Kirk Kerkorian Part 3: Real Estate and Casino Mogul

As Kirk Kerkorian transitioned from aviation entrepreneur to investor, he also got into real estate development. Per his biography, he took $960,000 from the sale of Trans International Airlines in 1962 and bought eighty acres in Las Vegas. In 1963, a developer leased the land to build Caesars Palace. Kirk would get lease payments and 15% of casino profits.

Caesars Palace educated Kirk on casino development. He made plans to build his own hotel and casino. The International Hotel would have 1,000 rooms and be the world’s largest. He paid $5 million for sixty-five acres and another $12.5 million to buy the Flamingo Hotel so he could train staff while his hotel was being built.

The Flamingo was built by Bugsy Siegel in the 1940s and had been run by the mafia since then. It reported profits of less than $500,000 annually. In its first year under Kirk’s ownership, it made $3 million, more than Kirk’s $1 million projection. This increase in profits would be a double-edged sword.

Kirk wanted to focus on his project, so he sold the land underneath Caesars Place for $5 million, returning $9 million total on his five-year investment.

Kirk was thinking big. He believed leisure travel was on the verge of exploding. He bought the bankrupt Bonanza Hotel and Casino and the second mortgage on Circus Circus resort and created the International Leisure Corporation (ILC) to own them and the Flamingo and International Hotels.

In 1969, he took ILC public and raised $26 million. Later that year, the International Hotel, which cost $60 million to build, opened and was wildly successful. With two successful hotels and casinos, ILC’s stock rose. Kirk’s eighty-two percent ownership was worth $180 million.

ILC had $50 million in debt, which Kirk planned to pay off by issuing more ILC stock. Unfortunately, the SEC wouldn’t let him because it questioned the recordkeeping at the Flamingo before Kirk bought it. Simultaneously, a bear market hit stocks. ILC’s stock dropped 90%, from $65 to $6.50. Kirk needed to raise cash. He sold his yacht, private plane, and roughly half of his ILC stock. His stock had been worth $180 million months earlier, but Hilton Hotels bought half of Kirk’s position for $19.4 million. Hilton owned 50% of ILC, for which it paid only $21.4 million. Leverage forced Kirk to sell at the worst possible time and lose control.

Kirk hated having partners. By 1970 Hilton was renaming the International Hotel as the Hilton Las Vegas. This, combined with wanting to pay off other debts, led to Kirk selling his remaining ILC shares. He was no longer in control of what he’d built and was out of the casino business for the time being. Things weren’t all bad. He made a roughly $30 million profit after ILC’s stock sales and dividends were factored in.

“I have no regrets,” Kirk said. But he learned valuable lessons: first, that ownership and control mattered in the companies he created, and second, that he, like his father, was susceptible to being crushed by financial leverage at the worst possible time.

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