Tom Blair likes to do things big or not at all.
He founded Catalyst Health Solutions, a $1.43 billion prescription drug benefits company his son now runs. Blair still mans the helm of FedMed, Inc., his health-care cost-containment organization.
He has amassed a collection of flyable World War II airplanes, including the world’s largest collection of Spitfires which, of course, he flies. For Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2011, he joined in the historic fly-past aboard a Lancaster.
He does lunch with pal Gen. Colin Powell, socializes with U.S. presidents at the annual Washington-elite Alfalfa Club banquets and, oh by the way, last year he whipped out a book of droll political commentary.
Poorer Richard’s America: What Would Ben Say? (www.tomblair.net) quickly hit the New York Times Best Sellers List.
At 67, the Maryland man has become a quintessential bigger-than-life American success story – though he says he just got lucky.
“I’m 6-2. I’m male, white, raised in America with a loving family,” he says. “I know the names of the starting quarterbacks of most NFL teams and I have a great wife.
“With that set of circumstances, if you can’t win, you have a problem.”
Life did not start out with such great promise, though. Blair was born in 1944 to a young English woman – two weeks after his American G.I. father was killed during the Normandy invasion. He was barely a toddler when his mother’s childhood sweetheart, freed from a German P.O.W. camp, came home. The British soldier wanted his old girlfriend, but not the son of a Yank.
“When I was 2, she got on a boat and brought me to America and gave me to my aunt, my father’s sister, Dorothy Lane Blair,” Blair says.
His new parents were a working-class Maryland couple who gave the youngster all of their love, their name and the necessities they could afford. He was able to go to college, the University of Maryland, and there he met his wife, Alice.
“When our first child was born, I didn’t have enough money for gas to get to the hospital,” he says.
When he was 32, he tried his hand at his first entrepreneurial effort, a company to develop software for the health-care industry’s information needs. He mortgaged his house to raise the capital.
“I totally underestimated how hard it would be to get going,” he says. “Alice and I had three young children and we lived month to month in fear we’d lose the house.”
But, as he says, luck was on his side.
“If I had chosen any other industry, like computers or food service, I probably wouldn’t have made it. The health-care industry is growing faster than any other segment and it’s recession-proof.”
When the company took off, Blair sold it and started a new one. Among his early business partners was a shrewd man who would later become the Independent dark horse in two presidential elections.
“Ross Perot had sold Electronic Data Systems to General Motors and he was bored,” Blair recalls. “That’s the only reason I got in to see him. He had a line of people around his building saying, ‘Ross, with my idea and your money, we could make a lot of money.’
“I said, ‘With my idea and my money and your name, we’ll make a lot of money.’ And that got me to the front of the line.”
Blair launched and sold several companies, developing connections and relationships that led him to dabble in politics. In 1988, he won the Maryland primary for U.S. Senate but pulled out of the race. Too many business commitments.
Today, Blair indulges in his 17 grandchildren, his passion for history and aviation, and an emerging profile as a witty and astute political commentator.