Wednesday, May 29, 2024 May 29, 2024
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Growing Up Perot

In their first interview together, Ross Sr. and Jr. talk about outrunning the Russians in a nuclear submarine.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

I’m sitting between Ross Perot Jr. and Ross Perot Sr. at a large, round conference room table at Dell’s corporate office in Plano, which also houses The Perot Group. We’re talking family vacations. Ross Sr. is telling me about a trip they took when his son was about 14.

“We were going around the world, and I realized one of my friends from the Naval Academy was the captain of a nuclear submarine off the coast of Scotland,” Ross Sr. says. “I called him and asked him if, by chance, we could take Ross out on the submarine.”

“It was just like the movies,” Ross Jr. says. “We get on a tugboat and head out to sea. There was this dense fog, then out of the fog rises this submarine. We went down below for about 24 hours, and we were literally being chased. It was at the height of the Cold War, and we were trying to throw off the Russians. For a kid, it was an amazing experience.”

The Perots went on to spend the night on a Navy ship off the coast of North Vietnam, watching pilots take off for their airstrikes. A few years later, they traveled through the Panama Canal on a destroyer.

“We had some great adventures with the Navy,” Ross Jr. says.

“But then he went into the Air Force,” Ross Sr. jokes. “I did all I could.”

I’m in Plano because the Perots have won a family business award from Ernst & Young (landing them on the cover of D Magazine’s sister publication D CEO). I tell them, though, that I don’t want to talk about their corporate success. Instead, I want to talk about their relationship and what it’s like to grow up Perot.

Ross Sr. begins by telling me about his own father, Gabriel Ross Perot, a successful cotton broker in Texarkana whose business slogan—“Sell it. You can’t eat it.”—can be found on signs throughout Perot’s office. He talks about getting his start in the 1930s selling Christmas cards at the age of 6, delivering newspapers on horseback and bicycle, going on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, then moving to Dallas and taking a job with IBM. There, in the early 1960s, he tried to get the company to form a software division but was turned down. Soon after, he read a Thoreau quote in Reader’s Digest: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It inspired him to make the idea work on his own.

Seeing it all take shape was his oldest child and only son. “I watched Dad start EDS in our living room,” Ross Jr. says.

Ross Jr. was no slouch. As a teen, he planted bushes around EDS’ first office on Forest Lane for about 50 cents a bush. (“A lot of them are still there,” he brags.) In college, he parked cars before starting a clothing company. “It was a brand no one had heard of at the time called Polo,” he says. “A friend of mine went to New York and convinced Polo to let us distribute their product on campus. I told Dad, ‘You know, I make $50 a shirt—that’s per shirt—and I could only make $25 or $30 a night parking cars.’ It dawned on me that brains and wit were a lot better than manual labor.”

Growing up in the 1970s, Ross Jr. says, he’d spend weekends scouting land deals with his father. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, serving in the U.S. Air Force—and completing the first round-the-world helicopter flight—Ross Jr. formed his real estate development company, Hillwood, in 1988.

As the Perots share their stories, I’m struck by the deep affection they have for each other. We wrap up and head to Ross Sr.’s office for a photo shoot. Ross Jr. tells me he can’t remember ever being interviewed with his father before, and how much he enjoyed it.

Our photographer, Elizabeth Lavin, orders Ross Sr. to empty his pockets and fusses over him, straightening his jacket and tie. “I’ve never had a woman come to my office and put her hands all over me like this,” he says. At nearly 83, he’s as mischievous as ever.

Afterward, the Perots lead a tour of their headquarters. It houses a collection of personal, military, and political artifacts. One hallway is dedicated to memorabilia from the 1979 Ross Sr.-led mission to rescue two EDS employees from a prison in Tehran. Another area is devoted to Ross Jr.’s 14-year effort to build the U.S. Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Yet another focuses on Ross Sr.’s 1992 U.S. presidential run. It includes the candidate’s famous charts, which warned of ballooning federal debt. Ross Jr. stops to point out the number. “It seems almost quaint,” he says.

At the end of the tour, Ross Sr. invites us to stay for lunch. “I’ll buy,” he offers. At the Dell cafeteria, we carry our trays to the checkout lines, with Ross Sr. bringing up the rear. At the last minute, though, he jumps to another line—leaving his son to pick up our tab.

Ross Jr. gives his father an amused smile and pulls out his wallet.