14 Things We Can Learn From a Little-Known Billionaire

From impoverished Armenian immigrant’s son to billionaire businessman. How did he do it?

Better Investing


One of the richest men in the United States died recently. It’s possible you’ve never heard of him.

Kirk Kerkorian, who was 98, was at one time worth $18 billion. But the recession and some less-than-successful business deals brought his estate down to approximately $4 billion by the time of his death.

Still, not bad for the son of an Armenian immigrant whose get-rich-quick schemes kept the family one step ahead of irate landlords. (During Kerkorian’s boyhood, his family moved 20 times.)

Often hungry and always hustling, he started doing odd jobs and selling newspapers at age 9 and left school after the eighth grade to help support his family. Kerkorian became a flight instructor, ferried planes during World War II and ultimately wound up a high-stakes gambler and real-estate investor.

Known as “the father of the Las Vegas megaresort,” Kerkorian also created his own commercial airline, bought and sold MGM Studios three times, tried to buy TWA, and made huge investments in or tried to take control of Chrysler, GM and Ford.

(The photo above is of the Golden Nugget, a luxury hotel and casino in Las Vegas that Kerkorian owned.)

What can we learn from this connoisseur of cash? Plenty.

1. Risk can mean reward

As noted: $18 billion! Kerkorian was willing to pony up large sums to create deals he thought would work. Often they did.

Maybe you’re ready to make a financial leap of faith, such as buying a fourplex to rent out or investing in the stock market. Just make sure to learn everything you can about your risk before you assume it.

Don’t count on the reward, either, because …

2. Risk can also mean failure

As noted: $4 billion, down from $18 billion. In a 1970 Time magazine article, Kerkorian said that losses were “the nature of the game.”

Never forget that. The money you put into that “can’t lose!” stock could vanish like a politician’s promise. Pray for reward but be absolutely prepared for failure. It happens.

3. Don’t count on luck

“I just lucked into things,” Kerkorian told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “I used to think that if I made $50,000 I’d be the happiest guy in the world.”

To some extent that’s true. The guy had some luck as a high-stakes gambler plus the good fortune to get into casino-building when real estate was cheap. Point being, he saw a chance and worked to grab it.

As they say, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” If you know what you want to do – move up in your company, start a business, buy a house, invest your money – then learn all you can about how to do such things.

For example, having high debt and a low credit score will make it hard for you to get a mortgage. Get started fixing those problems and then see how much you can prequalify for. That way you’ll have all your paperwork ready when the right house comes along.

Incidentally, you should fix that high debt/low score situation even if you don’t want to buy a house. (That weekly lottery ticket is probably not going to be the answer to your mucky finances.)

4. Don’t make it all about you

Some wealthy people seem to revel in the limelight. Kerkorian was famous for shunning publicity and resented the notion that he was a recluse.

“I have 30- or 40-year friendships that I prefer to meeting new people,” he said in a 1999 interview. “Just because I don’t go to a lot of events and I’m not out in public all the time doesn’t mean I’m antisocial.”

It’s really OK not to be in the spotlight. If you constantly seek acclaim or validation from colleagues, social media or club-goers you don’t even know, ask yourself what you hope to achieve.

Not only does living large cost a lot of money, it takes your focus away from what you do for a living. Sure, your business or service needs to be publicized. But do you need to be photographed by paparazzi to be a success?

5. Hire people you trust

Kerkorian was not a micromanager. He preferred to hire good people and rely on them to do good work.

Likewise, you should surround yourself with people who have your back. Don’t hire someone because he’s your sister’s husband’s nephew’s kid, or because you went to the same college as his mom. Check references – and your gut – before hiring, whether you supervise a huge department or are hiring a part-timer for your fledgling business.

6. If you like to work, then work

At age 52, when he was worth $250 million, Kerkorian told The New York Times that he’d made enough to retire: “But that would be a pretty dull life for me, wouldn’t it?”

Early retirement isn’t for everyone. If you like what you do, keep doing it.

7. Know your weaknesses

Kerkorian dropped out of school after the eighth grade to earn money for his family. Even though he later became fabulously wealthy and powerful, he told the Times that he wished he had “a silver tongue” like developers Donald Trump or Steve Wynn. So he kept his head down and did what he did best: Make money.

That may have been easier then than it is now. If your skill set needs help, either outsource certain tasks (accounting, investing, social media) or make it your business to learn what you need to know.

Kerkorian’s paucity of education was said to have bothered him. Don’t live to regret your own lacks.

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