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The Self-Made Man: Ross Perot

If you remember Ross Perot at all, you’re either a political junkie who remembers his presidential bids in the early 1990s or a thirty-something who remembers Dana Carvey’s hilarious impersonations of him around that time. In both cases, he came off to the average American like ? and here I’m paraphrasing my hero and idol Zapp Brannigan ? a gibbering mental patient, what with his charts and graphs and cartoonishly rural accent and all.


But there’s more to him than that. While it was common knowledge that he was a billionaire, the ambition and work ethic that brought him to his fortune wasn’t discussed all that much, and it’s worth examining here. Indeed, Perot’s nose-to-the-grindstone mentality and weird knack for salesmanship are just the sort of thing TSB looks for in a self-made man.

Ross Perot was born in Texarkana, Texas during the Great Depression. His father was a cotton broker, which is apparently someone who purchases raw cotton for processing or resale. Theirs was a pretty modest existence ? Perot went to public school and junior college and had what seems like 1000000 odd jobs during his childhood, many of which involved selling things: Christmas cards, magazines, garden seeds, horses and their myriad accessories, and so on. He was also a Boy Scout. His all-American frontier average-ness couldn’t have been more acute.

After getting an honorable discharge from the Navy (where he helped establish the honor system), Perot took a sales job at IBM, where he filled his year’s sales quota in two weeks, which understandably made him a top employee. One wonders how on Earth he could even do that. I’m picturing the scene from Tommy Boy where Chris Farley tears the dinner roll apart in a successful attempt to get the waitress to put in an order for chicken wings. Perot must have had similar mojo, because it’s hard for me to picture him as a crack salesperson in any conventional sense.

Sales, by the way, is a pretty brutal job. Most of the time it works on commission, meaning you get paid according to how much product you move. In other words, your whole life depends on how well you can get total strangers to like you and place a certain amount of confidence in you. And, depending on your product, you spend a lot of time on the road, away from your support network, eking out your life in chain hotel rooms and regional conventions. That Perot could get a year’s worth of returns in two weeks is nothing short of incredible when you look at it in context.

And Perot was as persistent as he was industrious. After years of pitching ideas and being ignored by the very supervisors who lauded his sales abilities, Perot left IBM and started his own data processing company, Electronic Data Systems (EDS). Initial attempts to get contracts with large corporations failed, and it took 77 rejections before someone hired EDS to process their data. The US government came calling soon afterward, and EDS’ computerization of Medicare records put them on the map. They went public in 1968, and were bought by General Motors in 1984 for over $2 billion.

With Perot’s wealth came an involvement in politics, but as much as I’d like to continue making fun of his Reform Party shenanigans, it’s somewhat beyond the scope of this article (a rundown of his 1992 presidential bid can be found here). What’s more relevant to TSB is how much he accomplished without an established mentor or high-level contacts or an Ivy League education, which separates him from many of his peers in both politics and business (and from many previous subjects of this column). Instead, he became successful by honing his natural talents through years of hard work and frustration, and through a willingness to throw himself at his dream no matter how many times he came back disappointed.

Oh, what the hell, I’m only human. Here’s my favorite Dana Carvey send-up of Perot, with Phil Hartman as a comatose Larry King. That’ll never stop being funny.


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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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