Ross Perot. Just say the name to an American and you are likely to get a strong reaction in response. Presidential candidate, self-made billionaire, and entrepreneur are all titles that are commonly used to describe this gentleman. He is considered by many to be the creator of the information technology (IT) and outsourcing services industries. What is less known about Perot, however, is his deep and personal commitment to the men and women of the American military and its veterans. Behind the scenes and with great discretion, Perot has spent a private lifetime using his resources, contacts, and personal skills to help solve problems of all types and sizes, and sometimes even save lives. Along the way he has also made a personal commitment to ensure that the stories of America’s warriors are not forgotten in the daily flood of news about finance, entertainment, sports, and politics.
For Perot, the basis of his approach to business and life are easy to find: his family in Depression-era Texarkana, Texas. Son of a local cotton broker, his memories of his early life are key to understanding his grounding in the principles of family, faith, education, and personal values.
The Year in Special Operations: Can you talk a bit about how your young life shaped your approaches to family, business, and public service?
Ross Perot: My dad was my closest friend. We rode horses every day after school. He would pick me up at school, and we would ride horses until sunset. Not many boys have that opportunity. He couldn’t have had finer moral and ethical principles. He was in the cotton business and he had two black men who worked for him. This was in the ’30s, and he treated them as equals, with dignity and respect. He would take me, and we would visit them in their homes on Sundays. Sometimes we would go out and have lunch with them, or spend the afternoon just sitting on their front porches, or even go together to the local county fair. His word was his bond.
My mother also taught me lessons. We lived six blocks from the railroad tracks, with a sand road coming up to our house. All day long, people would come up to our door and ask for food. With money and food my mother didn’t have, she would always feed them. One day, one of the men said to my mother, “Lady, do you have many people stopping by here?”
She said, “Yes, I do.”
He asked, “Do you ever wonder why?”
She replied, “No, sir, I don’t.”
He said, “Come here, I’ll show you.” He took her to a mark on the curb, which had been put there by those hungry folks. I later asked her if she wanted me to wash it off. She said, “No, son, these are people just like us, but they are down on their luck. We must help them. …”
I learned many lessons like that, all the time, from my parents and grandparents when I was growing up. My grandmother was a little lady, about five feet tall, and one day she looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Son, if God ever intended you to smoke, he’d have put a chimney on your head, and I don’t see one.” That’s all it took, because I’ve never smoked a single cigarette in my life. She didn’t leave much room – we went to Sunday school and church every Sunday. The point is, it was a different sort of time during the Great Depression. Everyone I grew up around had a strong moral/ethical base, strong religious convictions, and was totally committed to trying to help others, and not just focusing on “me, me, me, me!”
I was 11 years old when World War II started, and we were all organized in my little hometown of Texarkana, because we felt the Nazis were going to hit us at any time. We were organized by block; I had special first-aid training, I was a Boy Scout, and we were all involved in the Civil Defense force. We had a level of detailed preparation that does not exist today in case anything occurred. I had relatives and friends who were going into the military, and I had a very keen sense of what their service and sacrifices were. People we knew were killed in action. I had an uncle who was killed in World War I, and his boys grew up without their dad. It helped me have a real understanding of the sacrifices that the soldiers and their families make for our freedom.
From Midshipman to Businessman
Perot began his service to America and the world with his entry into the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) as a member of the class of 1953. There he became president of his class, a battalion commander, and part of the committee that established the USNA honor code. He also marched in the first inaugural parade for Dwight D. Eisenhower and later led a tour of the USNA grounds for the president and his wife, Mamie. While at Annapolis, he also met Margot Birmingham, who he married in 1956. Upon graduation, Perot went out to the fleet, serving aboard destroyers and an aircraft carrier. However, the death of his father and need to care for his mother caused Perot to leave the service upon completion of his service term.
With the end of his military career, another door opened for Perot when in 1962 he formed a new kind of company: Electronic Data Systems (EDS) – the first major IT systems company. A successful salesman at IBM, Perot was concerned about all the money being made on software and services, in which IBM was not involved at the time. Seeing value in such a business, Perot originally took the idea to his bosses at IBM. Their decision would set him onto the road to becoming an American business legend.
Can you tell us a little about how you got EDS off the ground?
I took my idea to IBM to see if they would like to do it – they turned it down. Later, I was sitting in a barbershop, reading an old Reader’s Digest, and there was a quote from Thoreau that said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I said to myself, “That’s me; I’ve got to try.” I started work when I was 6 years old. My idea was to make this dream come true. That’s when I made the decision, and I started the EDS Corporation with a thousand dollars, and we “boot-strapped” it from there. Thirty percent of all the money spent in the computer industry was on software; we’re talking about millions and millions and millions of dollars a year, and that was in the 1960s.
And to help EDS grow, you hired Vietnam-era veterans as a matter of course?
Yes, but for pragmatic reasons. Most of them were 26 or 27 years old, but they were 40 in terms of maturity. They had endured leadership challenges in Vietnam you’d never endure in the civilian sector, and they were responsible for their men’s lives, not just for the quarterly profits. They were so special, because at that time most technology companies had very few leaders, mostly just a group of managers who wouldn’t know how to lead a group, even in silent prayer! I knew we had to have strong leaders and I was determined to have them. At the time there was a real shortage of systems engineers, and finding people with all the right traits was my primary focus, because we could train them to become systems engineers quickly.
It was fascinating to see the quality of their work: We had all these young tigers coming back from the battlefields of Southeast Asia [that] had been enlisted personnel in the military who could have gone to MIT or anywhere – they were so smart! Many of them studied computer science and software, but the real thing they brought was leadership, leadership, and leadership. We had an abundance of leaders so that, as the company grew, we could make it grow successfully. That was the secret for our company’s success.