, arguing that the firm wouldn’t have known about the company if Ewing hadn’t introduced it to the private equity firm, and pointing out that the parties had an agreement with each other.
Bain partner Rehnert wrote to John Ewing, saying it wouldn’t pay the fee. Bain is “not willing to pay a fee to a broker when an investment bank has been engaged to conduct an auction since bringing such a deal to our attention creates no value,” the Bain partner wrote to Ewing, according to a letter from Ewing’s lawyer to Bain.
Bain sued Ewing in U.S District Court in Massachusetts, seeking declaratory judgment. Ewing countersued for $1.4 million. The case was dismissed voluntarily in February 1995, an outcome that generally indicates the parties settled.
In the final instance, the son of the owner of Anthony Crane, a crane company that Bain took over, claimed that he had brought Bain information that another crane company was willing to sell itself to Bain. He claimed a finder’s fee, which Bain disputed. That case too appears to have been settled.
Paul Kiel contributed to this story.
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