Thursday, June 18, 2015

33 Fights and 33 Flights: A Profile of Kirk Kerkorian, the Lifter of Armenia's Spirit

This was first published in The Armenian Reporter on October 23, 2009.

I prepared this profile on the request from the Reporter's late publisher Gerard Cafesjian, one of only a handful of things he ever asked me to write over more than eight years working for the Reporter. A fellow early investor in Armenia, Cafesjian clearly felt kinship with Kerkorian. Kerkorian, 98, passed away on June 15. Cafesjian, then 88, preceded him on September 15, 2013.

Kirk Kerkorian: A generous billionaire and people’s hero
Making a lasting impact on Armenia and the world
By Armenian Reporter staff

Kirk Kerkorian in front of one of his projects in 1969.
Photo courtesy of Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas.

People in Armenia were asked recently to name individuals they considered their national heroes. Predictably, the list was dominated by military and political leaders of the recent and more distant past like Vazgen Sargsyan, Andranik Ozanian and King Tigran Metz.
            The only two contemporaries who were named by significant numbers of respondents were singer Charles Aznavour and businessman Kirk Kerkorian.
            Mr. Kerkorian, 92, a self-made billionaire is in a category apart in the Armenian world.
He is the only Armenian to be listed among America’s and the world’s richest people for over a decade. He was, as of 2006, the richest resident of Los Angeles. He has been the largest individual contributor to the development of Armenia’s infrastructure and Diaspora’s institutions. An epitome of Armenians’ entrepreneurial and patriotic spirit, he is a source of pride for Armenians.
Mr. Kerkorian is also known for his insistent avoidance of public recognition of his efforts. In a way then publication of this biographic sketch may also be in contravention to what his wishes may be.

Early life in Saroyan country
            He was born Kerkor Kerkorian in Fresno in a family of Aharon and Lily Kerkorian, Armenian immigrants with roots in Kharbert (Harput) in present-day Turkey. Youngest of four children, Kerkor spoke Armenian at home and learned English in the streets.
Aharon Kerkorian was a watermelon and raisin farmer, who did well until recession struck in 1921. As was typical of the times, the younger Kerkorian began working as a kid, selling produce and newspapers, and later washing, repairing and re-selling cars.
Raised in the years of depression, the young Kerkorian like many of his contemporaries never went to high school, dropping out after the eighth grade.
Mr. Kerkorian was only nine years younger than his famous compatriot and fellow San Joaquin valley native William Saroyan, but it is unclear when and if their paths had crossed.
            In an early claim to fame in 1937, Mr. Kerkorian became the Pacific amateur boxing champ in welterweight category and was known as "Rifle Right" for his technique that helped him win 33 fights.

Getting his wings
            But it was Kerkorian’s passion for flying that became his ticket to financial success.
            After his first flight on a single-engine plane, he worked as a cattle ranch hand in exchange for flying lessons at a school ran by celebrity female aviator “Pancho” Barnes.
            During World War II, Mr. Kerkorian by then a licensed pilot joined the British Royal Air Force as a civilian contractor flying bombers built in Canada to United Kingdom.
The job was high risk. The bombers’ tanks could hold fuel enough only for part of the flight, with pilots relying on favorable winds to glide their aircraft for the remainder of the journey over icy waters. One in four would not make it. Mr. Kerkorian made 33 flights over two and a half years.
            After the war, he had $12,000 saved, enough to launch his own aviation business.
            In 1947 Mr. Kerkorian paid $60,000 for the Los Angeles Air Service, a small charter airline that flew between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which was the just emerging as America’s gambling capital.
            He first sold the airline, which he renamed Trans International Airlines, in 1962, only to buy it back in 1965 and sell it again to TransAmerica Corp. for $104 million.

The maker of Las Vegas
            Starting in 1962, Mr. Kerkorian began investing in Las Vegas real estate. He initially rented and then sold land to Caesar’s Palace casino, earning $9 million in the process.
            After leaving the aviation business, he built the International and Flamingo hotels in 1969, before selling both to the Hilton chain the following year. Since his entry into Las Vegas, Mr. Kerkorian helped change its image into one of a popular and family-friendly vacation destination.
            In 1969, Mr. Kerkorian purchased the famous Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) and later the Universal Artists studio; the merged MGM/UA was sold to Ted Turner in 1985 for $1.5bn.
Mr. Kerkorian repurchased the studio several years later for $780mln., only to sell it again for $1.3bn., buy it back again and finally sell it to Sony for $2.9 billion in 2004.
            In 1990, Mr. Kerkorian turned his attention to America’s ailing automotive giants, purchasing and then selling large shares in Chrysler and more recently the General Motors and Ford.
Reflecting his aversion to luxury in personal life, Mr. Kerkorian drives relatively inexpensive American cars, such as Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Taurus. And even as the studio owner, Mr. Kerkorian reportedly insisted on standing in line and buying movie tickets of his own.
            Mr. Kerkorian remains the largest shareholder in the MGM Mirage, the second largest gaming and resort company in the world, which owns the current MGM Grand complex, the Bellagio, the Mirage, the New York-New York, Circus-Circus, Mandalay Bay, The Luxor, Excalibur and the under-construction CityCenter, all in Las Vegas.
            According to Forbes magazine estimates, at its high Mr. Kerkorian’s fortune amounted to $16 billion before the most recent economic crisis brought it down to an estimated $3 billion this year.
He remains among America’s 100 richest men and women.

A grand philanthropist
            Mr. Kerkorian is considered one of America’s most generous billionaires, having given away as much as one-fifth of his total fortune to charitable causes.
            Armenia has been one of the largest beneficiaries, but Mr. Kerkorian has also been generous to Armenian Diaspora communities as well as his two homes states of California and Nevada. At the same time, he has refused to have anything named in his honor.
            Mr. Kerkorian’s Diaspora investments more recently included millions for Lebanon’s Armenian community in 2006 as well as Armenian Schools in California. In the past Lincy also provided annual support for the Armenian Assembly of America.
            Among major beneficiaries are the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (in part for its recently launched partnership with Washington-based Brookings Institution); the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas; St. Rose Dominican Hospitals in Henderson, Nev.; the Nevada Cancer Institute; University of California at Irvine and many others.
            [According to Harut Sassounian, Kerkorian's total philanthropy amounted to $1 billion, split evenly between Armenian and non-Armenian charities.]

The lifter of Armenia’s spirit
            Between 2001 and 2008, Mr. Kerkorian’s Armenia programs administered through the Lincy Foundation amounted to $242 million.
            In addition to direct involvement, the foundation also supported the Catholic Medical Mission Board which has assisted Armenia’s healthcare system; the Armenian American Wellness Center; the Armenian Technology Group involved in agriculture; the Eurasia Foundation that supports pro-democracy programs, among others. Lincy is also part of the United Armenian Fund.
             On surface, the Lincy’s infrastructure programs gave the country a sorely needed “face lift”. Most of the money went into road and housing construction, particularly in the earthquake-ravaged north of the country, as well as for repairs of Armenia’s public buildings, including museums.
            But more than cosmetics, Mr. Kerkorian’s money came to Armenia at the time when few others would invest and total government spending ran at a mere $400 million a year. Lincy program gave Armenia a boost that helped it regain its self-confidence and attract more investors, fueling the construction boom of the last decade.
            In spite of Mr. Kerkorian’s efforts these heroics have not gone unnoticed. The recognition offered to him by people of Armenia speaks for itself.

Sources consulted: and news media.

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