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Founding Presidents

These U.S. presidents didn't just run the country; they founded and operated businesses.
February 15, 2008
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/190478

Running a business certainly isn't a prerequisite to running the country. But many U.S. presidents also have been entrepreneurs. And why not? Business owners and presidents have plenty in common--calendars packed with meetings, employees to manage, peers to schmooze and sleepless nights spent worrying whether they made the right decision.

For some presidents, their ventures provided a logical step into politics. For instance, more than half of the presidents began their careers as lawyers and several of them had their own law practice, including Martin Van Buren, Abraham Lincoln and William Taft. But for others like Andrew Johnson, who owned a tailor shop, a life in politics wasn't always a goal.

Regardless, being an entrepreneur provided some of the U.S. presidents with the wealth, notoriety and connections they needed to run for office. Here's a look at five heads of our nation and the businesses they started. You may be surprised by how some of their ventures affected their path to the White House, as well as what happened once they were there.

George Washington
First president, 1789-1797
Who wouldn't need a drink after running the country for eight years? Although a moderate drinker by historical accounts, George Washington built a whiskey distillery on his Mount Vernon property the year he left office. By 1799, Washington's distillery was one of the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey annually. Last year, George Washington's Distillery & Gristmill opened for public tours after the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States provided a grant for the distillery's reconstruction. (The distillery had stopped operating after a fire following Washington's death.)

But that wasn't Washington's only venture on the Mount Vernon plantation; he also produced and sold corn meal and flour globally, in addition to operating nearby commercial fisheries. From the time he inherited the family property, he expanded it from 2,000 to 8,000 acres. Washington certainly wasn't the only president to operate a farm, but he makes the list for his innovation and success.

Andrew Johnson
17th president, 1865-1869
The transition from tailor to president may seem like an odd one. But it was at his tailor shop in Greenville, Tennessee, where Johnson first got involved in politics. One of the men who gathered there to discuss governmental matters challenged him to a debate. Johnson went on to join a debating society and served as alderman and mayor of Greenville before becoming president.

In 1922, the Tennessee legislature earmarked $65,000 to purchase the lot and build a structure to house the shop. Today, visitors still can tour the facility located within the Memorial Building at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.

Herbert Hoover
31st president, 1929-1933
After graduating from Stanford, Hoover became a mining engineer and started a consulting firm in 1908. With offices in London, San Francisco, New York, Paris and Petrograd, Hoover helped turn around underperforming mines around the world, then took a share of the profits. During that time, he also translated into English De Re Metallica, a Latin mining textbook that Hoover says in his memoirs was "chained to the church altar and translated by the priest to the miners between religious services," in mining regions in South America. Despite his success, his priorities changed when World War I started. "My professional career was ended," he wrote.

During the war, Hoover became the head of the Committee for Relief in Belgium and was appointed head of the American Food Administration. Despite Hoover's business acumen, the Great Depression set in during his presidency, and he only served one term after losing his re-election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Harry Truman
33rd president, 1945-1953
Like Johnson, Truman took his business in a sartorial direction, starting a haberdashery that tailored men's clothing after returning from duty in Europe during World War I. It was actually Truman's business partner, Edward Jacobson, that influenced his presidency. According to the Edward Jacobson Papers at the Truman Library, Jacobson and Truman started a business together after running a regimental canteen at Camp Doniphan in Oklahoma and opened the Truman and Jacobson haberdashery in Kansas City in 1919. The store closed in 1922, in the wake of the post-World War I recession. Truman, however, refused to declare bankruptcy and eventually paid back the business's loans.

Truman went on to attend law school and become president, and Jacobson eventually opened Westport Menswear. But the men remained friends, and it was Jacobson who encouraged Truman to meet with the leader of the Zionist movement and back the establishment of Israel.

George W. Bush
43rd president, 2001-present
The cowboy boot-clad former Texas governor is well known for his involvement with oil and baseball. Bush started the oil and gas company Arbusto Energy--named after the Spanish word for bush--in 1978 and later renamed it Bush Exploration. In 1983, the company merged with Spectrum 7 Energy Corp., and Bush was appointed chairman and CEO. Faced with declining oil prices and decreasing value, Spectrum was later bought by Harken Oil and Gas.

Bush also helped put together the group that purchased a controlling interest in the Texas Rangers and used money from his oil industry venture to invest in the baseball team. He served as managing general partner before resigning from the position to become governor. When Tom Hicks purchased the Rangers in 1998, the year the team made the playoffs, Bush banked $14.9 million. The next year, he began taking official steps to run for office.