On his passing, Las Vegas lost a great man, a great business leader, a great community leader and humanitarian, an innovator and one member of our country’s Greatest Generation. Even more, Kirk Kerkorian was a great friend, a great mentor and a great coach. He combined brilliant business insight with steadfast integrity to become one of the most reputable and influential entertainment and hospitality leaders of our time.
During the darkest days of the Great Recession, Kerkorian and I would talk almost daily. Sometimes we would talk business, but not always. He would always ask me how I was doing, was I taking care of myself, was I exercising, how was my family, how were the employees? He always cared about others.
He was one of the most contemporary thinkers I knew. He taught me the importance of looking forward about 85 percent of the time, and to look back only to understand how things could be done better. This approach to life, and business, was natural for him because he started his career as an aviator. He was also a superb boxer. In both cases he had to have the discipline to look forward—to the next milestone as a pilot and to the next jab as a boxer.
His life was like a truly American screenplay. And what a legacy he left.
Kerkorian was a first-generation U.S. citizen, born of Armenian immigrants. Until the end, he never forgot his ancestry.
Two years before World War II, in 1939, he was installing wall furnaces around Los Angeles. He visited an airport to watch a co-worker fly a Piper J-3 Cub. That experience led to a lifelong love of aviation. Eager to gain a pilot’s license, he found his way to Happy Bottom Ranch in the Mojave Desert, which was a combination flight school and dairy farm near what is now Edwards Air Force Base. In exchange for flying lessons, he tended ranch.
After earning his pilot’s license, he joined the Royal Air Force Air Transport Command, whose mission was to fly Mosquito bombers from Canada to Scotland. The trip was harrowing. Each plane carried enough fuel to fly 1,400 miles, while the distance to Scotland was 2,200 miles; only one in four pilots survived. But through gritty determination and calculation—characteristics that ran throughout his life—he innovated piloting the northern route. Ultimately Kerkorian delivered 33 Mosquitos to the front.
With his tidy nest egg, he first visited Las Vegas as pilot of his own Cessna airplane, for which he paid $5,000. Later, he founded a small charter airline to fly tourists. His love affair with Las Vegas had taken off literally and figuratively.
His first foray into Las Vegas was in 1955 when he invested $50,000 into the Dunes Hotel which, ultimately, he lost. He drew knowledge from the experience and determined he would always be in charge of his destiny. Kerkorian went on to assemble parcels of land which he sold to what is now Caesars Palace.
In the 1970s, he founded MGM Grand and grew it into MGM Resorts International—which he said was the highlight of his career. He oversaw five decades of deals, mergers and development projects-—at one time or another, he owned the Sands, International Hotel, Flamingo and MGM Resorts’ present portfolio of more than 10 Strip resorts. His vision and business prowess helped transform Las Vegas from a modest gambling city into a world-renowned travel destination.
On three different occasions, he built and opened the world’s largest hotel, starting with the International in 1969 and then MGM Grand in its two iterations, in 1973 and 1993.
His boxing prowess, advocacy and leadership had him inducted into the inaugural class of the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame alongside other greats including George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson.
And to continue the screenplay, aside from flying, his other nongaming professional passion was film. He owned MGM Studios from 1969 to 1990, and again from 1996 to 2005. Like his Las Vegas entertainment and hospitality operations, he focused on expanding his film assets, purchasing Orion Pictures, the Samuel Goldwyn Company and Motion Picture Corporation of America. He also bought a majority of the pre-1996 PolyGram Filmed Entertainment library from its parent, Philips. In 2005, he sold the MGM movie studio operations for the last time to a consortium led by Sony.
He was, in many ways, the master of the business deal. The magic to his success was simple—he cared that the other party felt that they were being treated fairly. He was in pursuit of relationships, not just transactions. He knew that “win-win” would create long-term relationships that were so important in business and life. Kerkorian always knew the stakes. In business and in life, he always had a keen sense of the chips on his side of the table. There was no gray area with Kerkorian when it came to ethics and probity of deals. Only deals done correctly and with an eye for the other party were considered, let alone concluded.
In 2011, on his retirement from the MGM board of directors, he said, “One of the most rewarding aspects of my life has been my association with MGM Resorts and its predecessor companies. I am deeply indebted to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have worked for our companies through these many years. Their hard work and dedication to success created the extraordinary opportunity to share our success with others. It has been a privilege to work with them all.”
Truly, the privilege was ours.