Today: How Kirk Kerkorian, a man with just an 8th grade education became a billionaire.
Born in 1917 to Armenian immigrants in Fresno, CA, Kirk was the youngest of four children.
His father Ahron a farmer, although nearly illiterate, saved his money and bought a series of small farms, seemly making the family financially secure. But in 1921-22 Ahron suffered some business reverses and the banks seized his property.
Now broke, the family struggled desperately and moved repeatedly to wherever Ahron could find work. Kirk at the age of 9 started working odd jobs to bring income to his family.
This left little time for school. And after joining a street gang and getting into fights, Kirk was sent off to a school for troubled boys, where he finished his formal education in the 8th grade.
But he was a tough kid and went into boxing. He racked up an impressive 33 win, 4 loss amateur career and captured an amateur welterweight championship.
However this was during the Great Depression and it was hard to make a living in the fight game. Instead, Kirk got a stead job installing and maintaining furnaces.
Then one day his boss, who enjoyed flying, took him on a flight in his small plane. They soared through the air, free as birds and it was exciting, while below them the view was spectacular.
That day, Kirk fell in love with flying and was determined to make a living doing it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford flying lessons.
But he could work for those lessons. He contacted famous Hollywood female stunt pilot Florence “Pancho” Barnes, who operated her Happy Bottom Riding Club outside Los Angeles. This Riding Club had a dude ranch and a restaurant and attracted many of the well known aviators of the day.
Enthusiastic young Kirk made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. In exchange for flying lessons, he would shovel manure, milk her cows and do any other dirty jobs on the property. Soon she taught him to fly and this dramatically changed his career and his life.
As World War ll started, the British Royal Air Force hired Kirk to do what few pilots would dare to do. He flew their “Mosquito” bombers to Scotland from where they were manufactured in Canada.
These were dangerous flights because to avoid enemy aircraft, it was necessary to fly the planes far to the north near the Polar route. Designed to fly fast and be nimble, these planes were made of laminated plywood, and if heavy ice built up on the wings, it could send them crashing into the North Atlantic Sea thousands of feet below.
Many of these aircraft and their crews suffered this horrific fate.
Even when the flights went well, it took several hours of often heavy air turbulence to fly them to Scotland, a real roller coaster of a ride. They had two loud roaring propeller engines thrusting a wooden plane through icy air temperatures and inside, few creature comforts, like a pressurized cabin or a heater.
It took nerves of steel to fly this route, but in the mind of a young man seeking adventure it was exciting and it paid an incredible $1,000 per flight [about $10,000 in today’s dollars]. In one flight however, Kirk ran out of gas near Scotland and glided the plane in, as his life and that of his crew hung in the balance.
During the war, he delivered 33 bombers and saved most of the $33,000 he was paid. When the war ended in 1945, Kirk was an accomplished pilot and he bought a single-engine Cessna aircraft for $5,000 to fly people on short flights, often between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
This was so profitable that in 1947, Kirk bought a little charter company, Los Angeles Air Service and began expanding its number of flights. Now he could profit not only from his own labor but on the labor of everyone he employed, which compounded his earnings.
But there was another opportunity as well. The war’s end made large numbers of aircraft: surplus. Kirk saw a market for these unwanted planes and began buying and selling them, for many could be modified and made ideal for flying commercial cargo.
Retrofitted, some of them could also fly passengers and a big market developed for those planes among poorer nations.
Running his own charter aircraft service and brokering airplanes, Kirk made a fortune and he was now barely in his 30’s. But there would be more exciting times to come as he risked his fortune to try to make a massive one.
Success Tip of the Week:
What Kirk did in expanding his charter flights many entrepreneurs do today in whatever their industries as they profit by the labor of others instead of to be limited by what they alone can do. If you’re a businessperson, this concept could benefit you.
In the next KazanToday:
Kirk tackles Las Vegas casinos, a legendary Hollywood studio and tries to get control of Chrysler Corporation.