Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Laura Berman: Gambler Kerkorian holding GM's fate is creepy thought

Thursday, July 06, 2006
Laura Berman: Gambler Kerkorian holding GM's fate is creepy thought

Kirk Kerkorian's story is The Greatest Generation Gets Revenge.

At his age -- that would be 89 -- even the most avaricious corporate sharks tend to go sentimental.

Bill Gates, barely old enough to get his AARP card, is already swapping out, as the techies say: Instead of building wealth, he intends to systematically distribute it around the world. And to do so with a kind of enlightened intelligence and philanthropic discipline, besides.

Ditto for his septuagenarian buddy, Warren Buffett, who's handing over his $40 billion to Gates.

Then there's Kerkorian's buddy, Lee Iacocca, who left the auto business to putter in vineyards and promote electric bicycles. Even the former entrepreneurial terror known as Martha Stewart has gone sweet and funny, and she's just in her 60s.

Enron's former chief, Kenneth Lay -- beaten down and humiliated -- exited the stage Wednesday in the most definitive way possible.

But at his age, Kerkorian is as hungry, as risk-taking, as relentlessly acquisitive as he was flying fighter planes from Labrador to Scotland for the Canadian RAF at the onset of World War II. In that, and in his early career as a successful boxer, you can map out what keeps him going: some combination of high risk and tangible reward and solo achievement.

Putting fear into managers

He got rich in Las Vegas, flying in gamblers from Los Angeles with a charter airline, and making and losing mini-fortunes at the casino tables, even as he bought airlines and hotels.

He may be 89, but he doesn't leave money on the table.

So he's using his 9.9 percent stake in General Motors Corp. to put fear into a generation of baby boomer managers who are tough enough to get to the top of the world's largest car manufacturer's tortuous corporate ladder but who likely never flew small planes beyond their fuel tank limits.

They're all about teamwork and corporate citizenship and a multitude of group values that are antithetical to Kerkorian's straightforward precepts.

He goes for what he wants

The gambler doesn't like to lose his stake. The daring pilot doesn't leave a mission uncompleted. The boxer goes for the knockout.

And the gambling, boxing, fighter pilot does not get weepy and sentimental about a giant corporation's tens of thousands of employees when the company isn't performing the way he is.

I imagine that Kirk Kerkorian's love of risk, his drive and even his love of money keep him engaged and alive. They've enabled him to overcome lack of formal education, family poverty and personal setbacks, including three failed marriages.

He's relentless and individualistic, a man who follows his instincts and his unwavering belief in the bottom line.

I can appreciate, even admire his edgy, hard-boiled style.

But I have to tell you, the prospect of Kirk Kerkorian playing Detroit's homegrown megacompany like a giant craps table gives me the creeps.

You can reach Laura Berman at (248) 647-7221 or lberman@detnews.com.

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