Robertson was born in Salisbury, North Carolina. He founded the investment firm Tiger Management Corp., one of the earliest hedge funds. Robertson is credited with turning $8 million in start-up capital in 1980 into over $22 billion in the late 1990s, though that was followed by a fast downward spiral of investor withdrawals that ended with the fund closing in 2000.
In 1993, his compensation and share of Tiger's gain exceeded $300 million. His 2003 estimated net worth was over $400 million, and in December 2017 it was estimated by Forbes at $4.1 billion. Robertson said in 2008 that he shorted subprime securities and made money through credit default swaps. The following year, according to Forbes, Robertson's return on his $200 million personal trading account was 150 percent.
Robertson is the son of Julian Hart Robertson Sr., a textile company executive, and the former Blanche Spencer. He graduated from Episcopal High School in 1951 and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1955. While at Chapel Hill, he was admitted to Zeta Psi fraternity. He then served as an officer in the U.S. Navy until 1957.
After leaving the Navy, Robertson moved to New York City and worked for a time as a stockbroker for Kidder, Peabody & Co. At Kidder, he eventually headed the firm's asset management division (Webster Securities) before departing to move with his family to New Zealand for a year to write a novel. On his return, in 1980 Robertson launched Tiger Management with initial investments from friends and family.
On April 1, 1996, BusinessWeek carried a cover story written by reporter Gary Weiss, called "Fall of the Wizard", that was critical of Robertson's performance and behavior as founder and manager of Tiger Management. Robertson subsequently sued Weiss and BusinessWeek for $1 billion for defamation. The suit was settled with no money changing hands and BusinessWeek standing by the substance of its reporting.