Before he was elected governor of Massachusetts, and even before he rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, Mitt Romney was known in business circles as the venture capitalist with the golden touch.
During his 14 years at the helm of Bain Capital, the Boston-based private equity firm, Mr Romney earned a reputation for an owlish knack for appraising opportunities - spotting start-ups with lucrative potential and taking troubled, undervalued companies and retooling their business models.
Mr Romney, who worked as a consultant for Bain & Co before he founded the spin-off venture capital firm with $37m, helped launch some 180 companies including Staples, The Sports Authority, and Domino's Pizza. He also he made his investors a lot of money: during his reign at Bain the firm's annual rate of return on realised investments exceeded 100 per cent.
As Mr Romney eyes a possible bid for the 2008 Republican nomination, some observers note that his limited experience in public office would be a big liability in the greater Republican party contest. He has only one term as governor under his belt and he managed to court controversy during that tenure - for instance, opposing gay marriage. However, even Mr Romney's detractors concede that his successful record in the private sector has left mostly a string of admirers.
Described by former colleagues as "tough-minded", "analytical" and bearing "Reagan-like leadership" qualities, Mr Romney - who holds degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School - became well known in the world of venture capital for his ability to parse a lot of information in a short time, his sharp attention to detail and his penchant for poring through facts and figures.
Tom Stemberg was hawking around his business plan to start a chain of office supply stores when he first met Mr Romney in 1985. "It was a long business plan and the only group that had thoughtfully read it and taken it apart was Mitt and his team," he recalls. "There was one firm that laughed and said, 'Who in the world cares about how much they spend on pencils and erasers?' But Mitt paid a tremendous amount of attention to details like that."
Mr Stemberg remembers that, at one point, Mr Romney questioned his calculation that the amount that small businesses spent annually on office supplies was more than $1,000 per employee. Mr Romney said that he had surveyed businesses in Boston and they claimed to spend only about $250 a head. "So I told him that one of the big problems is that companies don't know what they spend. You have to look at the invoices," says Mr Stemberg.
That is exactly what Mr Romney and his Bain colleagues did - a tedious task. Mr Romney discovered that Mr Stemberg's figures were correct and Bain Capital made an initial investment of about $600,000 to start a little company called Staples. Today it has 69,000 employees and a market capitalisation of about $19.5bn (€14.5bn, £9.9bn).
During Mr Romney's career as a buyout specialist he sometimes had to make unpopular decisions - including trimming costs and slashing jobs - and not all of Bain's companies were resounding winners. But that was part of the job. "He is a decision maker and the buck stops with him," said one former colleague.
Bob White, a partner at Bain Capital and a friend of the out-going governor, says that Mr Romney's strength lies in his ability to surround himself with smart, passionate people - and, crucially, people with divergent views. "He believes it's very important to have people that don't all see everything the same way."
Mr White says that one of Mr Romney's finest hours in business came in the late 1980s. Bain & Co had embarked on an employee stock ownership plan by borrowing money to pay founders for shares that the company would then sell to new partners. But the estimated worth of the company was too much and Bain could not meet its debts.
In 1990 the partners asked Mr Romney to return from Bain Capital to oversee a restructuring of the company that entailed complicated negotiations with banks, as well as the company's former partners, to get significant portions of the debts forgiven.
Mr Romney managed to convince all but one of the top partners in the Boston office to go along with him, according to Mr White. "It was exactly the right thing to do," he says.
"The company was potentially weeks away from financial ruin, but he was able to turn it around and today it has done extraordinarily well." The company is today worth about $36bn.
Then came the Olympics. When Mr Romney arrived as its chief executive officer in 1999, the Salt Lake City Winter Games had a $379m fiscal shortfall and had been hit by bribery allegations. "In walks Mitt and the place brightened immediately," recalls Frazier Bullock, who was chief operating officer of the games and also worked with Mr Romney at Bain.
"He understood the big picture right from the beginning and had a road map for how to rebuild."
Mr Romney reworked the organisation's policies, cut budgets and increased fundraising. The games ended in surplus and Mr Romney won national praise for turning them into a resounding commercial success. "Not only is he drop dead smart," says Mr Bullock, who now works at Sorenson Capital, "but he has a leadership quality that you can see and feel."