The Mind Of Mitt

Bain Capital taught Romney focus, restraint and the art of the deal. How would those skills work in the White House?

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Peter Hapak for TIME

The Video, A Quarter-Century Old now, catches Mitt Romney at an unguarded moment in the best-known transaction of his early investment career. Here he is, a youthful-looking 39, self-conscious in a dress shirt and tie as he steps into an unfinished commercial space in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. Young people in jeans and boots are uncrating office supplies onto shelves for the next day's grand opening. They gather politely when summoned, and Romney begins to speak.

The ribbon cutting at this first Staples store, on May 1, 1986, will launch a notable American brand that expands into a multibillion-dollar chain. One day Mitt Romney will run for President, and his campaign will reshape the Staples narrative as a parable of the candidate's vision and skill. But on this evening, in words chosen without politics in mind, the Romney on the videotape tells a subtler story.

Bain Capital, his fledgling investment firm, has by now committed 2% of its assets to the new enterprise. Deeply uncomfortable with risk in a business that calls for a bullfighter's nerves, Romney has dropped by for one last inspection. In the video artifact, unearthed for TIME from Staples' archives, he regales the store's crew with the tall tale of a Texan on a polar-bear hunt. The man heads alone for the North Pole, boasting that he will slay the beast with his bare hands. When his native guides next catch sight of him, the Texan is running for his life and the bear is closing fast. One guide opens a door to let him in, but the Texan stops short and steps aside as the bear races through. "He slams the door and says, 'You skin that one while I go get another!'" Romney says.

The Staples crew laughs, and then he takes the joke in a new direction. The polar bear turns out to be the market that Staples is hunting, with a valuable pelt for someone bold enough to take it. The guy in the story? That's Romney. "I feel a little like the Texan," he says. "Here's this guy coming in, wearing the white shirt and all. You're skinning this one while I'm going to go out and try to see if I can find another."

Not for Romney is the bear hunter's life, but he does want to say a few words about his work. At the dawn of a dazzling investment career, he undertakes to explain "a little bit about what a venture capitalist is."

"Some people call us vulture capitalists," he allows, but he does not see it that way. "We go around and try to convince people that we're real smart, we'll make them money with their money." He takes their cash, he says, and lays it down to buy a company that "looks like it can be something big." And that's good for customers too because the companies he buys are giving them "some real value." Or anyway, he says, "that's how it supposedly works."

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