Making it big in business is no easy feat; a lot of blood, sweat and toil is often required to reach the top. Perseverance, smarts and skill are all key – yet notwithstanding such effort and ability, when success is achieved, the financial rewards can be great, with personal fortunes sometimes amounting to hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.
The following ten figures have all climbed to the summit in their respective industries and made a pretty penny along the way. However, great wealth aside, they each have something else in common: their status as military heroes. Indeed, the actions of these men in the field ultimately shaped their exceptional accomplishments in business.
10. Kenneth H. Dahlberg
Minnesotan Kenneth H. Dahlberg’s wartime exploits were tremendously heroic and almost stranger than fiction. During his World War II service with the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was shot from the sky on three occasions – and after the first such mishap he masqueraded as a woman in order to cycle 40 miles to Allied safety. Dahlberg had at least 14 aerial victories to his name and was a POW at the war’s conclusion. Furthermore, for his efforts in the conflict he received a slew of awards, among them a prestigious Distinguished Service Cross, a pair of Purple Hearts and 15 Air Medals. Dahlberg – who passed away in 2011 – did pretty well for himself in business, too. In 1948 he created Dahlberg Electronics, a company notable for its pioneering and highly successful hearing aid, Miracle-Ear. In 1993 the firm was snapped up by Bausch & Lomb for an impressive $139 million.
9. Kirk Kerkorian
During WWII, long before Kirk Kerkorian became a hotel mogul and the CEO of Tracinda Corporation, his passion for flying helped him land a pilot’s role with the British RAF Air Transport Command – notwithstanding his Fresno, California roots. Members of the Armenian-American community back home tracked his progress in the dangerous business of flying dozens of de Havilland Mosquito airplanes across the Atlantic to Scotland, and Kerkorian gained prestige as a hero. The pilot later used some of the liberal pay he saved to enter the world of business – specifically, by purchasing a Cessna plane and starting charter services. In 1947 he went on to buy Los Angeles Air Service in a move that would eventually net him $104 million when he sold the charter operator on. Other ventures have included hugely successful Las Vegas land acquisition, buying a majority stake in film studio MGM, and snapping up shares in General Motors and the Ford Motor Company. Today, Kerkorian is worth a staggering $4.2 billion.
8. Douglas Dayton
Anyone who’s picked up a bargain at Target has Douglas Dayton to thank, for the late self-made billionaire played a decisive role in the foundation and development of the now gargantuan discount retail firm. Dayton cut his teeth as a store manager at Dayton’s – the department store opened by his father – in Minneapolis. Moreover, he was able to appreciate the threat presented by the business’ cheaper rivals – notably Kmart – and, sensing opportunity, was tasked with establishing a retailer focused on low prices. In 1962 the inaugural four Target outlets opened, with Dayton at the helm; and less than two decades later, the company was turning over more than $1 billion. As well as excelling in business, though, Dayton also proved to be a brave member of the U.S. Army, winning a Purple Heart on the back of his involvement as an infantry sergeant in the European theater during the Second World War. He died in 2013.
7. Herb Vest
Herb Vest’s time in business has been a little unconventional. After making his name with – as well as lending it to – Texas-based financial services firm H.D. Vest, the Princeton and Harvard Law School alumnus became CEO of now defunct dating website True, which he founded in 2003. Like many men of his generation, Vest saw action in the Vietnam War; his role was that of an infantry commander handing out orders to helicopter platoons – units that came to be emblematic of the conflict. Vest was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded by shrapnel, and he believes his military service helped spark a shift in career focus. “The object of war is not to kill everybody, but to destroy the enemy’s willingness to resist,” he told USA Today in 2005. “That’s so important to being an entrepreneur.” And Vest’s business decisions have certainly paid off: 2001 saw him sell H.D. Vest to Wells Fargo for a handsome $128 million.
6. George Joseph
From humble stock – his dad was a miner and shopkeeper in West Virginia – George Joseph rose to become hugely wealthy, his net worth today totaling $1.5 billion. However, before his business career began, Joseph signed up to serve his country and saw action as a B-17 navigator in North Africa from 1942, with his flair for figures helping him complete 50 missions over Tunisia and Italy. When the Second World War ended, Joseph got down to further hard graft, achieving a degree from Harvard in three years and then holding down a job in life insurance. Furthermore, he decided that after hours he would work evenings as an insurance rep – later exploiting the fact that during the 1950s all motorists had identical policy rates. In 1961, after gathering together the required investment, Joseph set up Mercury General Corporation, which allowed drivers to benefit from more flexible, equitable tariffs. By the firm’s 50th year, the value of its assets had surpassed $4 billion.
