Early Life

"Sell it. You can’t eat it." - Gabriel Ross Perot

Humble Beginnings

Henry Ross Perot was born June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas, son of Gabriel, a cotton broker, and Lulu May, a lumber company secretary.

At the start of the Great Depression, the Perots were better off than many other American families, but times still were tough. When 6-year-old Ross wanted a bike, he had to work for it. He continued to work throughout his childhood, learning valuable life lessons.

"I really wanted a bicycle. My dad looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Son, work, save your money and buy a bicycle.’ This started my business training."

Buying and selling saddles and other riding supplies taught him the art of negotiation. Training horses was an exercise in perseverance, sometimes leaving him with bruises, concussions, scars and even a broken nose. He sold Christmas cards and garden seeds door to door. A paper route provided insights into human nature. The experiences taught him how to think on his feet, solving problems creatively.

"When I was about 10 years old, my dad would take me to the Owen Brothers’ barn on Friday nights for the premier horse, cattle and mule auctions in Texarkana," he said. "This was where my dad began teaching me the fundamentals of trading and negotiating. We started small, of course, buying and selling inexpensive bridles.

"My goal would be to buy low and sell high. And there was only one other rule: We never brought anything home. I had to buy and sell whatever it was in the same day. My father taught me to look at costs and margins and then how to negotiate and earn a profit. We always had so much fun together and it was an invaluable education. I consider this to be my Ph.D. in business, taught at my father’s knee."

Solving Problems From an Early Age

As a young boy, he began delivering the Texarkana Gazette to a middle-class neighborhood. After that, he was offered a morning route in two of the poorer sections. The paper told him that if he could get more subscribers, he could keep a larger cut of the rate paid other carriers who were skipping that area.

He jumped at the chance, and signed up many new customers eager to get the paper.

Delivering by bicycle and sometimes on his horse, Bea – better to handle the unpaved streets and the weight of the papers – he quickly boosted his route’s numbers. Typically, a paperboy would take home about $5 a week, but he was making as much as five times that.

He was doing so well that distributors tried to back out of the agreement. Mr. Perot then met with the publisher, saying the paper had made a promise and needed to stick to it.

"I explained the situation as succinctly as I could – that I had started a paper route in a part of town where no one thought a successful route could be built, and because it was likely to fail, the manager had incentivized it," he said. "I had done it, yet my reward was that I was getting a pay cut."

The publisher sided with him. He got his deal and the extra money – and the people got their papers.

"Think of the business lessons there," Mr. Perot said later. "Honor your commitments," and "go to the man who can say yes or no."

The paper route was just one example of the kind of challenge he relished.

Flashback #1

Training horses often left Ross Perot with bruises, scars and a broken nose.

"Go to the man who can say yes or no."

- Ross Perot

Completing Goals in Record Time

He joined the Cub Scouts at age nine and the Boy Scouts at 12, a member of Texarkana’s Troop 18. He then aimed at becoming an Eagle Scout in a little over a year.

"I had to stretch myself outside my comfort zone and I had to do it quickly as well. To begin a new skill and master it in a matter of weeks was something that required total concentration and will," he said. "But I gained courage and enthusiasm when I saw that day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, I was chipping away at the badges. Then finally, the day arrived when I received my 21st badge" – in just 13 months.

He was profoundly shaped by the ideals and principles of scouting, and stayed involved as a supporter for years later. His son and five of his grandsons also earned the rank of Eagle Scout.

From a businessman’s perspective, scouting trains future leaders," Mr. Perot said. "Scouting places the steel, pours the concrete and creates a strong foundation for molding tomorrow’s leaders’ character and integrity.

Learning the Value of Persistence

In elementary school, he got the traditional basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Music was also part of the curriculum and he learned to play the accordion, a skill that he said later helped his understanding of technology and business.

He originally thought about becoming a doctor but by high school, decided he wanted to be a successful businessman. This goal was briefly jeopardized by a lackluster report card, causing one of his teachers to confront him: "Ross, talk is cheap. If you are as smart as they are, let me see some results."

