H Ross Perot, US billionaire and ex-politician, dies aged 89

Perot, a self-made Texas billionaire, ran for US president as a third-party candidate twice in the 1990s.

Henry Ross Perot – the colourful, self-made Texas billionaire who rose from a childhood of Depression-era poverty and twice ran for president as a third-party candidate – has died at the age of 89.

Perot, whose 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 United States presidential race stands among the best showings by an independent candidate in the past century, died early on Tuesday at his home in Dallas surrounded by his family, spokesman James Fuller said.

As a boy in Texarkana, Texas, Perot delivered newspapers from the back of a pony. He earned his billions in a more modern way, however, by building Electronic Data Systems Corp (EDS), which helped other companies manage their computer networks.

Yet the most famous event in his career did not involve sales and earnings; he financed a private commando raid in 1979 to free two EDS employees who were being held in a prison in Iran. The tale was turned into a book and a movie.

Perot first became known to Americans outside of business circles by claiming that the US government left behind hundreds of American soldiers who were missing or imprisoned at the end of the Vietnam War. Perot fanned the issue at home and discussed it privately with Vietnamese officials in the 1980s, angering the Reagan administration, which was formally negotiating with Vietnam’s government.

Presidential runs

Perot’s wealth, fame and confident prescription for the nation’s economic ills propelled his 1992 campaign against President George HW Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. Some Republicans blamed him for Bush’s loss to Clinton as Perot garnered the largest percentage of votes for a third-party candidate since former President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 bid.

During the campaign, Perot spent $63.5m of his own money and bought up 30-minute television spots. He used charts and graphs to make his points, summarising them with a line that became a national catchphrase: “It’s just that simple.”

Ross Perot
In this 1992 file photo, Ross Perot is shown on a screen in a paid 30-minute television commercial, during a media preview in Dallas [File: AP]

Perot’s second campaign four years later was far less successful. He was shut out of presidential debates when organisers said he lacked sufficient support. He got just eight percent of the vote, and the Reform Party that he founded and hoped to build into a national political force began to fall apart.

However, Perot’s ideas on trade and deficit reduction remained part of the political landscape. He blamed both major parties for running up a huge federal budget deficit and letting American jobs to be sent to other countries. The movement of US jobs to Mexico, he said, created a “giant sucking sound”.

Perot continued to speak out about federal spending for many years. In 2008, he launched a website to highlight the nation’s debt with a ticker that tracked the rising total, a blog and a chart presentation.

Self-made billionaire

Perot was born in Texarkana on June 27, 1930. His father was a cotton broker; his mother a secretary. He said his family survived the Depression relatively well through hard work and by managing their money carefully.

Young Perot’s first job was delivering papers in a poor, mostly black part of town from his pony, Miss Bee. He said when the newspaper tried to cut his commission, he complained to the publisher – and won. He said he learned to take problems straight to the top.

From Texarkana, Perot went to the US Naval Academy even though he had never been on a ship or seen the ocean. After the navy, Perot joined International Business Machines Corp (IBM) in 1955 and quickly became a top salesman. In his last year at IBM, he filled his sales quota for the year in January.

In 1962, with $1,000 from his wife, Margot, Perot founded Electronic Data Systems. Hardware accounted for about 80 percent of the computer business, Perot said, and IBM was not interested in the other 20 percent, including services.

Many of the early hires at EDS were former military men, and they had to abide by Perot’s strict dress code – white shirts, ties, no beards or moustaches – and long workdays. Many had crew cuts, like Perot.

Ross Perot
Former presidential candidate Ross Perot addressing the 1996 California statewide convention of the Reform Party, the political party he had founded [File: Reed Saxon/AP]

The company’s big break came in the mid-1960s when the federal government created Medicare and Medicaid, the health programmes for seniors, disabled and the poor. States needed help in running the programs, and EDS won contracts – starting in Texas – to handle the millions of claims.

EDS first sold stock to the public in 1968, and overnight, Perot was worth $350m. His fortune doubled and tripled as the stock price rose steadily.

In 1984, he sold control of the company to General Motors Corp for $2.5bn and received $700m in a buyout. In 2008, EDS was sold to Hewlett-Packard Co.

Perot went on to establish another computer-services company, Perot Systems Corp. He retired as CEO in 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Ross Perot Jr. In 2009, Dell Inc bought Perot Systems.

In September 2011, Forbes magazine estimated Perot’s wealth at $3.5bn and ranked him number 91 on its list of richest Americans.

Perot was not immune to mistakes in business. His biggest mistake might have been a 1971 investment in duPont Glore Forgan, then one of the biggest brokerage houses on Wall Street. The administration of President Richard Nixon asked Perot to save the company to head off an investor panic, and he also poured money into another troubled brokerage, Walston & Co, but wound up losing much of his $100m investment.

Raid to free executives

It was during the Nixon administration that Perot became involved in the issue of US prisoners of war in Southeast Asia. Perot said then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked him to lead a campaign to improve treatment of POWs held in North Vietnam. Perot chartered two jets to fly medical supplies and the wives of POWs to Southeast Asia. They were not allowed into North Vietnam, but the trip attracted enormous media attention.

After their release in 1973, some prisoners said conditions in the camps had improved after the failed missions.

In 1979, the Iranian government jailed two EDS executives and Perot vowed to win their release.

“Ross came to the prison one day and said, ‘We’re going to get you out,'” one of the men, Paul Chiapparone, told the Associated Press news agency. “How many CEOs would do that today?”

Perot recruited retired US army special forces’ Col Arthur “Bull” Simons to lead a commando raid on the prison. A few days later, the EDS executives walked free after the shah’s regime fell and mobs stormed the prison. Simons’s men sneaked the executives out of the country and into Turkey. The adventure was recalled in Ken Follett’s best-selling book “On Wings of Eagles” and a TV miniseries.

In later years, Perot pushed the Veterans Affairs Department to study neurological causes of Gulf War syndrome, a mysterious illness reported by many soldiers who served in the 1991 Gulf War. He scoffed at officials who blamed the illnesses on stress – “as if they are wimps” – and paid for additional research.

Perot received a special award from the VA for his support of veterans and the military in 2009.

In Texas, Perot led commissions on education reform and crime. He was given many honorary degrees and awards for business success and patriotism.

While he worked at Perot Systems in suburban Dallas, entire hallways were filled with memorabilia from soldiers and POWs that Perot had helped. His personal office was dominated by large paintings of his wife and five children and bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington.

Several original Norman Rockwell paintings hung in the waiting area, and Perot once told a visiting reporter that he tried to live by Rockwell’s ethics of hard, honest work and family.

SOURCE: AP news agency

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