U.S. Presidents and Small Business: A Mixed Record of Success

Lee Polevoi by Lee Polevoi on February 20, 2012
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The importance of small businesses to the nation’s economic recovery has been the focus of serious debate in the 2012 presidential race, which made us wonder: How many U.S. presidents have had actual experience leading a small business? How many have done well in their ventures?

Here’s a look at ten U.S. presidents and their forays into entrepreneurship.

George Washington (1789-1797). A year after leaving office, the founding father built a whiskey distillery on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. A decade later, the distillery ranked among the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. Washington also operated commercial fisheries and expanded the family property from 2,000 to 8,000 acres. His mill produced flour and sold it (along with the whiskey) under the name George Washington’s Gristmill & Distillery, making these among the earliest branded food and spirit products.

Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865). The president who led the country during the Civil War was originally a lawyer and an entrepreneur. In 1833, he and a business partner opened a general store in New Salem, Ill. The venture faltered a year later, and Lincoln was stuck with his partner’s $1,000 debt. Lincoln understood that failure in business offered powerful lessons about character building and persistence. “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure,” he once said.

Andrew Johnson (1865-1869). The 17th president of the U.S. owned a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tenn., a popular place to gather and discuss politics. He also saw the value in owning land: With the help of his wife, Eliza, Johnson invested wisely in the purchase of local real estate and farmland.

Warren G. Harding (1921-1923). Long before becoming president in 1921, Harding studied the newspaper trade in college and, with partners, purchased the Marion Daily Star in Ohio. By the time he was 23 years old, Harding owned the newspaper outright. Its success helped fund his presidential bid, and in 1923 he sold the paper for $550,000 (in today’s figures, roughly $7 million). The Marion Star, still published today, is now owned and operated by Gannett Co.

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). A graduate of Stanford University, Hoover began his career as a mining consultant and invented a process to extract zinc that was lost during the mining process. His firm, Zinc Corp., eventually opened offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and St. Petersburg (Russia). Zinc Corp. was a predecessor company of the Rio Tinto Company, now part of the Rio Tinto Group. As a self-made millionaire, Hoover believed strongly in “rugged individualism” and “self-reliance” as keys to success in business.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). A victim of polio, Roosevelt raised funding to turn a hydrotherapy treatment program in Warm Springs, Ga., into a healing center for other polio victims. Today, the spa — known as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation — is dedicated to service, technology, education, and R&D that benefits people with disabilities.

Harry Truman (1945-1953). The nation’s 33rd president returned home after serving in World War I and, with a partner, opened the Truman and Jacobson haberdashery in Kansas City in 1919. Although the store closed three years later (due to the postwar recession), Truman never declared bankruptcy and eventually paid off the business’s loans. His experience as an entrepreneur influenced his views on leadership and responsibility. “I learned that a great leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want to do and like it,” he said.

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). One-term president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter started his career on the family peanut farm after a stint in the U.S. Navy. In the years that followed, he expanded the farm into a multimillion dollar business, including warehouses, a peanut-shelling plant, and farm equipment and supplies. Carter took pride in being known as “the peanut farmer from Georgia.”

George H.W. Bush (1989-1993). The first President Bush started the Bush-Overby Oil Development company in 1951. He later co-founded another venture, the Zapata Petroleum Corp., which made him a millionaire. “The fact is, prosperity has a purpose,” Bush said, accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1988. “It’s to allow us to pursue ‘the better angels,’ to give us time to think and grow.”

George W. Bush (2001-2009). Like his father, the 43rd president was closely involved in the oil and gas business. He started Arbusto Energy (later renamed Bush Exploration) in 1978. After the business merged with Spectrum 7 Energy Corp., he served as chairman and CEO. Using funds from his oil ventures, Bush and a group of investors in 1989 purchased a controlling interest in the Texas Rangers baseball team. He served as the team’s managing general partner before resigning in 1994 to run for state governor. (He held onto his minority stake in the team until 1998, when he sold his share for $15 million.)

Clearly, some presidents were more successful than others in their business endeavors. Nonetheless, perhaps Ronald Reagan summed it up best when he said, “Entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States.”

Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.

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