Billionaire tycoon Ross Perot dies at 89

Ross Perot, the billionaire tycoon who mounted two unsuccessful third-party presidential campaigns in the 1990s, died Tuesday, family spokesman James Fuller confirmed to CNN. He was 89.

Perot died after a five-month battle with leukemia, Fuller said.

A billionaire by his mid-50s after he sold a controlling interest in the data processing business he founded to General Motors for $2.5 billion, Perot’s foray into presidential politics made him one of the more colorful political figures of the 1990s.

His Texas twang, populist platform — he memorably railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement, warning of a “giant sucking sound” of American jobs to other countries if passed — and frequent TV appearances brought him wide recognition, and his 1992 campaign, in which he garnered nearly 19% of the vote and finished third behind Bill Clinton and incumbent President George H.W. Bush, remains one of the most successful third-party bids in American history.

For years, Bush blamed Perot for his defeat, saying in a 2012 HBO documentary that he believed Perot “cost me the election.” Election experts and scholarly research, however, has challenged that theory: The New York Times found Perot’s effect on the outcome of the election “appears to have been minimal,” and The Washington Post reported Clinton would have still won by a large margin if Perot hadn’t run.

In 1995, Perot created the Reform Party, and the following year received 8% of the vote in the presidential election as the party’s candidate.

Following his second and final bid for the presidency, Perot served as president and CEO of Perot Systems Corporation, which he founded in 1988. He was the head of the company until 2000, when he passed the title on to his son, Ross Perot Jr.

Nine years later, Dell Incorporated bought Perot Systems for $3.9 billion, which was a net gain of about $400 million for the Perot family.

Aside from his business and political careers, Perot also received national attention for his efforts during the Vietnam War to create better conditions for US prisoners of war. He traveled to Laos, where he met with ambassadors from Russia and North Vietnam, and was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Public Service by the Department of Defense in 1974 for his efforts. In 1979, when two EDS employees were taken hostage during a revolution in Iran, he organized and paid for a successful private mission called Operation Hotfoot to rescue the men and bring them home.

“In business and in life, Ross was a man of integrity and action. A true American patriot and a man of rare vision, principle and deep compassion, he touched the lives of countless people through his unwavering support of the military and veterans and through his charitable endeavors,” Fuller said in a statement. “Ross Perot will be deeply missed by all who loved him. He lived a long and honorable life.”

Early success in business

Henry Ray Perot — he later legally changed his name to Henry Ross — was born on June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas, where his father ran a cotton mill.

By the time he was 7 years old, Perot was an accomplished horseman and a budding businessman. His father was training him to make a profit by buying and selling bridles, Perot said.

Perot graduated from the Naval Academy in 1953 and spent four years at sea. After the Navy, Perot worked as a salesman at IBM before starting his own corporation, Electronic Data Systems, in 1962 with a $1,000 loan from his wife, Margot. The company grew quickly, and when the company went public in 1968, Fortune magazine put Perot on its cover, calling him the “fastest, richest Texan.”

He later sold a controlling interest in EDS to General Motors, becoming a billionaire and GM’s single largest stockholder and a director. He netted approximately $750 million in 1986 when he resigned from the General Motors board of directors as part of a buyout agreement and sold his GM shares.

Although he had never held public office, by the early 1990s, Perot, sensing an opportunity for an outsider campaign with an anti-Washington message, was openly talking about a presidential run. Speaking to CNN’s Larry King in 1992, he said that if he were to launch a campaign, he would run as an independent and “get both parties’ heads straight.”

“I was down in Texas taking care of business, tending to my family, (but) this situation got so bad that I decided I better get into it,” he later said during a presidential debate.

At one point during the summer of 1992, Perot dropped out, stating he couldn’t win and that staying in the race would only create problems for the electoral process. His withdrawal came shortly after he stumbled during a speech at the NAACP, where his comments on unemployment were interpreted as patronizing and insensitive.

But he later re-entered the race in October.

“Few people in this country have been able to live the American Dream to the extent that I have,” Perot said when he re-entered, adding, “Neither political party has effectively addressed the issues that concern the American people.”

This story has been updated.