14 Things We Can Learn From a Little-Known Billionaire

Photo (cc) by Ken Lund

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.

8. Teach your kids about money

Kerkorian was practically Scrooge McDuck when compared with other billionaires. That lesson doesn’t seem to have been passed along. According to The Daily Mail, a reputed $450,000 was spent on a bar mitzvah for Kerkorian’s grandson.

Hey, if his parents could afford it, then it’s theirs to spend, right? Still, think of the good some of those bucks could have done elsewhere. Tell your own children the cold, hard facts about cold, hard cash. For ideas, see “6 Tips that Turn Kids Into Money-Savvy Adults.”

9. Meet your own standards, not other people’s

As noted above, Kerkorian tended toward long-term friendships and low-key entertainment (tennis games, movies). He didn’t put himself on every available red carpet or buy a dozen vacation homes where “the beautiful people” frolic.

The next time someone tries to talk you into doing something that doesn’t appeal to you – going on a shopping spree, hitting the clubs, investing in a startup, splurging on an expensive vacation – remember that you are a free agent. You can say “thanks, but I’ll pass.”

And no, it doesn’t matter why you don’t want to do something. As they say, “no” is a complete sentence. Don’t be cajoled or bullied into doing things that don’t mesh with your lifestyle, your budget or your comfort zone.

10. Live a little!

The billionaire had a 190-foot yacht, a 737 jet, a 30-acre compound in Benedict Canyon and a pied-a-terre in Beverly Hills when he didn’t feel like driving all the way home. What’s money if you can’t enjoy some of its rewards?

Just be sure to keep an eye on the bottom line versus being one of those people who wastes every dollar (and then some).

11. But don’t overdo it

Sure, Kerkorian had the jet and the yacht and all that. He also drove himself around in vehicles like a Jeep Cherokee and a Pontiac Firebird, and while his office was in Beverly Hills it was not a flashy place. He visited local movie theaters (wonder if he asked for the senior discount?) and tennis matches without a bodyguard. Since he lived to 98 without being kidnapped, keeping it real seemed to work

Whether you’re a wealthy tycoon like Kerkorian or still trying to make your mark on the world, remember that enough is as good as a feast. If you feel the need to spend in flashy, public ways, ask yourself why.

Those who are still coming up would do well to remember that every buck spent on ultimately pointless indulgences is a buck that can’t support your business or any personal financial goals.

And those who’ve already made it? Hey, get yourself that 737 if that’s what grabs you. But consider using some of that money to …

12. Give back

During his lifetime Kerkorian gave more than $1 billion through a couple of foundations named for his daughters. According to the New York Times, most of his estate went to charity. In a prepared statement, Lee Iacocca called Kerkorian “one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, and one of the quietest about it.”

No law requires you to help others. But it’s certainly a kind thing to do. Obviously there’s the tax write-off if you itemize, but sometimes you should give because you can afford to do so.

Note: Kerkorian didn’t ask for his name to be put on university buildings or libraries or any other public edifice. He just wrote the checks and moved on. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to tweet about that $50 donation to the PTA.

13. You weren’t always rich

Perhaps because he remembered what it was like to work hard for little money, Kerkorian was a generous tipper. “He was the type of person who would have a $10 meal and give the waiter a $100 tip,” said one former acquaintance. “He never forgot where he came from.”

If you’re lucky, you’ll end up a success in your field/startup/whatever. Good for you! But remember that you weren’t always a big shot. Memories of your lean years will make you more grateful for whatever you manage to achieve. The wait staff in your life thank you in advance.

14. Don’t be afraid of hard work

As noted, the young Kerkorian was a hustler. Can you imagine your own 9-year-old selling newspapers to help the family, or your 14-year-old announcing his plan to bring in enough money to make a difference?

So if you want to clear your debts, get an education, find a better job, start your own business or retire early, here’s a clue: Such things aren’t easy. If they were, everyone would be doing them.

It takes work (maybe at more than one job), dedication and, yes, maybe some sacrifice. But reaching your goal will be that much more satisfying because you did it yourself.

How do you think you would behave if you had a billion-dollar bank account? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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