As a kid growing up in a housing project in Mount Vernon, Ill., Kenny Troutt helped pay for classes at Southern Illinois University by working construction jobs.
"I grew up very poor," he says. "Getting rich, that was my whole focus in life."
No kidding. These days he doesn't have to moonlight.
At 60, Troutt is now a billionaire, thanks to telecom deregulation and the hustle he displayed in the late 1980s buying up, then selling, long-distance phone time. Beginning by trolling parking lots and street corners for customers, Trout's company, Excel Communications, grew from nothing to sales of $1.4 billion US by the time he took it public in 1996.
Two years later he sold it to Montreal-based Teleglobe, which is now a part of Tata Communications, for $3.5 billion, including debt. His 50 per cent share was worth $1.5 billion in cash and stock. Not bad for someone who once worked as a groom at a racetrack. Now he has his own grooms: His Kentucky-based Winstar Farm has produced a long list of winners, including Colonel John, who just captured the Santa Anita Derby.
Troutt is just one of the world's 1,125 billionaires who wasn't born into a blue-blood lifestyle. Like John E. Anderson, 90, whose father was a Minneapolis barber, and Forbes estimated to be worth $2.2 billion in March.
How did that happen? Like most kids growing up in Minnesota, Anderson played hockey; he did it very well, enough to win a scholarship to UCLA, a school known more for basketball than hockey.
In addition to a broken nose, two false teeth and various other scars of battle, Anderson held down two jobs to help pay living expenses. At night after practice, he'd sweat over a sweltering metal oven at a factory. "When I graduated, I knew I sure as hell didn't want to do that again."
The World War II vet later picked up an M.B.A. from Harvard and a law degree from Loyola. While working as a lawyer, he seized an opportunity to buy a struggling beer distributor. The distributor's exclusive rights to distribute Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser in parts of L.A. proved a windfall. Anderson eventually expanded distribution into Hawaii and the Caribbean.
Thanks to Anderson's $15 million gift, UCLA's graduate business school is now named for him.
Other rich listers that have surprising jobs on their résumé include Kjell Inge Rokke. The 49-year-old Norwegian billionaire started his career by selling fish off a boat.
Harold Hamm's first job was a gas station attendant. The 62-year-old oilman is now worth over $4 billion.
Leonardo Del Vecchio, 72, was sent to an orphanage at age 7. He worked in a factory that made molds for eyeglass frames. It gave him an idea. He founded the eyeglass maker Luxottica in 1961 and now has a fortune of $10 billion.
Dennis Washington, 73, manned a heavy crane on Alaska construction sites after finishing high school. After a stint at his uncle's construction firm, Washington decided to strike out on his own. He borrowed a bulldozer on credit and started his own firm in Montana.
It was good timing. There were abundant highway projects and forestry contracts in the region. Soon, Washington was the largest contractor in the state. Today, the high school graduate has interests in nuclear services, homeland security, regional railroads and a copper mine.
He also has a unique bank account for a former crane operator. Forbes estimates Washington's net worth at $3.4 billion.