The Ragpicker's Son

The life and times of blue-collar millionaire.

          Young Percy vowed to rise above poverty. "I knew that if I worked hard, saved my money, invested it properly, eventually I would rise above all the other children. When I went to high school even, I remember there was the Glee Club, there was the football team, there were athletics. I worked." He learned his father's trade. When war broke out again, scrap metal became a prized commodity, and Ross apprenticed to a metal-works in Duluth which also dealt in fur pelts. He rose through the ranks to become a fur buyer. He worked hard, saved his money, and when he'd accumulated enough, invested it in a fur auctioning business. It went belly up in five years.

          "I was broke," Ross says, "I owed my relatives and friends a $150,000. My money was gone. I was in debt. People were screaming for their money. I had two children to feed and my wife. I was a self-made auctioneer. I thought, if I can auction furs why can't I auction other things?" In the early 1950s he organized an enormous three-day construction equipment auction at the State Fairgrounds. "I advertised that sale all over," Ross crows. "I had people coming in from Cuba--they came from all over, okay? I think I took in about $60,000 or $70,000," he says, figuring in his head. "After I got through I had $50,000 dollars! And I was off to the races. I was back in business."

          Over the next several years, he worked hard, saved his money, and invested it several times over. But the formula never seemed to work. It was the plastic bag company that finally put him back in bankruptcy.

          Ross bought it with a bank loan in 1958. By his reckoning it was a no-risk investment. "They buy their resin for 15 cents a pound and they sell the bag for a dollar a pound," he remembers thinking. "Hey, what a business. I want to buy that business." A year later, he was $100,000 in the hole.

          In bankruptcy court, his creditors gave him a chance. His sons, Stephen and Larry, and his wife came to work at the factory. "We worked nights. Eighteen-hour days. My wife would make food. We finally turned the business around. It wasn't easy. Stephen hitchhiked to Chicago to sell our product. We wanted to save the plane fare. He slept in flophouses, dollar a night with bedbugs. Didn't go to the big hotels. But we made sales.

          "These bags we made, they weren't the best, because we used recycled material whenever we could. You could tell. There were fisheyes. They were cloudy. We couldn't afford to buy all the good stuff all the time. Now we were out to make money. They could buy better bags from Mobile. They could buy better bags from Chippewa. They could buy from Bemis. They looked nicer. Well, I had an idea. Let's color our bags! Then you couldn't see the defects. That took care of that."

          The flophouses and the cheap materials eventually paid off. Ross says it took just three years to pay back his creditors. But then his two sons, Stephen and Larry, filed a lawsuit that threatened to bring it all down around his ears again. In the suit, 26-year-old Stephen claimed credit for the company turnaround and painted his father as a spendy boss, frittering precious profits away on frivolous construction projects and alienating the staff. The lawsuit, which tried to wrest control from elder Ross, was settled in 1969, when the family sold the company.

          That sale seeded the investments that would make Ross a multimillionaire and fund his life of letter writing. The dealer in rags had at last found his riches. And he turned his attention to the task of spending it.

          In those first heady days of real wealth, The Blue Collar Millionaire acquired a reputation for lavish parties. Other rich men might do the expected thing: Settle down to a private life in the suburbs, play golf and the real estate markets. Not Ross. He'd worked hard, saved his money, invested it, and with a little luck, gotten rich. Now it was time to rise above the rest of the children. But how? It was his parties that first caught the attention of Jim Klobuchar at the Minneapolis Tribune. "He gives elaborate, unorthodox parties, where the door prize may be a $30,000 mink coat or Tom Smothers," Klobuchar wrote in a 1973 column, "as it was last summer when Percy brought together Jeno Paulucci, Curt Carlson, Hubert Humphrey, Rosalie Butler, and a supporting cast of hundreds. It follows that Percy is a celebrity collector who drops names with a seismic force surpassing even that of Barbara Flanagan."

          Shortly before his Bicycle Party put Ross's name in headlines across the country, a party of another sort drifted across Klobuchar's radar--a Valentine's Day bachelor bash at a Minneapolis Radisson suite. Ross was a "reputed millionaire," Klobuchar wrote by way of introduction, "who now devotes himself largely to his favorite causes, including politicians and people who appreciate good old-fashioned ostentation." Klobuchar got the scoop from Tom Jardine, a working stiff at the Radisson hotel. He recounted the glitz in his column: the staff with heart-trimmed name tags, the pink champagne, the machine that blew bubbles throughout the suite on the 22nd floor. And the women! "I have never seen so many beautiful women assembled under one roof in Minneapolis," Jardine told Klobuchar. "I felt like a kid in a fudge factory."

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