Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Jul 5, 2022
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"Every good and excellent thing stands moment to moment on the razor’s edge of danger and must be fought for." Plaque outside the office of H. Ross Perot
By D Magazine |

THERE ARE MANY men and women who give generously of their time, intellect and money so that Dallas will be a better place in which to live. Some serve in elected positions, some are paid managers, many are volunteers. Certain leaders make us think, others make us mad and some, thank God, make us laugh. There are those who passionately believe in a single issue and, for a time, give that issue free rein over their lives. Others are so inextricably linked to civic affairs that they build a lifetime resume of service.

In this issue of D, we offer the first of what we hope will become an annual tradition: the naming of the Dallasite of the Year. To focus on such an individual is to hold up a human being who exemplifies values that Dallas holds dear. Values such as ingenuity, industriousness, integrity, generosity, pragmatism and guts.

Our first Dallasite of the Year is H. Ross Perot, chairman of the board of Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS), current spokesman to the ills of public education, philanthropist extraordinaire. A rare man of vision and valor, Perot has called himself a “practical dreamer.” His record speaks of lofty missions idealized and then, incredibly, carried through with precision. To many, Perot is one of a vanishing breed: a true patriot whose decisive actions and sharp tongue bridge the murky waters of politics. His tenure in public life-always as a volunteer-has infuriated some and inspired many.

We chose Perot for many reasons: his unquestioned generosity, his unswerving morality, his daring determination to cut through the system and outline progress. Perhaps the most inspiring of Perot’s attributes is his dogged faithfulness to Shakespeare’s famous dictum: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” What follows is, simply, a conversation between D associate editor Ruth Miller Fitz-gibbons and our Dallasite of the Year.

D: Your most recent public contribution has been your shoot-from-the-hip stance as chairman of the statewide Select Committee on Public Education. Where do you think we should head on this crucial issue?

Perot: I’ve basically boiled it down to four major things that we absolutely have to do. First, we have to recover the school day for learning. We sell cookies, we sell ribbons, we sell balloons-and if you’re not selling D Magazine in our schools, I assure you you’re missing a good marketing opportunity. Everything takes priority over the classroom. Studies indicate that, in some places, only 25 percent of the day goes to learning.

Step two: We need a great teacher in every classroom in Texas. And my position is, I’d rather see a great teacher standing in the rain than a substandard one in the finest facility in town. We’re going to have to improve compensation to make teaching attractive, and we’re going to have to completely overhaul the schools of education that are training our teachers.

The next thing we’ve got to have is strong parental support. Half of the three million children in the Texas school system come from single-parent homes. We’ve got a lot of problems in terms of strength of the family unit. If Junior comes home with a choice of TV, a game of Pac-Man or homework, the greatest teachers in the world aren’t going to get through to him. The parents are going to have to get behind this. And what we have in education now is a lot more fun than what we’re going to have. The work content of the new system will be far greater than the present one. Johnny will have to study. And if he does not pass, Johnny will not be socially promoted. Johnny will fail.

The fourth point is that we’ve got to build the finest primary school system in the world. All the research shows that students either learn how to learn or fail to learn how to learn in those early years.

D: You are a man known for his strong moral stands. How did your upbringing contribute to the formation of your ideals?

Perot: I believe that most of us are what we were taught to be. I’m not really all the things my parents tried to teach me, but I’m probably a result of the primary forces around me when I was small: my parents; my grandparents; I was taken to Sunday school and church every week; I was active in the Scouts; and, finally, I went to the Naval Academy. You take all of those forces and what they try to teach you, and I’m a part of all that.

D: Did you think, then, that you would wind up in sales?

Perot: No, it’s never that organized. But being a child in the Depression, I started working when I was 8 years old.

The job that I remember best was the paper route I threw in the poor black section of Texarkana. No one had ever thrown that route before, and the newspaper felt the odds were so remote that I could be successful that they agreed to give me 17 and a half cents for every paper rather than the customary 7 and a half cents. I went door to door, and I built a huge paper route there. These were very poor black people, and every Saturday night, someone would make a halfhearted attempt to hold me up. Well, one day my dad got sick and I had to go to Shreveport while he had an operation. No one would relieve me because they thought the area was too dangerous. So I went to each house and I told them that they wouldn’t get a paper for several days, but that I would be back. Almost every family told me to save the papers and bring them all at once; they didn’t want me to miss out on getting paid. And these were people who were making $10 a week. That incident had a big impact on my life; I think it gave me a sensitivity and concern for people with the deck stacked against them.

