Opinion

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Business Is Personal

An Early Career Lesson From Ross Perot

Ross Perot died July 9th, having taught me a lesson decades earlier.

Ross Perot meant different things to different people. He was the CEO of Electronic Data Systems (EDS) – my first real job. EDS was later purchased by General Motors – there are many stories about that, especially re: Ross’ time on the GM board. Later, EDS became part of Hewlett Packard. My Ross Perot story isn’t a business anecdote, but a personal one.

Back in 1983 when I started at EDS, there was some pretty serious cultural indoctrination. EDS people do this, and don’t do that (drugs and infidelity were explicitly mentioned). EDS people dress like this, not like that, etc. I wore tasseled dress shoes anyway – making some think I was a wildling. We were designed to compete with IBM, CSC, & similar companies. Our clients were big banks, insurance companies & Fortune 500 businesses, so we had to look like them to keep them comfortable.

In the early days (at least my early days), EDS headquarters was an eight or so story business tower. The tower, access road, and parking lot were built on half of the old Forest Hills Golf Club just west of Central Expressway on Forest Lane in North Dallas. It was a big piece of land, about 200 acres, in the middle of a fast growing area of Dallas. Amazingly, nine holes of the course and a small clubhouse were retained and kept in playing shape for use by employees & their guests. It was a great employee benefit. Unfortunately, a subsequent owner transformed all but 20 acres of the property into wall-to-wall tract homes.

Lunch “with” Ross

In addition to the course, the EDS building had a nice cafeteria. The word “cafeteria” is a little understated. Long before it was fashionable for software companies to have coffee bars and delis in their headquarters – EDS had a restaurant with puffy hat wearing chefs, etc. The food was good – and the prices were subsidized, or at least reduced to close to the company’s cost. You could get a nice lunch for $2.00 in 1983.

EDS had outgrown the building years earlier, so I worked a few miles north. As such, I didn’t visit HQ for lunch too often. However, it was EDS tradition to bring visiting family members in for lunch during the holidays.

Around Christmas & other times of the year, the restaurant would serve steamship rounds of roast beef. A steamship round is a giant chunk of beef that is carved to order right at the buffet by one of the puffy hat wearing chefs. For $2.00 (!), with all the trimmings.

In 1983, my paternal grandmother came to visit for Christmas, so I took her to lunch at HQ on steamship day. When grandma & I got to the normally busy cafeteria (what employees called it), there was almost no one there as many were on vacation. I was nearing the end of my first year at EDS, so I didn’t have much vacation. As we stepped into line, a short man in a suit (all of us wore suits) turned & smiled. He stepped forward & said “Hi, I’m Ross Perot” to my grandma & shook her hand. He then looked me in the eye, shook my hand & said “I always like it when my guys bring their moms into the office for lunch.” He asked where she was from & made a moment of small talk before wishing us a nice lunch & continuing down the line.

My grandma was in her late sixties at the time & had a major league silver-blue bouffant hairdo. I was 24. No one would likely mistake her for my mother, but he err’d on the side of courtesy & charm by playing it that way. He could have ignored us, gone through the line, and scampered back up to his office with his lunch – but he didn’t. Despite having billion dollar things on his mind, he took the time to say hello to a wet behind the ears newbie and his grandma. It was one of my earliest “Business is Personal” moments – a valuable lesson.

Rest in peace, sir.

P.S. My grandma had no idea who Ross was. When we sat down to eat, she said “He was a nice man.” I told her he owned the company & was worth about five billion dollars. She (a widow for over 20 years at the time) said “Well, I guess I should take that cowboy home with me.

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