Ross Perot, Former GM Director and Staunch Critic, Dies at 89

Date: July 10, 2019
Source: Automotive News

Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who as a General Motors director publicly jabbed the often bureaucratic automaker, making pleas for change, and was ousted for his blasts, died on Tuesday at home in Dallas. He was 89.

The cause of death was leukemia, said James Fuller, a family spokesman.

The former U.S. presidential candidate sold his company Electronic Data Systems to GM in 1984 as an IT subsidiary for $2.55 billion. He joined GM's board as the company's largest shareholder and continued to control EDS as chairman. GM acquired EDS to standardize its disjointed data network with dealerships, factories and suppliers.

"Ross Perot was a patriot and an innovator. Our condolences go out to his family and friends," said a GM spokesman.

The union was rocky. Perot became one of GM's — and CEO Roger Smith's — staunchest critics. "Revitalizing GM is like teaching an elephant to tap dance," Perot famously told BusinessWeek, reflecting on GM's slow progress.

When GM acquired EDS, Smith hoped Perot's entrepreneurial spirit would rub off on the company. But the peace was short-lived.

In a letter to Smith in the fall of 1985, Perot wrote: "If you continue your present autocratic style, I will be your adversary on critical issues. I will argue with you privately. If necessary I will argue with you publicly."

Perot kept his promise, arguing with Smith repeatedly. He also attacked GM board members, referring to them as "pet rocks."

"The first EDSer to see a snake kills it," Perot told BusinessWeek in 1986. "At GM, first thing you do is organize a committee on snakes. Then you bring in a consultant who knows a lot about snakes. Third thing you do is talk about it for a year."

Jim McDonald, president of GM from 1981-87, said Perot rarely contributed to board meetings. Instead, he griped to the media.

"He was really a high-ego guy," McDonald told Automotive News in 2008. "I remember him talking about the lush offices up on the 14th floor ... but they weren't any lusher than Perot's own office" in Texas.

In 1986, GM paid Perot $375 million to leave the board over tiffs with GM management, including Smith, a move that was widely criticized. In a December 1986 editorial, Automotive News wrote that GM could have used the $375 million to keep 10,000 line workers on payroll for another year, develop its vehicles and even pay its top 1,500 executives for all of 1986. The company also paid $375 million to buy out Perot's stock.

Perot launched Perot Systems, a computer service company, in 1988. GM spun off EDS in 1996, and Hewlett-Packard Co. acquired it in 2008 for $13.2 billion.

After making his mark on the business world, Perot, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, entered politics. He unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992 and 1996.

Outspoken on political issues

Whether on education reform or U.S. foreign policy, a company’s balance sheet or the federal budget, Perot had no shortage of prescriptions over the years, delivered with certainty, simplicity and his Texarkana twang.

“If someone as blessed as I am is not willing to clean out the barn, who will?” he said during his 1992 campaign.

Perot began calling out U.S. leaders on the federal budget deficit in 1988, describing the problem as a “crazy aunt that we keep in the basement” that someday would break out and cause havoc. He stepped up his critiques in 1991, as an economic recession and rising unemployment rate were puncturing the approval ratings of the Republican president, George H.W. Bush.

By the end of that year, an anti-incumbent movement in Florida had spun off an effort to draft Perot for president. His on-again, off-again campaign would provide one of the great spectacles in modern politics.

It began with a Feb. 20, 1992, appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Asked whether he would run for president, he answered with a flat “no.” By the end of the hour, he had boasted about his strengths (“creating jobs and fixing things”), bemoaned the nation’s mind-set (“See, we understand sports in this country, don’t understand business”) and finally suggested he might run, if “you, the people, are that serious” and “register me in 50 states.”

Over the next three months, as Bill Clinton, the former Arkansas governor, emerged as the Democratic challenger to Bush, Perot helped his supporters compile the signatures needed to get him on state ballots. He dominated the political discussion and soared in polls, even as he was criticized for offering few details on what he would do as president, beyond holding electronic town halls and attacking the budget deficit.

‘Cannot Win’

In July, he stunned his backers by saying he wouldn’t run after all. “I have concluded that we cannot win in November,” he said, citing, among other considerations, “the revitalization of the Democratic Party.”

Perot reversed himself again, announcing on Oct. 1 -- 33 days before the election -- that he was back in. He shared the stage with Bush and Clinton in three televised debates that month, offering a memorable turn of phrase when he predicted that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create a “giant sucking sound” as it pulled U.S. jobs south to Mexico.

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that aired nine days before the election, Perot said the real reason he had dropped out in July was that he had learned of a plan by Republican leaders, whom he wouldn’t name, “to have a computer-created false photo of my daughter, Carolyn, that they were going to give the press shortly before her wedding to embarrass her.” He offered no proof.

