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Corporate Campus Developer, Presidential Candidate And Billionaire Ross Perot Dies

When Texarkana-born Ross Perot Sr. died at age 89 Tuesday, he left behind a legacy in commercial real estate that is often overshadowed by his status as a billionaire and years spent as a third-party presidential candidate. 

But Perot, a corporate titan known for piling employees into his humble sedan for lunch at local restaurants, cannot be summed up in one story, and his impact, though quiet, has rippled throughout Dallas real estate. 

Ross Perot Sr. in his Dallas office

From the perspective of Hillwood President Mike Berry, North Texas simply would not be a CRE juggernaut today without Perot’s decades of influence. 

Perot rose from humble roots in East Texas through the Naval Academy to become founder of two billion-dollar tech companies: Electronic Data Systems and Perot Systems. He based both in Plano, Texas, with EDS moving into one of the first master-planned corporate campuses on Legacy Drive in West Plano a few decades ago. 

Perot moved EDS to Plano before West Plano turned into a mecca for corporate campuses, industry veterans say.   

“He bought the land that is now Legacy [business park] in Plano,” Berry said. “He put a team together, he master planned it, he committed to bring EDS’ headquarters there, and he and his team helped recruit some of the early companies that moved there like J.C. Penney Co. and Frito-Lay.”

Berry believes without these efforts on Perot's part, other developers would have lacked a baseline to build many of the office parks sitting in the Dallas suburbs today. 

“If you think about Legacy and its impact on the North Texas commercial real estate market, it was not just for North Texas, but for most of the country, one of the most high-quality master-planned corporate campus developments anywhere. It really became a benchmark for real estate development in that category," Berry said. 

The former EDS headquarters developed by Ross Perot Sr. in Plano's Legacy business park.

Perot's decision to move EDS to West Plano and to build a futuristic-looking white building for his employees stemmed from his ability to forecast the future and his impatience with bureaucracy in Dallas at the time. 

Lifelong Perot friend Tom Meurer, a former senior vice president for Hunt Consolidated and a longtime EDS employee and leader, remembers Perot's decision to move EDS to Plano. 

"He saw that's where it was going," Meurer said. "And there was a problem with EDS being built on Forest Lane with a lot of the zoning and neighbors and everything."

"I was in his office one day and he says, 'I am never going to have neighbors and politicians tell me what I can do with my business again. I'm going to go up north, and I'm going to buy a big piece of land, and we’ll build a company out there and we'll have nobody next door telling us what to do,' and that’s what happened.'"

Ross Perot Sr. outside the EDS building in the 1960s.

From that point on, Perot's vision spiraled into Plano's Legacy business park.

For Meurer, Perot's persona in public matched the man he knew behind the scenes. But, he says, Perot never shared the reaches of his philanthropic endeavors or his true selflessness. 

"He ran for the presidency and won almost 20% of the vote, so it tells you just what an incredible accomplished man he is," Meurer said. "But, I think the main thing is he was a humanitarian. He made all of this money and he had no boss, nobody to tell him what to do. He had very strong character, strong ethics, and he would use that as his guide. When he knew people had trouble, he was there. A lot of money was given publicly, but he’s given an awful lot privately that people don’t even know about." 

Ross Perot with his family

Perot also had an impact via his family and mentorship, leaving a legacy beyond his actual investments.

Perot is survived by his wife, Margot; his sister, Bette Perot; son Ross Jr. and his wife , Sarah Perot; daughter Nancy and her husband, Rod Jones; daughter Suzanne and her husband, Patrick McGee; daughter Carolyn and her husband, Karl Rathjen; daughter Katherine and her husband, Eric Reeves, along with grandchildren and other relatives. 

The family released a statement Tuesday announcing Perot died at his Dallas home surrounded by loved ones.

