The Top Seven Corporate Rags-to-Riches Tales

May 3, 2011
Unless you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, the only way to make a fortune from nothing is hard work and a resolve to escape your very humble beginnings. These guys did it better than anyone.

7. Kirk Kerkorian

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The story of Kirk Kerkorian is truly an American one. Born to Armenian immigrants, Kerkorian dropped out of school in the eighth grade and had a short, successful career as an amateur boxer. He then learned to fly and bought a small charter airline that flew gamblers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the 1940s.

Kerkorian’s true wealth came from developing Vegas. He bought up large tracts of land on the Vegas strip in the 1960s and changed Vegas forever by developing and building mega resorts. In 1967 he built the International Hotel on the strip, which was then the largest hotel in the world. He later bought the Flamingo hotel and built the MGM Grand.

Kerkorian’s net worth has tumbled in recent years. Ill-timed investments in General Motors and Ford ate away at his fortune. The recent global financial crisis took a further chunk out of Kerkorian’s change, taking him from being valued at $16 billion in 2008 to $3 billion today. Even so, this 93-year-old will never have to request a senior’s discount.

6. Steve Jobs

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Before developing Apple's first Macintosh computer and later revolutionary products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, Steve Jobs attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, but dropped out after only one semester because he couldn’t afford the tuition. Jobs continued attending some classes by auditing them, including a calligraphy class that he later said influenced the multiple typefaces included in the first Mac. To make ends meet, he slept on a friend’s floor, recycled Coke bottles for the five cent deposit, and ate free meals at a local Hare Krishna temple.

In 1976, Jobs started Apple Computers in his parents’ garage. Within 10 years the company grew from two employees to over 400. Today, the company is the most valuable technology company in the world.

5. Sheldon Adelson

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Sheldon Adelson is the first to admit he comes from humble beginnings. Adelson grew up in the working class suburb of Dorchester, Massachusetts. His father was taxi driver and his mother ran a knitting shop. At an early age Adelson sold newspapers and by age 12 he’d started his own business. He admits, “I come from a very poor family. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I had to work for everything I had.”

After dropping out of college, Adelson started a business that sold toiletry kits, a chartered tour business, and a computer trade show called COMDEX. This was the biggest computer trade show for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the success of this business led Adelson to Vegas where he purchased the Sands Hotel. In 1989 he built the Sands Expo and Convention center, the first independently owned convention center in the United States. This forever changed Las Vegas and made Adelson a very wealthy man. In 1995, inspired by his honeymoon in Venice, he opened The Venetian. Today he is the fifth richest man in the United States and worth a cool $23 billion.

4. Larry Ellison

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Larry Ellison, the founder and CEO of database tech company Oracle, has joked he “had all the disadvantages required for success.” The 66-year-old was born to a single mother in New York City and adopted by his great aunt at nine months of age. He did not discover he was adopted until age 12.

Ellison dropped out of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign after his adoptive mother died. He enrolled in the University of Chicago, but dropped out after one semester due to poor grades. At age 20 he moved to California and took a job at Ampex Corporation. At the time, Ellison only had enough money to buy food and gas. His work at Ampex led to the formation of the multi-billion dollar company Oracle. Today, Larry Ellison is the fifth richest man in the world and the highest paid CEO of a public company in the United States.

3. Roman Abramovich

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Roman Abramovich’s path to riches is dubious to say the least, but hey, that’s the Russian business way. Orphaned at a young age, Abramovich managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Today he is worth a cool $13 billion.

Abramovich’s brazen entrepreneurial spirit first exhibited itself after he dropped out of college and entered the Russian Army. He earned big bucks selling stolen gasoline to other soldiers in his unit. He left the army and married his first wife in 1987. He used his in-law’s 2,000 ruble wedding gift to purchase contraband goods and sell them on the black market. Romantic, huh? He soon tripled his investment. Abramovich then set his sights on bigger and better things--manufacturing plastic toys and dolls.

In the early ‘90s as the Russian market opened up to capitalism, Abramovich used his political connections to greatly increase his wealth. He purchased a controlling interest in Sibneft, a large oil company, for a $100 million. This was well below market value and Abramvoich later admitted to bribing government official to push the sale through. Sibneft’s true value ended up being in the billions.

2. Li Ka-shing

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Li Ka-shing’s life changed at age 15 when his father died of tuberculosis. The suffering of his father and his family’s abject poverty gave Ka-shing a resolve to do one thing-- reshape his destiny. Immediately after his father’s death, Ka-shing dropped out of school and got a job in a plastics factory. Some seven years later, through hard work and 16-hour days, he started his own plastics company, manufacturing plastic flowers. He soon diversified into real estate.

Today his empire runs the gamut of industries and includes banking, construction, real estate, plastics, cellular phones, satellite television, cement production, retail outlets (pharmacies and supermarkets), hotels, domestic transportation (sky train), airports, electric power, steel production, ports, and shipping. Ka-shing is now the 11th richest person in the world and worth a staggering $26 billion. He has been dubbed “Asia’s Most Powerful Man” and the “Superman” of business.

He should really change his name to "Ka-ching."

1. John Paul Dejoria

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John Paul Dejoria went from being homeless to having a net worth of over $4 billion. Born to immigrant parents, Dejoria grew up poor in East Los Angeles. His parents divorced by the time he was two but by age nine Dejoria was selling Christmas cards and delivering newspapers to help his mother make ends met. He eventually ended up in foster care after his mother could no longer afford to take care of him.

Dejoria spent his youth in a street gang, served in the Navy, and held down a variety of odd jobs ranging from janitor to insurance salesman. Before starting John Paul Mitchell Systems, Dejoria had a spell of money troubles which resulted in his wife leaving him and their two-year-old son. With no job or ability to pay rent, Dejoria and his son spent time living on the street. He managed to score a job with hair care company Redken which inspired him to start his own line of hair care products. He and partner Paul Mitchell both invested $750 and the rest is history.

Dejoria would also go on to start the tequila company Patron.