Asset Stripping: In Zimbabwe and at Bain Capital

My traveling wife having just returned from a three week trip to Africa (south) we settled in to watch an eye opening (for most of us) documentary about Zimbabwe, the long struggle of a white African family to hang on to their farm against Mugabe’s madness, rolled in a chaff of racism.

Titled Mugabe and the White African, it is a documentary focused on Michael Campbell and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth and their effort, principally in the courts, to hang on to their farm — where 500 Zimbabweans are employed.  Mugabe, as he does with anyone who presents him opposition, has them beaten.  There are some horrific pictures following the beating of the two men, and Campbell’s wife.  Freeth was close to death from the skull fracture he took. It’s a sad, personal story and one which has been true of many other white farm families under Mugabe’s reign of terror, thought  they have not been the principle targets of his armed-lunacy.  That privilege belongs to black Zimbabweans who have stood up to him repeatedly, in courts, in elections and in the streets.

What caught my attention particularly, however, was a phrase that was used to describe the behavior of the so-called peasant-farmers who are sent to add the whiff of legitimacy to what is going on to this “land redistribution.”  These men, and some women and children, are not farmers, farm-workers or even farm laborers.  They, according to the film and other articles I have read, are the poor and homeless, easy to find in the wretched economy Mugabe has engineered, and aresent in as a rag-tag army of looters.  They don’t know how to drive a tractor but they know the tires might be sold, and the bolts, and cutting tines, and gasoline, and spark plugs and…..  Copper is worth a lot — whether in the form of wire, tubing or brass pots.  A television might get a bit at the local market.

This is called asset stripping.

And who should leap into my mind, watching the shaking, wildly swinging shots from the clandestine camera, of the farm being stripped, but Bain Capital and it’s founder and presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney.

Though Bain doesn’t send in thugs with knives and firebrands, the end effect is much the same. Ruined companies stripped of all their tools, labor and organization.   Under color of the law, Bain and others — dizzy with the ideology that only money matters– take over companies which need help, with the promise of bringing in teams to set things back to stable.  In some cases this happens.  A  knowledgeable team is put together.  Financing is secured.  Marketing experts find willing buyers of the product and a company is turned around.

In most cases, as we have read, this does not happen.  Instead, the company, once with a corporate life of its own, and people who depended on it for a livelihood, is “asset stripped.”  Pieces are sold off, sometimes in the dead of night; mailing lists, patents, methods, hardware, software, down to the desks and computers.  Ask anyone who has ever gone to a  corporate asset auction say, under the steady gavel of Dove, Disposition Services, or Corporate Assets, Inc. For the happy scavenger these are happy days.  I remember boxes of hard-drives being carted out to the back of the station wagon, fine flat screen monitors and printer that might or might not work, but who cared, they were so cheap!

For the fired worker, manager and sometimes even founders, the day is not so happy, as some of the testimonies in the Obama ads have been telling us. It shouldn’t take such ads for us to know the pain, and suspect the deceptive hardball practices of the Bains of the world.  They don’t give a damn about turning an unsteady company into a steady one. They want to know what the parts are worth, and they set about stripping them, to sell them on any market they can find.  Just like the scavengers in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, who at least have their own spectacular poverty to exonerate their actions to some degree.   In Romeny’s case the sold-off parts have built him mansions around the world.

Mark them up with nice graffiti:  Asset Stripper Lives Here.

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The movie, qua movie, is not terrific.  The focus on the white farmer, almost exclusively, means that the much larger case against Mugabe isn’t made.  Their story needs to be told.  The beatings and fear they have lived under should happen to know one, but they are a mid-size piece of a much larger, and even more terrible, story — which wasn’t told.  Had it been, and the Campbell farm story been part of it, we would have had a powerful and much needed indictment of Mugabe and his band of thugs.

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