Former GM Director Ross Perot Dies at 89

Among the broader masses, H. Ross Perot is probably best known for his third-party runs for the U.S. presidency. However, to us, he’ll always be the man who gave General Motors’ CEO (1981-90) Roger Smith a piece of his mind and the old the stink eye. He died on Tuesday at the ripe age of 89.

Perot sold his company, Electronic Data Systems, to GM in 1984 for a cool $2.55 billion. The General was eager to have EDS as a subsidiary, hoping to use the company to help modernize its industrial organization and product line. It even wanted to keep Ross on board to move things along. Unfortunately, Perot turned out to be a vociferous, no-nonsense kind of guy and found himself at odds with Smith — and the rest of GM — rather quickly. 

By 1985, the marriage was already beginning to sour. Immediately disenchanted with automotive bureaucracy, Perot became openly critical of how GM did its business. Famous for being fiercely loyal to his company and employees (he once funded and dispatched commandos into Iran to pull out two EDS employees that had been imprisoned over a contract dispute in 1979 — read On Wings of Eagles by Ken Follett), he felt GM wasn’t respecting EDS’ autonomy and issued a letter to then-CEO Smith.

“If you continue your present autocratic style, I will be your adversary on critical issues. I will argue with you privately. If necessary I will argue with you publicly,” he explained.

The media quickly caught wind of the building internal tensions, creating negative some publicity for the automaker. Ross’ candid style didn’t help create any peace.

The following year, the company paid Perot to leave the board — earmarking $750 million to purchase of all of his GM stock. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ross put the money in escrow for two weeks to give the automaker time to reconsider a buyout plan that would close 11 factories and throw 30,000 people out of work. “I’ve got to live with myself,” Perot said. “Why should I take this money? It would be morally wrong.”

GM’s official position on the man has improved since then, with Automotive News quoting the carmaker as saying “Ross Perot was a patriot and an innovator. Our condolences go out to his family and friends,” following news of his death. However, executives present during his brief time with the company still remember him as cantankerous.

A true character within the industry, and at large, he decided to establish a new computer services company in 1988 before making a run for the presidency in 1992 — under the banner of ending government deficits, bureaucratic red tape, and corporate lobbying. Highly condemnatory of Washington, he accused it of becoming a town of  “sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don’t ever accomplish anything. We need deeds, not words, in this city.”

“It’s not the Republicans’ fault, of course, and it’s not the Democrats’ fault,” he said during the debates. “Somewhere out there there’s an extraterrestrial that’s doing this to us, I guess.”

Popular with voters from both political parties (and especially independents), Perot bailed out of the race at the peak of his fame… only to suddenly return, earning 19 percent of the popular vote. His 1996 campaign fared comparatively poorly and he retired from political life — occasionally weighing in on issues or candidates after 2008.

An Eagle Scout, navy officer, billionaire tycoon, and one hell of an interesting man, Perot died at his home in Dallas after a five-month fight with leukemia.

[Image: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock]

a version of this article first appeared on TTAC