D: Were you a distinguished student at the Naval Academy?

Perot: I’d have to say that I was an average student subject to very difficult technical engineering subjects. I really didn’t have the background or preparations for those subjects. I was elected though-and this is funny, because it’s extracurricular, I guess-but at the end of your freshman year, the class chooses its officers. I was elected vice president of the sophomore class, president of the junior and senior classes, then lifetime president of the class. Really, the only place I ever shone at the Naval Academy was in the evaluations for leadership: I ranked first in my class 11 out of 12 times.

D: Did you intend to make the Navy a career?

Perot: I loved the Navy. I love ships. I love the sea. But I didn’t like the lock-step system that no matter what you did you had to wait four years to get ahead.

D: Is there any truth to the rumor that you were the best salesman IBM ever had?

Perot: That’s one of those stories that gets better every year. Selling IBM computers in those days was like selling umbrellas in the rain. All I did was work hard all day long. But what happened was, my last year in sales, the local manager here got all upset because he said I was making too much money. So I said-and this was a bluff-“If it makes you happy, pay me less for everything I sell, but let me stay busy.” I can’t stand not to be busy. I never dreamed they would do it because IBM had one sales plan for the world. But they came up with a new one for me: I was paid one-fifth of what everybody else got.

Now that made me mad. I had been in that territory for four years at this point, and I had farmed it just like an orchard. So I said, “Well, okay, if that’s the game we’re going to play, I’ll bring in all my trees.” I sold my entire annual sales quota by January 19. Everybody got all excited about it, and the end result was that I had nothing to do. So I sat around the office and thought up the idea for EDS.

D: How did the idea develop?

Perot: Well, when you’re out there selling computers all day, you realize that there are companies buying them that have no idea how to use them. Why not sell them a finished product-a complete service? I presented this idea to IBM, and they were very attentive. They took it all the way to the top. But they decided not to do it because, at that time, 80 cents out of every dollar was spent on hardware, 20 cents on software. IBM had the hardware side locked up.

So I went back, and one day I was sitting in the barbershop, reading Reader’s Digest, and I came upon this one-liner by Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And I said, “There I am.” I decided to try it on my own.

My wife, Margot, had been teaching school, and we’d never cashed her checks. We’d really lived very modestly-I had never bought a new car; we didn’t own a washing machine; and we had saved our money. With her checks as my capital base, I thought I could make this thing work. But if I didn’t, I had an escape hatch: The Navy kept sending me letters each month asking me to join up again.

I took the idea around to all the people who normally would finance a new venture, and none of them thought it would work. I was stuck with the whole thing-and that’s the story of my ownership of EDS. Nobody else wanted it.

And then an interesting thing happened: The Navy stopped sending me letters. When I called Navy personnel to find out why, they said, “We don’t want you anymore. You’re over 32.” So my escape hatch disappeared.

This was all in June. By October, I was in real trouble. Not only had I not made any sales, but I had purchased unused time on a large computer at Southwestern Life. There were 110 machines like it installed in the United States, and I was systematically calling on each one of them. I made 78 calls and never sold a minute’s time, and on the 79th call, I hit the end of the rainbow. Planeloads of people flew in from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from Collins Radio and purchased every minute of that time. I paid my bills, put $100,000 in the bank and began hiring systems engineers.

We made our first sale the next February to Frito-Lay. And we made it because Herman Lay had started the company on his own, and he could relate to us. Everybody- [including] IBM, their accountant-said we would put Frito-Lay out of business. Lay’s response was, these boys must be good if IBM’s going to overreact like that. So, that’s where it all started; we were off and running.

D: When did you devise the code of ethics that EDS is famous for?

