What would Perot do? Campaigner has record of hands-on style

June 23, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- You can almost see Ross Perot beginning to roll his shirtsleeves up as he describes the way he'll tackle the presidency of the United States.

"I'll be like a mechanic who's under the hood, working on the engine," he has said again and again in recent weeks as he makes campaign stops around the country, the next one scheduled for tomorrow in Annapolis.

This promise of bold, direct leadership -- supported by a history ofgetting things done and for a mighty profit -- is the prime appeal of this undeclared candidate to an electorate yearning for a Mr. Fix-It.

While the political newcomer has offered few glimpses into exactly what he would do sitting before the desk in the Oval Office, a look at his management style through his decades in business suggests how he might do it.

At both of the computer companies Mr. Perot built, Electronic Data Systems and, later, Perot Systems, the Texas billionaire emerged as the sort of leader just as likely to be outside directing traffic as under the hood.

He set the ground rules and the tone -- becoming almost a spiritual leader -- surrounded himself with aggressive, hard-working, like-minded souls, then left these lieutenants to run the show, often while pursuing outside projects.

"He is very big on delegating," says Milledge A. Hart III, president of EDS in the mid-1970s when Mr. Perot stepped up to become chief executive officer. "He is very, very good at surrounding himself with good people who share his same beliefs and basic philosophy, and communicating to them his vision."

In fact, to those down the rungs, the man at the top of the organizational chart was more image and legend than anything else -- a blustery force they felt in everything from their blue suits to their short, Ross-like haircuts to the ethics code they were required to follow.

"Ross Perot -- he was like God," says Vince Bartozzi, a former EDS systems engineer who worked in Washington. "But you never got to see him. I'd see a clipping in the paper or read his name somewhere and think, 'Gee, I work for that guy.' That was the extent of it."

In the early days of EDS, Mr. Perot was often accused of micromanaging, of taking over anyone else's task -- whether it was landscaping or speech writing -- if dissatisfied with the employee's performance. But in the mid-1970s as the company came of age, and as Mr. Hart and later Morton H. Meyerson took over the president's seat, Mr. Perot loosened his grip.

Many attribute the company's success to such Perot alter egos as Mr. Meyerson, who recently replaced Mr. Perot as CEO of Perot Systems after the quasi-candidate stepped down to hit the campaign trail in earnest.

Mr. Perot "always stayed involved, but at the high level," says Jerry Welch, a former EDS manager. "If Nelson Rockefeller had to be called, or Attorney General Mitchell or the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, those calls would be Perot calls."

Some have suggested that Mr. Perot thrives in the initial start-up of a business or project, or in the rescue of some stalled enterprise, but then moves on. And from the early '70s on, he spent more and more time on extracurricular activities -- whether it was his investigations of Americans allegedly held prisoner in Southeast Asia or his work during the '80s on Texas drug laws and education reforms -- and left the management of EDS to his inner circle.

Many, in fact, believe Mr. Perot's greatest strength has been surrounding himself with a strong team, as advised in his favorite management bible, "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun."

"Strong chieftains surround themselves with strong Huns," author Wess Roberts states.

Mr. Perot obviously learned the lesson well. Since he left EDS in 1986, two years after selling it to General Motors Corp., the company has not only survived in the hands of the second-tier chieftains and Huns, it has prospered.

From the start at EDS, Mr. Perot and his managers tried to recruit people, all the way down the ladder, who thought and worked as they did -- who fit the culture the former Texarkana Eagle Scout embodied.

A graduate of the Naval Academy, Mr. Perot favored young men with military backgrounds, believing them to be disciplined, hard-working, comfortable with his rules and regulations, and disenchanted with mid-level bureaucracy and mediocrity just as he was.

When hiring women, who were few and far between anywhere above the secretarial level in the early days, he often sought out schoolteachers for similar reasons. The result of his highly selective hiring was a dedicated and uniformed (almost literally) work force -- many have even likened it to a cult -- with the charismatic Ross Perot as chief motivational leader.

The top man let it be known that there were bonuses and perquisites for the steadfast and loyal. And he would make forays into various departments, after getting briefed on who the standouts were, and publicly recognize the stars.

"If Ross stood up there and said, 'Jerry, great job on the Du Pont purchase,' that would pump you up for six years!" says Mr. Welch.

But not everyone has been so buoyed by the Perot pitch and culture. There was so much turnover during much of his tenure at EDS that employees had to sign contracts agreeing to pay back money invested in their training should they leave the company within three years.

Len Coleman, a systems analyst at California Blue Shield when EDS took over its data processing department in 1969, took one look at the dress code, the job application that asked what church he went to and how often -- and Ross Perot standing on a platform rallying the troops -- and called a job counselor.

"If I could have left that day I'd have been out," says Mr. Coleman, who left two weeks later.

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