It’s hard to put a finger on Marco Petruzzi. He’s Italian, with just a hint of an accent, but spent much of his childhood in Mexico. He married a Brazilian and at one point spoke with a heavy Southern drawl picked up during a year in Tennessee. His professional life is a puzzle, too. He worked for Bain & Co., the Boston management consultancy where Mitt Romney made his name, but he also carries a socialist streak dating back to his teenage years in Italy, a time of radical leftist politics. Now, as chief executive of charter schools operator Green Dot Public Schools, he likes to talk about the immorality of a public school system that fails too many students – while never forgetting his management roots and the importance of cash flow. Under Petruzzi – and despite cuts in state funding and opposition from teachers unions that despise charter schools – he has managed to expand Green Dot to 18 campuses around Los Angeles. Petruzzi spoke with the Business Journal about being called “Hitler,” going toe to toe with union leaders and why his daughter thinks he needs a ladder to do his job.

Question: Where do your kids go to school?

Answer: My son just finished his first year at a Green Dot middle school. We only have middle and high schools, so my daughter is at a local LAUSD elementary school.

Do your kids’ teachers know who you are?

Yeah, they know very well. We’re very involved parents. By and large, I believe we’re very well respected. The problem is not with individuals, ever. You get to know them, you build some trust, they realize that you’re just talking reasonable, common-sense stuff.

But teachers unions don’t like you very much, right?

The debate is dominated by the extremists. The real, rational 80 percent in the middle are actually having the interesting conversations. We’re just not loud about it. But the extremists (within the California Teachers Association) are there and they want my head. They’re sponsoring some bills that want to kill charters. They’ve called me Hitler in blogs.

Hitler? Really?

Yeah. And certainly right-wing capitalist bastard, racist, you name it. I’ve seen it all.

You say that’s just the extremists. What about the rest of the union?

I’m not saying the CTA loves me. But I’d argue we’ve come a long way toward a much more collaborative conversation. We have some established principles of engagement. One of them I imported from Bain & Co. is to presume trust. Every time you see something that I do and say to yourself, “Aha, he’s doing it to screw teachers,” question that for a second.

How long were you with Bain & Co.?

From ’97 until 2005.

So long after Mitt Romney was gone.

Right. It was a completely different era. I think he left Bain Capital (a private-equity firm) right around or right when I arrived at Bain & Co. (a management consultancy). They’re separate companies, you know. I think he left Bain & Co. in the ’80s to start Bain Capital.

Do people look at the Bain entry on your resume differently today than before?

Yeah, a little, but there’s so much nonsense around my business background. There’s this concept people throw out of corporate interests taking over public education, and it’s just ridiculous. We’re a non-profit. There’s no such thing as profits. People claim people like Bill Gates and Eli Broad are going to make money by giving away their billions, like it’s part of some evil plot to control education. It’s just so ridiculous. Then again, this is a nation where 40 percent of the population at one point believed Barack Obama was a socialist Kenyan Muslim.

Did you go to public or private schools as a kid?

I had a very eclectic education. In Mexico, I was in private schools; in Italy and the U.S., public schools.

When were you in Mexico?

When I was 7, my family moved there from Italy. My dad was an expert in textile production and this was his big break into management. He was asked to go for seven years to manage a new factory in Cuernavaca, a city south of Mexico City.

And after those seven years?

We moved back to Italy. I was 14. It was a really interesting time – a period called the Lead Years. The Red Brigades were around. There were shootings.

How did that affect you?

I was very influenced by fairly radical leftist politics. When you’re 14 years old, you’re very impressionable. So while I’ve obviously moderated my views over time and I appreciate a more balanced sense of the issues, certainly I’ve stayed quite progressive in my views. Fighting for the oppressed was a big part of my 14- to 22-year-old timeframe.

What brought you to the U.S.?

Two years after we moved back to Italy, in the middle of my raging against social injustice, I secretly was watching “Happy Days” on TV.

Seems like an odd mix.

I was like many youth from around the world who might be hating the imperialist American power, but the reality is as soon as they can, they go to Disneyland or drink a Coca-Cola. (Laughs). I was one of those kids – not very coherent in that way. Anyway, I applied to come to the U.S. as an exchange student.

Where’d you end up?

In the application, they were trying to match you to see where your interests were. I was so eager to go, I just said yes to everything. So I was sent to a really tiny town called Unionville, Tenn. I was on a farm, in the middle of nowhere. It had a population of 100.

Quite a culture shock, I imagine.

As a guy coming from Italy, it was interesting. I had to work on a farm. My first job was shoveling manure. The farmers would be looking at me saying, “Look at that Eye-talian,” and wondering whether I was going to throw up or not. We went fishing; we went hunting. For a 16-year-old boy, it was unique. I enjoyed myself, while realizing midway through that year that this was not exactly where I think I should land.

How did you settle on Columbia for college?

