Life and Career
Texarkana To The Naval Academy
Born June 27, 1930 in Texarkana, Texas, a small town near the Arkansas line, Henry Ross Perot came of age during the Depression of the 1930's and World War II. His house was only a few blocks from the Texarkana train station, and his mother often fed hobos passing through town. By the age of 6, young Perot went to work for his father, Gabriel Ross Perot. The elder Perot was a cotton broker and a part time horse trader who put his young son to work at the age of six breaking horses for a dollar or two apiece. "Perot's nose still shows the results of the falls he took."
Perot desperately wanted to follow in the footsteps of some older local boys who had attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and had served in World War II. Needing the sponsorship of a representative or senator, Perot prevailed upon U.S. Senator W. Lee O'Daniel (D-Tex.) to sponsor his application to Annapolis. "The Perot family did not have the right contacts. He just kept writing to senators begging for sponsorship," wrote Ken Follett in his authorized book about Perot, "On Wings of Eagles." Upon obtaining his sponsorship, Perot left Texarkana Junior College in 1949 and entered the Naval Academy.
Perot graduated almost exactly in the middle of his 1953 class of midshipmen (454th in a class of 925). However, he won over the hearts of his fellow middies and was chosen class president during the 1952-1953 school year, ahead of class valedictorian Carlisle A. H. Trost, who later became head of the Navy.
The Korean War ended just as Perot graduated from Annapolis. He was assigned to the USS Sigourney and immediately took a shine to the ship's commander, Captain B. A. Lienhard. By all accounts, Captain Lienhard was a straight-shooting, stern, by-the-books military man. In 1954, Captain Lienhard was replaced by Commander Gerald J. Scott, a decidedly more laid back, one-of-the-guys kind of leader. Scott took little interest in Perot and shipmates remember the two were at odds over basic questions of morality and conduct.
In spite of confrontations with his commander, Perot was made a lieutenant, junior grade, in late 1954. In a letter to his father in 1955, Perot expressed profound dissatisfaction with his life in the Navy. He was transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Leyte in 1955 and served out the remainder of his four year commitment, receiving a discharge in 1957. While serving on the USS Leyte in 1956, he married Margot Birmingham. They have five children. Throughout Perot's professional and public career, he has actively shielded his family from the critical eye of media scrutiny and has remained wary of their exposure.
Civilian Life: Salesman Extraordinaire And EDS Founder
Perot's first civilian job was as a salesman for IBM in 1957. By 1962 he was one of IBM's top salesman in Texas; he fulfilled his sales quota for the whole year of 1962 by January 19. Perot went to his superiors at IBM and pitched the idea for a new service to help IBM customers get more out of their computer systems. Finding no support among the IBM brass, Perot borrowed $1,000 from his wife's savings, a significant sum of money in 1962 from a woman who was not of great wealth, and founded the Electronic Data Systems Corporation (EDS) in Dallas.
Working long hours and seeking out growing companies (such as chip maker Frito-Lay, EDS's first client) Perot helped his company grow by leaps and bounds. The company's motto was "Eagles don't flock; you find them one at a time," and employees were expected to be clean-cut, wearing dark suits, white shirts and sporting no facial hair. EDS and Perot landed lucrative government contracts in the 1960's, computerizing Medicare records. EDS went public in 1968 and the stock raced upwards from $16 a share to $160 virtually overnight. Fortune magazine put Perot on its cover in 1968, calling him the "fastest, richest Texan."
In 1969, at the behest of President Nixon's National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Perot first entered the world of high-wire, free-lance diplomacy and national security. Packing two jumbo jets with food, medicine and reporters, Perot went on a quixotic quest to deliver the goods to U.S. POW's held in North Vietnam. The gifts never were delivered, despite pledges from the Soviets, but POW's said later the publicity brought about a much needed improvement of their conditions. EDS continued its remarkable success and Perot continued as a crusader for POW-MIA's in the 1970s.
One of the main components of the Perot myth is the 1979 rescue of two EDS employees from an Iranian jail. The story is the subject of a book, "On Wings of Eagles" by Ken Follett. Perot describes the book as extremely accurate.
In brief, after two Perot employees were arrested, Perot brought in retired U.S. Army Colonel Arthur (Bull) Simons to lead a rescue team made up of volunteers who worked for Perot's computer company. (Perot also went to Tehran to personally oversee negotiations for the two employees, but the negotiations failed.) The rescue attempt came during the revolution in which the Shah of Iran was overthrown. It was successful. According to the Follett book, an Iranian EDS employee led a mob that stormed the prison. In the confusion, the two EDS employees walked away and made contact with the rescue team. The team then drove out of Iran to Turkey, where Perot (waiting in person) had arranged for a bus and then a chartered jet to fly them home to the U.S.
In a Special Assignment report broadcast on CNN in May of 1992, CNN's John Camp interviewed John Stempel, who was deputy chief of the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Stempel says the Iranian revolutionaries staged the jailbreak to free their own comrades -- not Perot's employees. Stempel's version of events in Iran is backed by others who were in the country at the time. These sources don't dispute that the Perot rescue team spirited the two executives out of Iran -- but agree that Perot's version of the jailbreak is inconsistent with their knowledge of the event.
In the Reagan Administration, Perot became a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, designed to advise the President on intelligence matters. He served during the controversial years when William J. Casey ran the CIA. It was during this period Perot met and worked closely with another Annapolis graduate, National Security aide Lt. Col. Oliver North. The two worked together on a variety of hostage-related problems throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Getting Interested In Politics/The Sale Of EDS
In the 1980s Perot also began to take a more substantive interest in domestic issues. In 1983 Texas Governor Mark White appointed Perot as chairman of a select committee on public education. It was supposed to study public education issues. Perot spent $2 million of his own money (in addition to the state appropriation of $68,500) touring Texas cities and towns in a private jet, holding public hearings and calling news conferences. Among the 140 recommendations in the committee's preliminary report: "Equalization of school spending among rich and poor districts; a renewed emphasis on academics rather than athletics in high school ('No pass, no play'); and tying teacher salaries to their job performance. Most of the committee's recommendations were approved by a special session of the Texas Legislature. Perot later said the effort was "the meanest, bloodiest and most difficult thing I've ever been into."
In 1984, Perot sold EDS to General Motors for $2.4 billion. GM Chairman Roger Smith put Perot on the Board of Directors, but the marriage was an unhappy one. Perot found GM to be a morass of bureaucracy and inefficiency and publicly criticized Smith and the company for its wastefulness and over-indulgent ways. In 1986, GM bought out the stock Perot had obtained upon merging with GM for $700 million. Part of Perot's settlement with GM stipulated that he not compete directly with GM and EDS for two years.
Two years and a day after the settlement Perot launched a new company, Perot Systems. He immediately announced a stunning contract with the U.S. Postal System in which his company would study the $38 billion agency for 18 months -- free of charge -- find the inefficiencies and carry out the findings over a ten year period. Perot would get to keep half of the savings of the Postal Service. EDS filed a formal complaint with the government and filed suit against Perot, charging breach of contract over his settlement with EDS-GM in 1986. The Postal Service backed out of the contract and a Fairfax County, Virginia court found Perot could start his company, but that it had to remain non-profit until 1991.
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