On Election Day, Perot and his running mate, James Stockdale, a former U.S. Navy vice admiral, received 19.7 million votes, or 18.9 percent of the popular vote. Though not good enough to win any state’s electoral votes, their total was more than any other third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive “Bull Moose” ticket took more than 27 percent in 1912.

An exit poll by a group of news organizations found little evidence that Perot’s presence had influenced the result. The poll, focusing on second choices of Perot voters, found that only Ohio might have shifted from Clinton to Bush had Perot not been in the race, and Ohio alone wouldn’t have been enough to give Bush a victory.

Bush didn’t agree. “I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him,” he said in “41,” a documentary that HBO aired in 2012. Bush died in November 2018, at 94.

Perot remained active politically, criticizing the NAFTA accord in a November 1993 debate with Vice President Al Gore on “Larry King Live.” Congress adopted NAFTA soon after.

Perot ran again in 1996, this time as the nominee of the Reform Party, which he had founded the previous year. He received 8.1 million votes, or 8.4 percent, as Clinton defeated Republican Bob Dole to win a second term.

In 2012, he told USA Today that the continued swelling of the national debt -- then $16 trillion, up from $4 trillion when he challenged Bush and Clinton -- was testament to the truth of his message.

“I didn’t get done what I hoped I’d get done,” he said. “Whether I got elected or not, I hoped they’d all get busy and straighten it out.”

Texas roots

Henry Ray Perot was born June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas, the last of three children of Gabriel Ross Perot, a trader of cotton and cattle, and the former Lulu May Ray. At 12, he let his parents change his middle name to Ross, in memory of their first son, Gabriel Ross Jr., who had died at three of meningitis. Perot’s older sister, Margaret Elizabeth, was known as Bette.

Perot achieved the rank of Eagle Scout and learned salesmanship while young, peddling Christmas cards, garden seeds and copies of the Saturday Evening Post.

He attended Texarkana Junior College for two years and was elected president of the student council in his second year, according to his 1996 memoir. He won appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1953. He then served in the Navy for four years.

He joined International Business Machines Corp. in Dallas and became a star salesman, reaching his 1962 sales quota in a matter of weeks. He went out on his own that year, borrowing $1,000 from his wife, Margot, to incorporate Electronic Data Systems, an early provider of computer hardware and data-processing services.

To maintain his income, he worked part-time as a data-processing consultant for the health insurer Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Texas.

His two jobs converged in the mid-1960s, when the U.S. enacted Medicare and Medicaid and directed waves of new health-care claims to state insurers such as Blue Cross-Blue Shield. Perot won the Texas Medicaid and Medicare processing contracts for EDS -- a deal struck without competitive bidding, an arrangement later investigated by Congress -- then went on to win contracts from ten other states.

By 1968, EDS had 323 full-time employees, annual net profits of more than $1.5 million “and a growth curve so fantastic as to make investment bankers’ mouths water,” John Brooks wrote in “The Go-Go Years” (1973).

In 1968, Perot took EDS public. His banker at R.W. Pressprich & Co., which underwrote the offering, was Kenneth Langone, who would later achieve fame as co-founder of Home Depot Inc.

Initially priced at $16.50, EDS shares rose to $23 on the first day of over-the-counter trading and to $160 in 1970, at which point Perot’s nine million shares were worth about $1.45 billion.

“Probably no other man ever made so much money so fast,” Fortune magazine wrote in a 1968 profile.

He lost a chunk of it in one day -- April 22, 1970 -- when EDS shares plunged to $85 and his net worth, on paper, dropped by almost $500 million. He lost more when his bids to save two ailing Wall Street brokerages, F.I. DuPont, Glore Forgan & Co. in 1970 and Walston & Co. in 1972, ended in failure.

Still, when Forbes ranked the 400 richest Americans for the first time in 1982, Perot made the list, with an estimated net worth of $325 million.

Perot ran EDS with military-type discipline and sometimes pursued a one-man U.S. foreign policy.

In 1969, he tried to deliver two planeloads of Christmas dinners and gifts to American prisoners of war in Vietnam, only to be turned away by North Vietnam. He later said that President Richard Nixon had asked him “to embarrass the North Vietnamese into changing the treatment” of POWs, and said he considered the effort a success.

In 1979, a mission arranged by Perot and led by a retired U.S. Army special-forces officer, Arthur Simons, rescued two EDS employees imprisoned in Tehran. The daring private raid became the basis for novelist Ken Follett’s “On Wings of Eagles” (1983).

Hannah Lutz and Bloomberg contributed to this report.

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