Hillwood, founded by Ross Perot Jr., has become a development powerhouse, with more than 23,000 residential lots across 70 locations under its belt. AllianceTexas is its gem — Hillwood has been developing the 26,000-acre master-planned project for 30 years. Less than half of that land has been developed, but it already has 45M SF on the ground. With a recent expansion, it is eyeing another 36M SF of development.

Berry thinks none of it would have happened without Perot Sr. 

“Hillwood would not be here without Ross Perot Sr. even though Ross Perot Jr. built the company,” Berry said. “Obviously, the leadership that Mr. Perot gave to Ross and to all of us in the early years was invaluable in what we have been able to do, and the culture that he created is still the culture that we live by and promote within our company today. He was the bedrock.”

Berry attributes Perot's success in Legacy business park as the backbone of AllianceTexas development. 

"When Ross Jr. came into the business in the mid-'80s, Mr. Perot and Ross Perot Jr. together kind of took that same philosophy that Perot Sr. used in the early days of Legacy, and they brought it to North Fort Worth, Tarrant County and southern Denton County," Berry said.

"They began to look at the land that was here; and, at the time, there was nothing out here except for land. They had enough vision to believe that long-term over multiple decades that as Dallas-Fort Worth and North Texas grew, the area north of Fort Worth would likely be a major growth corridor." 

Ross Perot Sr.

Perot Was A Legend To Everyone Else, But Not A Legend In His Own Mind

At Perot's passing Tuesday, former Dallas Cowboys football player and commercial real estate pioneer Roger Staubach celebrated his life.

"I have always admired Ross Perot, especially his service in the Navy and his passion for our military community, his brilliant business career, and his successful release of the hostages in Iran. The country lost a great American today," Staubach said in a statement. 

Former president of UT Southwestern Medical Center Dr. Kern Wildenthal said Perot's real focus was education and medical research. 

Kern watched Perot devote dollars and personal attention at UT Southwestern to issues impacting patients, including Gulf War veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. 

“When veterans would come to his attention, he would arrange for them to get the care that they were lacking,” Wildenthal said. “It wasn't just a matter of writing a check, he would come to the hospital himself in the morning or night. He was always going out of his way to create a personal connection. He knew all of the students in the programs he supported.”

But for those in commercial real estate who met Perot, the legend was never a legend in his own mind. He was humble, funny and warm. 

Younger Partners broker Tim Cox went to the same church as Perot and ran into the business leader on Election Day in 1996. Perot was on the ballot, but drove himself to the voting site.

“I held the door for him as he went to cast his vote at the Marsh Lane business center here in Dallas,” Cox said. “He was by himself.” 

Cox fondly remembers the humility Perot showed that day. Perot cast a vote in an election where he was one of the candidates and left with no entourage or grandiose behavior. 

“There is only one Ross Perot Sr., and there will never be another one,” Cox said. “He cut the widest groove that we have ever seen in our industry. He built when people didn’t think anything needed to be built.”

Ross Perot Sr. and Adrian Fenty in 2009

One of things Perot built to last was trust and friendship. Younger Partners broker John St. Clair remembers his first visit to Perot's office as a rookie broker in the 1980s. St. Clair was a bit nervous before he arrived. 

When he reached Perot’s office, Perot emerged from behind his desk in a dark suit and white tennis shoes. 

“I look down at him, because I’m 6’2", and I glance down at his shoes,” St. Clair said. “And, he said, 'Don’t worry, when I leave my office, I will have my dress shoes on. I want to be comfortable when I am up here.'”

“I was sort of star-struck and he had white tennis shoes on. He was just like everybody else, and he wanted to be comfortable.”

For Meurer, who knew Perot for 51 years, his passing was expected but still shocking given his larger-than-life persona. 

“It’s a great loss to Texas, it’s a great loss to Dallas and the country,” Meurer said. “On the other hand, we were so lucky to have Ross Perot on this planet at this time because I think he did an awful lot of good things that had a great effect on many people, and I think the book is still being written on that.”