Perot: Oh, before I ever started. But that’s all kind of like high school football: that’s buzzword stuff. The thing I love is, if you read the press clippings, you would think that we were a very formal, very stiff organization. The facts are, we are very informal, very close, a very warm organization. There’s a tremendous commitment to one another at EDS-and I think the experience in Iran says more than I ever could about the fellows who volunteered to go rescue their friends. But that commitment exists anytime that anyone at EDS is hurt or has a serious problem anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I’m notified. And there’s just a whole string of people walking around alive today because massive help was brought to them in short order.

I’ll give you an example. Jay Coburn, who was one of the EDS employees on the Iranian mission, called me up one time when I barely knew who he was. He said, “I’m calling from New York and I don’t know why I’m calling you, but I have a baby boy who’s just been born and he’s dying.” I said, “What’s the problem?” and he said, “He’s got a defective heart. They can’t do anything for him in this hospital, and they say that by the time they move him, he will die.” And I said, “Well, Jay, if what you tell me is right, start moving him right away because it won’t matter where he dies. And secondly, when you get there, I’ll have a Who’s Who in medicine standing at the door to recognize that child.” By the time he got there we had the top guys from Massachusetts General as well as New York. Jay’s son is fine today. And you know, he said later that one of the reasons he went on the rescue [in Iran] was because he thought he could square things up.

D: Did the State Department ever publicly acknowledge the EDS mission in Iran?

Perot: No. No. They had no idea what was going on over there. They honestly thought the shah was going to make it. I think they’re still very sensitive and tender about the whole thing.

D: How do you balance your intense patriotism with disillusionments with the system?

Perot: I keep my love for this country separate from imperfections in parts of it, and people in parts of it. I have a very high level of frustration with things that can be done so much better: money that is available for people who are truly needy that is handled so poorly, the State Department’s inability to act in situations where they could do something. I have a huge level of frustration with wasting the lives of our military men. If I could wish for one thing, it would be never to use our people as clay pigeons. I think we got into that in Korea, then even more so in Vietnam. At this point, we’ve got the political and the military so mixed up.

I met with the people in the Pentagon in November of 1979 just after Iran took the 52 hostages. But it became so obvious to me that if they tried what they were planning to try, it would fail. Now keep in mind, right after the hostages were taken, we sent our people back to Iran to gather intelligence. We were up there-our people were up there -we had men volunteering to go train with the Delta team. Nobody had indicated a greater willingness to try to help the hostages than we. But by the end of December, we were so convinced that the method they had chosen wouldn’t work, we felt the most responsible thing we could do would be to pull out-as a symbolic act.

I remember one night they were sitting around the table talking about how many Iranians we could afford to kill. When they came to me, I said, “You can’t let your mind go beyond protecting the 52 hostages and the Delta team. What are you going to tell our men-you can shoot the first 50? Why are we having this conversation?”

D: How can you keep from dirtying your hands in the political games?

Perot: ’You stay out of it. The best thing for EDS-and we learned this over time, through trial and error-is to stay clear. Bill Clements and I had been friends for years, but when he ran for governor, he understood that I could never support him, never campaign for him. I can make more of a contribution by staying out of politics.

D: You don’t ever feel the pressure?

Perot: Now that’s a different subject. Back in the days before they put a lid on campaign contributions, everybody that ran for president came into my office and twisted my arm. In 1968, every candidate except the guy who ran from the Communist Party came in here figuring, “Here’s a place where we can squeeze.” When they were investigating Nixon, the FBI called down and said, “Did Maurice Stans come see you?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Did he put pressure on you?” And I said, “Compared to whom? Maurice Stans was a pussycat compared to the rest of these guys.”

D: Do your contacts in the military, in government, help when EDS competes for these huge federal jobs?

Perot: Gosh, no. If I go around making calls at a senior level, that becomes a news story. You win through performance. That’s the only way. EDS has grown to 13,000 employees around the world, with contracts worth over $1 billion. But let me tell you something: If we’d been in the steel business or the auto business, we wouldn’t be a success. We pioneered this field, but we stay busy today because we’re in the midst of a giant market.

I used to tell my people when we were beginning to recruit: Find people who like to finish first-people who’ve been the best at whatever they’ve done since childhood. If you get people like that, even with poor management and poor training, they’re probably going to continue to win. One time, somebody asked, “What if we run out of people who love to win?” And I said, “Find people who can’t stand to lose.”