The kid came out of the southwest, his small helicopter pitching violently in the forty-knot gale that was blowing huge clouds of foam off typhoon-driven swells in the North Pacific. He had taken off hours earlier in a rainstorm from Hokkaido, in Japan, headed toward the Aleutian Islands. Now, almost out of fuel, he was attempting to land his Bell Long Ranger 206 on a forty-by forty-foot platform atop the President McKinley, a container ship that was bucking like a Brahman bull. He made one pass, then swung the chopper in. The kid was a blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed 23-year-old with a face that suggested a capacity for both extreme politeness and extreme recklessness. His name was Ross Perot, Jr. A few days later, on September 30, 1982, he became the first person to circumnavigate the earth in a helicopter.
That a 23-year-old with barely a year of flying experience had done that was amazing enough. But just as remarkable was the political, financial, and logistical machinery that had made his trip possible. Those considerations were taken care of by his father, Ross Senior, then one of the richest men in America, famous for his rescue of two of his employees from Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran in 1979. Ross Junior may have done the flying, but it was Ross Senior who supplied the million-dollar helicopter and the massive Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport plane full of food, medicine, and fuel. It was Ross Senior who hired a veteran of the Iran hostage rescue as his son’s co-pilot and even got help from a retired admiral to arrange the mid-sea refueling. Ross Junior owed his world record to considerable daring, but it was also the result of an extraordinary partnership with his father.
Nineteen years later that partnership has evolved into one of the most successful father-son acts in American capitalism. It has resulted in, among other things, the total transformation of 65 square miles in north Fort Worth and the first major renovation of downtown Dallas. Ross Junior has, with his father’s help, made himself into the most powerful real estate developer in Texas, the heir of megabuilders Trammell Crow and Gerald Hines. And now, after staying clear for years of Dad’s main business—computer and information technology services—Little Ross has finally taken over Big Ross’s billion-dollar company, Dallas-based Perot Systems. For Ross Junior, who friends say believes his father’s biggest mistake was to sell his computer services company, EDS, to General Motors (the fact that he got $1.6 billion for it doesn’t seem to matter), his new job as the president and CEO of Perot Systems, where Dad remains chairman, is a chance to build a permanent corporate legacy. “I was personally surprised we would ever sell EDS,” says Ross Junior, who, at five feet eleven inches and with a halfback’s build, towers over his diminutive father. “I never really thought I’d have the opportunity to run this business. It’s an industry I grew up in. I watched EDS being formed in our living room at night.”
The Perot partnership is rooted, as many father-son relationships are, in fishing and horseback riding and tree-house building, and the two have always been close. “Ross Senior was amazingly proud of his son, and his son was respectful and proud of his dad,” says Morton Meyerson, one of Ross Senior’s top executives at both EDS and Perot Systems. “But more than anything else, they were pals.” They shared interests too, fighting over who got to read the business section of the newspaper first. “We had a family of all women except for us two,” says Ross Junior. “Aunt, grandmother, [four] sisters, and Mom. So the two of us were always out doing things together.” Ross Senior was the opposite of the domineering leader he was at EDS. “He just said, ‘Hey, do what you want to do,’” says his son in a deep baritone that is at least an octave below his father’s Texarkana twang. “He never told his kids how to lead their lives. He just wanted good kids.” It was an idyllic childhood. Ross Senior was inventing the computer services industry all by himself. Ross Junior attended the exclusive St. Mark’s School of Texas, in North Dallas, then went off to Vanderbilt University.
And that might have been that—a comfortable, pleasant childhood leading to a sinecure somewhere in his father’s business empire. But the son was far too much like the father for that to happen. At Vanderbilt, Ross joined the Navy Reserve Officers Training program. As a freshman he went through the Army’s brutal jump school at Fort Benning, in Georgia. As a junior he enrolled in the Marine Corps’ equally brutal boot camp in Quantico, Virginia. Two weeks after he flew around the world, Ross Junior told his father that he had decided to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot. He flew F-4 Phantom jets full-time for the next two and a half years and part-time for five more. Like his father, Ross Perot, Jr., is not the sort of person who wakes up each morning plagued by self-doubt or wondering what to do with himself. He is more like Homer’s description of Odysseus: “a man who was never at a loss.”
But even with such drive, Ross Junior’s future was far from clear when he came off active duty. The logical place to go was EDS, but his father sold the company to GM soon after Ross Junior left the military. Fortunately, there was another option: a sleepy corner of the Perot business empire that bought and sold real estate. That was also the one business Ross Junior knew something about, having learned it at his father’s side. “The technology business was far more of a high value-added intellectual business,” he says. “The real estate business was something Dad and I could do together.” And so Ross Junior, then in his mid-twenties, took over that business, which mostly involved buying and selling property in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.