5. Sumner Redstone
Boston-born media mogul Sumner Redstone’s trajectory in the world of business was initially aided by his father Michael, who owned the Northeast Theater Corporation – later National Amusements, Inc. Thirteen years on from being welcomed aboard the family business in 1954, Redstone would become CEO – and a succession of astute deals, investments and sales have enabled him to amass a personal fortune of $6.1 billion. In 1987 he became chairman of Viacom after seizing control of the entertainment company, and further down the line he spearheaded the acquisitions of Paramount Communications and subsequently CBS Corporation. Redstone’s smarts had also been valuable in the arena of warfare: during his service with a U.S. Army intelligence team in WWII, he was instrumental in breaking important codes created by the Japanese. As a result, he was given an Army Commendation Award as well as other accolades.
4. Nicholas J. Bouras
Michigan-born steel titan Nicholas J. Bouras’ entrepreneurialism earned him a rather substantial fortune. According to Greek-American newspaper The National Herald, in 2009 Bouras was worth $250 million – wealth that can be traced back to his and his wife’s 1960 founding of Bouras Industries, a steel construction firm that would go on to have multiple ancillaries and a real estate offshoot. Way before he made it big in industry, though, Bouras signed up with the U.S. Army Air Corps, rising to become a major. He completed 44 missions in the skies over Europe during the Second World War and was decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross, a quintet of Battle Stars and a further eight Air Medals. Having given millions to the Orthodox Church, Bouras was bestowed with yet another honor in 2006: the Athenagoras Human Rights Award, which recognized his philanthropy. He died in 2013, aged 93.
3. Bob Parsons
In a 2005 interview with Worthwhile magazine, Bob Parsons revealed that he was “as dirt poor as a church rat” while growing up in Baltimore. Times have certainly changed, though, for the internet entrepreneur is now worth a cool $1.89 billion. Parsons’ self-taught programming knowhow was instrumental in his creation of two technology outfits. The first, Parsons Technology, was set up in 1984; a decade on, Parsons sold it for $64 million. The second, domain registration firm GoDaddy, was born in 1997 as Jomax Technologies, later becoming the billion-dollar business it is today. Before his stratospheric tech success, however, Parsons did service with the Marine Corps in 1969 as a rifleman in the Vietnam War. And although his stint was curtailed after he was injured in the field, Parsons was honored with decorations including a Purple Heart and a Vietnamese Gallantry Cross – meaning he can safely add “war hero” to his seriously impressive résumé.
2. Jack C. Taylor
Jack C. Taylor’s time as a Second World War fighter pilot brought him not only decorations for heroics, but also a name for the company that would eventually make him billions of dollars. After joining the U.S. Navy once his country had entered the conflict, Taylor piloted F6F Hellcat planes from the USS Enterprise and USS Essex aircraft carriers – the former of which supplied the aforementioned inspirational moniker. Taylor received a Navy Air Medal and a pair of Distinguished Flying Crosses for his efforts and upon returning to civilian life set up a delivery service outfit. That entrepreneurial spirit would, moreover, assist him well: following a subsequent stint at a St. Louis Cadillac distributorship, with the company’s backing he launched a car-leasing venture in 1957. This business would ultimately grow into Enterprise – rebranded Enterprise Rent-A-Car in 1989. Today, it serves thousands of locations internationally and has earned Taylor a $14.7 billion fortune.
1. Frederick W. Smith
As with Jack C. Taylor, FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith’s military service helped spark his inner entrepreneur to life, and in the end this resulted in phenomenal personal wealth for the Memphis resident. Smith took more than a name from his army career, though. He joined the Marine Corps in 1966 during the Vietnam War, eventually assuming the role of forward air controller, and was well placed to learn about logistics – particularly supplies procurement and methods of delivery. After receiving medals including a Silver Star and a pair of Purple Hearts for his efforts in Vietnam, Smith wished, as he revealed to Fortune in 1997, “to do something productive after blowing so many things up.” With this in mind, he put his experience to good use by establishing Federal Express in 1971. Years one and two were marred by the threat of insolvency, but Smith clawed his overnight delivery business back from the brink, ultimately landing himself a fortune that is today valued at $3.8 billion.