I asked my mom if she could help me out and tell me what to do. So my mom knew four or five names – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia – and she called them and asked them to send me an application. I had no idea this was a competitive process. I missed the deadline for Harvard, Yale and Princeton. But Columbia’s was later.

You got in, so you must have been a pretty good student.

Actually, I was the kid who never did his homework and ended up copying homework from my classmates. Don’t quote me on that one. (Laughs.) I don’t think I got most of my education in school. I was a voracious reader on my own. I read the encyclopedia.

Did you go to good schools?

In the six schools I attended in my 12 years of official schooling, one or two were pretty amazing. But there were schools where I wasn’t challenged at all. I’d doze off and daydream or read comic books.

So what got you interested in charter schools?

I call it my midlife crisis. I was a partner with Bain in Los Angeles and I had not really thought about leaving. I’d been on the Green Dot board since 2002, and I would come to board meetings and applaud the great work and then go back to my little life. Then Green Dot came to me for help in coming up with a strategic plan.

What were they trying to do at the time?

They had opened five schools, so what was next? That was the first time I really dug very deep into the issues of the inequities of public education in Los Angeles. I had two young kids at the time who were getting ready to go to school in a year or two. And I was just blown away in terms of what was going on in the public schools.

So, you just hadn’t thought about it before?

I think L.A. is a really isolating city. You could spend your life in L.A. navigating between the Westside and Beverly Hills and Hollywood and never actually deal with 80 percent of the city that lives in the lower-income neighborhoods. It’s almost like a Third World country city in the sense that the separation between the haves and have-nots is so extreme.

How did you decide to do this full time?

After working on that strategic plan, my wife said, “I’ve never seen you so excited as during the three months you worked on this thing.” I said, “I confess I’m fascinated by this problem and I really want to do something more, but I’d have to take an 80 percent salary cut.” I think my wife is the big hero here. She said, “I’m completely behind you.” So I jumped into this.

As a management consultant, what were some of the initial problems you saw at Green Dot?

It was an organization built around a handful of people going the extra mile every day, just working like crazy to get stuff done. That’s not a sustainable model. To me, making it work was, How do you make something sustainable so that if any one person leaves, including the CEO, this is a lasting organization? That’s moving from a startup to a more mature organization.

What kind of specific changes did you make as chief operating officer?

I saw we were spending way more money than we were bringing in and I immediately tried to fix that. The first thing was creating a cash-flow tool that allowed us to project cash a little better.

Beyond the business perspective, how do you define success for Green Dot?

We want students to have success in college, leadership and life. Are we really being successful? We’re not. Are we being more successful than the school district? Yeah, but that’s meager consolation.

So what does success really look like?

The fact that you had 5 percent kids at a school succeeding in college and now you have 12; it’s nice, but it’s not great. It needs to be 70 percent, like upper-middle-class whites. And that’s equality. That’s social justice. Social justice is making sure 18-year-olds, independent of their background, have equal access to opportunities in life and success in college. That is really a tough goal. We’re lying to the public when we say everybody has the same chance in this country. If you’re born in the lower quartile of income, one out of 10 times you graduate from college.

What’s the school district doing wrong?

I could write you a presentation on how to change LAUSD in three months, but it’s a long haul. It requires changing skills, capabilities, belief systems; undoing years and years of accumulated policies. And the trust is broken. The unions don’t trust management. And some of the distrust is well warranted. But now you need to undo a system that does not work for kids.

How can they rebuild that trust?

I wish I had the easy solution, but there is no easy solution. It just takes time.

What’s your average day like?

I’ve managed to make myself a morning person. I get up early and do an hour of e-mail. Then I try to get 15 to 20 minutes on a recumbent bike, but I’m not always successful with that. Three out of five days, I have a breakfast meeting around 7:30 or 8. Then I go to schools two or three times per week. I stay generally in the office until 7:30 or 8 p.m. And then I feel guilt.

About?

I work a lot, and I have an extreme sense of guilt about that. I spend every nonworking, awake moment with my family. I don’t do anything. I don’t follow hobbies. I don’t go to the gym. I don’t have a night out with my friends. I don’t do any of the cool things I should be doing. I have such a sense of guilt about the amount of time I spend in the office.

What do your kids know about what you do?

My son, unfortunately, a lot now. He now goes to one of the schools where dad is CEO. I think it’s been a little awkward for him. It’s probably reasonably awkward for the teachers as well. But kids don’t have a full idea of what hierarchy and structure really mean.

What do you mean?

My daughter thought the most senior person in education is the principal. She asked me, “So, you’re a principal?” I said, “No, daddy works above the principal.” A half-hour later she came back and said, “So when you work above the principal, do you use a ladder?” (Laughs.)

What about more philosophically, about what you’re trying do to?

My son, he goes to a high-poverty school. There are three homeless kids in that school who are doing great. I have those subtle conversations, around, “Isn’t that great that so-and-so has a chance of actually one day having a home and having food on the table because he’s getting an education and working hard? I wish you would work that hard, son.” I think he’s starting to get it.

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