Kirk Kerkorian’s amazing Rags to riches story

The world is full of examples of people who have combated challenges and emerged out victorious. Kirk Kerkorian, the American billionaire and one of the prominent names in the history of Las Vegas is one such example.

Today the world knows him to be the multi-billionaire casino mogul who ranked 41st among the list of richest people in the world in 2008. Before Kerkorian died at the age of 98, he also had amassed enough wealth to become the second oldest billionaire of the world, with just David Rockefeller ahead of him. However, what many people do not know is that Kerkorian was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. As a matter of fact, he had to face a lot of financial struggle during his early years.

Early life – the days of the rags

Born in Fresno, California in 1917 to parents who were immigrants from Armenia, Kerkorian had done a lot of things before getting tagged as one of the richest people of America and the world. He was an 8th Grade dropout who didn’t find studies to be very encouraging. After leaving school, Kerkorian became interested in boxing and became quite passionate about it. He was under the tutelage of his elder brother and had the honor of winning the Pacific Amateur Welterweight Championship as well.

Kirk Kerkorian with famous lawyer and fellow boxing champion jake ehrlich
Kirk Kerkorian with famous lawyer and fellow boxing champion Jake Ehrlich

However, getting stuck to something was not the trait of the budding billionaire. Soon after he gave up boxing, he turned towards flying and got a chance at the Happy Bottom Riding Club, where he learned to fly. His flying instructor was Pancho Barnes, the pioneer aviator who had the credit of breaking America Earhart’s air speed record. As Kerkorian did not have a wallet heavy enough to pay for the flying lessons then, he had to milk and look after the cattle of Barnes as a fee for the flying lessons he got from Barnes.

(Note: I highly recommend reading up on Pancho Barnes in the Wikipedia Link above, she’s something inspiring too. Amazing Woman!)

The journey towards the riches began

Once he gained the commercial pilot’s certificate, Kerkorian joined the Royal Air Force and served during the Word War II. It was during this time that the billionaire of the future had started saving his wages which summed up to a handsome amount pretty soon. His first major investment was on a Cessna plane which he bought by spending $5000.

It was in 1944 when Kerkorian visited Las Vegas for the first time. He spent a good time gambling there and in 1947 he purchased a small air-charter service called Trans International Airlines that catered to people flying from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to try their luck with gambling. Soon enough, Kerkorian gathered enough wealth to buy 80 acres of land in Las Vegas.

Kirk Kerkorian with Trans International Airlines Model Plane
Kirk Kerkorian with Trans International Airlines Model Plane

He spent a whopping $960,000 for this purchase. However, he always had the right calculations as he knew that this amount would get multiplied pretty soon and opened the floodgates of income for him. He was not wrong. The owners of the famous Vegas hotel, Caesar’s Palace rented the land from him for the building of the hotel. This deal made Kerkorian earn a whopping $9 million in 1968. This was just the beginning.

Kirk Kerkorian in Las Vegas at the MGM construction site
Kirk Kerkorian in Las Vegas at the MGM construction site

In 1967, Kerkorian bought another piece of land in Las Vegas that measures 82 acres. He used this land to build the International Hotel, the largest hotel of the world at that time. Kerkorian was in the spree of buying by this time. In 1969 he purchased the Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie studio and opened the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. This hotel had the pride of being the largest hotel in the world at the time. Beating the Grandeur of the International Hotel by great extent.

Kirk Kerkorian on his MGM Grand Property before building

The poor young man, who once used to be an amateur boxer on the streets of Los Angeles, had the habit of buying and selling properties. He bought and sold the MGM movie studio thrice in his life time. Purchased United Artists, and even made several attempts to buy Columbia Pictures. While many people think that he was a movie buff, people who know him would confirm that he never cared for movies in particular. All the business-minded entrepreneur was interested in was making money and he did not let any single opportunity go loose ever in his lifetime.

He turned towards the automotive industry in 1995 and made a failed attempt to take over the Chrysler Corporation. He owned 9.9% stakes in General Motors. Since 2008 he started buying stocks for Ford Motor Company. After spending a jaw-dropping amount of $1 Billion on 6% buying 6% stakes in the company, he quit the buying and started selling the stocks off. The reason behind this was the rapidly decreasing value of the Ford shares that point of time. By the end of 2008 he had sold off all the stakes in Ford.

He was rich but he was simple

Even though he had turned the wheel of fortune in his favor, Kerkorian never let himself forget about the days when he was in rags. Being able to afford a motorcade of limousines and Cadillac cars, the rich businessman still preferred driving a Ford Taurus for a bigger chunk of his life. In 2008, Kerkorian was ranked 41st in the list of richest people in the world.
With a net worth of his properties hitting $16 billion. However, owing to the stock market recession, by the end of 2012, his wealth got tumbled down to $3.2 billion only. With little recovery post the debacle, He ended 412th on the list of richest men in the world at 2013, with the net worth of his property being at $3.9 billion.

Kerkorian was one of those noble rich people who never forgot their roots. It was this trait that paved the path from rags to riches for the man who never completed high school when he was a student. He never used his name in any of his ventures. The charitable foundation, The Lincy Foundation, which he had formed for the betterment of Armenian people, was also named after his two daughters Tracy and Linda. Though this foundation, Kerkorian had donated millions of dollar for the betterment of mankind and people of Armenia. Time Magazine also had named Kirk the 10th largest single donor in the US in 2000.

He always knew that unless he gives away, he would never get the chance to get more.


Get inspired by Rags to Riches stories? Read about the success story that is Alibaba’s Founder Jack Ma here.

Kirk Kerkorian's amazing Rags to Riches story
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Kirk Kerkorian's amazing Rags to Riches story
From school dropout to billionaire. Find out how Kirk went from poverty, to boxing champ, to airline tycoon and casino mogul. Then, gave it all away to charity.
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