President Donald Trump is not the first businessman president. If you study the biographies of the 44 people who served before Trump, you will find we have had many entrepreneurs serve the country’s highest office.
And so, let’s look at what we might call The Secret Small Business History of the Presidents. While Barack Obama was famously a public employee for most of his adult life, his immediate predecessor George W. Bush had an entrepreneurial streak. And while W’s entrepreneurial career is checkered at best, he did end up hitting one out of the park when his investment in the Texas Rangers baseball team made him a millionaire.
Bush began his career in 1979 when he launched Arbusto Energy, an oil exploration company financed with trust fund money, as well as capital from investors. Unfortunately, Arbusto was hit hard by the energy crisis of the late ‘70s and basically went ar-busto.
W had much more success when he and his team bought the Texas Rangers in 1989. When the team sold again in 1998, Bush’s $600,000 investment scored him a hefty profit of about $15 million.
His dad, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, founded the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Company in 1953, and later, the Zapata Petroleum Corporation. In 1963, Zapata Petroleum merged with Southern Penn Oil to become Pennzoil and Bush became a millionaire.
Jimmy Carter’s small business story is impressive. After serving in the Navy in World War II, Carter moved back to the little town of Plains, Georgia and took over the failing family peanut farm. Carter turned that small farm into a multi-million-dollar peanut business of warehouses, shelling plants, industrial farm equipment, and more.
Despite the farm’s great success, Carter was almost broke again while in the White House as he had put the farm in a blind trust. Nevertheless, his entrepreneurial skills allowed him to reverse course. He founded the Carter Center, became a best-selling author and an in-demand speaker, and yes, in the process, a millionaire.
Before becoming president, Harry Truman was a haberdasher. He also opened his own clothing store in Kansas City after serving in World War I.
While Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never an entrepreneur in the traditional sense, he was what we would now call a social entrepreneur. FDR famously transacted polio as an adult. As part of his therapy, Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs, Georgia for treatment. While he was never cured of the disease, the treatments helped greatly and FDR spent many years raising funds for, and helping to launch, what became known as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.
Warren G. Harding was quite the small businessperson. When he was 19, Harding bought a newspaper that was about to go under – The Marion Star. Harding became the publisher and turned the failing venture around. The paper soon started to make a tidy profit; so much so in fact that it became the source of Harding’s income for the next several decades.
As we all know, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, but he was also quite the industrious entrepreneur. Lincoln:
- Opened a general store in 1833 (it failed)
- Opened his own law firm
- Obtained United States patent no. 6,469
Andrew Jackson made his first fortune buying and selling real estate. He was also one of the founders of Memphis, Tenn.
Finally, let’s not forget our first president, George Washington. Before he led the continental army, Washington was a farmer, which, at that time, was among the most common small business endeavors. By the time of his passing, Washington owned five farms. In fact, so entrepreneurial was he that Edward Lengel wrote a book about Washington titled First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His – and the Nation’s – Prosperity.
So yes, you as an entrepreneur are in good company, and who knows, maybe someday you will become president too!
Related Content: What 5 U.S. Presidents Can Teach Us About Business
Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest, The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can also listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success.© Steven D. Strauss.
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