Boss Perot, Jr.

How does the son of a powerful CEO step out of his father's shadow? If you're Ross Perot, Jr., you build an empire of your own.

July 2001By Comments

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.

Under Ross Junior that mission quickly changed. Left alone by his father to do what he wanted, he soon came up with the idea of building an enormous, master-planned development on land they owned north of Fort Worth, all based around an industrial airport they had built called Alliance. Like his father, who built a business empire largely out of government contracts, Perot understood that government can often be a business’s best partner. In all, he persuaded federal, state, and local governments to cough up $152 million in cash and tens of millions in tax abatements for the project. A decade after it opened, Alliance’s 9,600 acres are home to more than one hundred companies. It houses a major Federal Express hub, American Airlines’ main global maintenance facility, a giant intermodal rail yard, and Nokia’s largest cell phone factory, as well as burgeoning residential developments. For the Perots, Alliance has been nothing short of a gold mine. In all of this, Ross Senior was a partner. He had bought the original parcels of land that Ross Junior would later develop, and he remained involved in many of the limited partnerships in which his son invested. In those days Ross Junior was known to bristle when asked questions by reporters that suggested he was what he was—a rich kid leveraging Dad’s money.

For that, young Perot offered an easy target and took some hard knocks. The real estate development company he owns, Hillwood, battled civic groups in Fort Worth and waged a nasty public fight with the village of Westlake, which borders a Hillwood property. “He made mistakes,” says a source close to the Westlake deal. “Hillwood was going to roll over the little community. Fortunately he realized that just wasn’t what he wanted. That’s not Ross.” He eventually made peace, and now Hillwood has a harmonious relationship with Westlake.

Perot then took those lessons to a far more politically precarious project, his first big development in which he was completely untethered from his father: the top-to-bottom renovation of seventy acres in downtown Dallas called Victory, anchored by the sparkling $350 million basketball and hockey arena known as the American Airlines Center, which opens in July. Again he met fierce opposition, both from the city council and from groups that believed that the $125 million he and partner Tom Hicks wanted the city to pay for the arena was too much. But a decade after he built Alliance, even his critics were impressed by his political skills. He is in some ways a more highly evolved version of his father: He has all of the drive, all of the intelligence, all of the willingness to outwork, outhustle, and outsuffer the competition, with none of the rough edges that caused his father’s partnership with GM to crumble and moved him to temporarily quit the presidential race in 1992. What Ross Junior seems to be best at is forging alliances. “He is extremely good at getting what he wants,” says Dallas city council member Laura Miller. “Sometimes you can muster one or two votes against Hillwood, but the rest of the city council just punches the yes button. We recently sold Hillwood a bunch of city-owned land for one seventh of its market value. This is an incredibly sweet deal for Perot.”

Which brings us to Perot Systems. It is interesting, to say the least, that the leading real estate developer in Texas would, at the height of his powers, walk away from that business and into the equally arcane business of information technology, where he has never held a job. But in becoming the president and chief executive officer of Perot Systems last August, he entered into what may well be the last stop in his lifelong partnership with his 71-year-old father. Though he will continue as the owner and chairman of Hillwood, Ross Junior says he now spends “ninety-five percent plus” of his time on Perot Systems, a company with seven thousand employees that operates data centers and information services for big companies and offers a variety of technology consulting services.

It is a company that needs Ross Junior’s help. Ross Senior built a billion-dollar company with no debt from scratch in a mere decade, but it suffered from his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996, during which he took leaves of absence. After the company went public in 1999, its stock soared into the low $80’s and then took an abrupt plunge to $7.80 after losing $195 million in major contracts. When Ross Junior took over, its stock was creeping along at $12.

Since then he has moved with his customary dispatch. “He is reorganizing, putting in his own people,” says an associate. “It’s a total makeover.” That includes the layoff of 550 employees since January and a restructuring of the entire company. As of June 8, the company’s stock had inched up to $15.15. And what of Dad? “He does whatever he wants,” says Ross Junior. “Now that I’m CEO, all the stuff he didn’t really like to do, I get to do. He gets to go out and be a salesman.”

The two old partners seem thrilled to be united, at last, in the company that bears their name. “He’s my best friend,” says Ross Senior. “It doesn’t get any better than this for a father.” And both men express serene confidence in the future of the company. “Times are tough,” says Ross Junior, “and we do very well when times are tough. As a philosophy we, the Perots, believe that these are the times to become active. We’ll gain a lot of ground during this bust.”

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