With the encouragement of his teachers and others, he finished the next two years with stellar grades.

He attended Texarkana College, where he quickly made a name for himself. Elected student president, he led efforts to publish a yearbook, develop an intramural sports system and expand the school’s campus.

His dream was to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. He wrote letter after letter to Texas congressmen requesting admission. All went unanswered.

Then, one fateful day, Sen. W. Lee O’Daniel was going through paperwork, trying to address unfinished business before his looming retirement. An aide remembered Mr. Perot’s letters and suggested that an unfilled academy appointment should go to the "kid from Texarkana who has been trying for three years."

That opportunity fundamentally changed the direction of his life. He graduated from junior college and took the midshipman’s oath on his 19th birthday: June 27, 1949.

Like other plebes, he found freshman year at Annapolis challenging. Yet he was undaunted, and quickly distinguished himself as a leader. He became class vice president his sophomore year and was class president his junior and senior years.

He served as the chairman of the Naval Academy’s Honor Committee, which helped establish the honor system that guides its students today. He also served as a Battalion Commander, and escorted President Dwight D. Eisenhower during his tour of the Naval Academy.

It Was Love at First Sight

In his senior year, friends arranged a blind date with Margot Birmingham, a student from nearby Goucher College. He took her to the Anne Arundel seafood restaurant, near the Naval Academy.

As recounted by The Washington Post, Margot, from Pennsylvania, had never met a Texan and "while she didn't succumb immediately to [his] persuasive charms, she had to admit that he was ‘lively and fun.’ He, on the other hand, fell for her," and "it was love at first sight."

She accepted his invitation for lunch the next day, joining a group from Texas for a tour of the academy campus. "Margot and I began dating and for the rest of the year, I saw her as often as I could," he said.

On June 27, 1953 – his 23rd birthday – he shipped out as a junior officer on the destroyer USS Sigourney, heading to Korea as the war was ending. As a young ensign, he oversaw shore patrol, ship emergency and first aid drills and even some chaplain duties.

In 1955, he was transferred to the USS Leyte, an aircraft carrier. He also gained a promotion to full lieutenant. His first job was gunfire control and he later became assistant navigator. In that, he directed the landing and launching of planes off the carrier.

When docked in Rhode Island, he was able to take leave and drive to see Margot, who was finishing her final semester at Goucher College. She became an elementary school teacher after graduation. They married on Sept. 15, 1956, and would go on to have five children.

...while she didn’t succumb immediately to [his] persuasive charms, she had to admit that he was lively and fun. He, on the other hand, fell for her and it was love at first sight.

Flashback #2

Margot and Ross married in 1956, and they would go on to have five children.

Embracing the Future

While on the USS Leyte, he met Stanley "Fearless" Farwell, brother of the ship’s executive officer and an executive at IBM who was touring the ship. When Mr. Farwell saw that the lieutenant had experience with gunfire control computers, he asked if he’d be interested in interviewing at the pioneering tech company.

"I said, ‘Sir…I’ve always had to look for work. You bet I’m interested. But I’m going to be completely honest with you. I don’t know what you do but make typewriters.’"

Soon after that, Mr. Perot got a call for an interview in Hartford, Conn., and IBM later offered him a sales job.

In 1957, after leaving the Navy and accepting the IBM post in Dallas, he packed their belongings in an older Plymouth and headed to Texas, arriving on June 27 – his 27th birthday.

Their first home in Dallas was a "nice but very small" two-bedroom apartment on Asbury Street, near Southern Methodist University. Rent was reduced to $110 a month after the landlord and Mr. Perot agreed that he’d also be the gardener, handyman and property manager.

"One thing my dad taught me was that everything was a negotiation," Mr. Perot said.

Even after he began working at IBM, he served an additional five years in the Naval Reserves and continued to support the Navy throughout his life.