American real estate investor Sam Zell has passed away at the age of 81

Sam Zell, a legendary distressed real estate investor who later took a tumultuous turn in the media industry, has passed away.

Zell, 81, became known as the “Grave Dancer” because of his habit of enjoying the troubles of other developers, particularly during the real estate market crash of the early 1990s.

He built his flagship company, Equity Office Properties Trust, into the largest office owner in the country – with memorial buildings from coast to coast. Then, with flawless timing, he sold it to the private equity firm Blackstone for $39 billion in 2007. It was at the time the largest financial debt purchase ever, and it came just before the global financial crisis.

Zell later tried his hand at media, outbidding two other billionaires in 2007 for the Tribune Company in his hometown of Chicago, publisher of newspapers including the Chicago Tribune and owner of broadcast television networks and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

At first, Zell was hailed as a potential savior for a company swept up in the newspaper industry’s accelerating decline. But the Tribune Company ended up filing for bankruptcy the following year, saddled with $13 billion in debt. Zell faced accusations from journalists and lawsuits from investors. He later called it “a bargain from hell”.

Zell, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland who fled the Holocaust, was born in Chicago in 1941. His father was a jewelry salesman. Young Zell showed an entrepreneurial streak at an early age, buying play boy The magazines downtown and then sell them at a profit margin to his school friends in the suburbs.

Zell got into the real estate business while still a law student at the University of Michigan by managing rental properties alongside his studies. He was so successful at it that he gave up the legal profession to become a full-time developer.

Retired attorney Jack Guthmann, who represented Zell and his company in zoning transactions, was introduced to the young developer in the 1970s by Newton Minow, the famous former head of the Federal Communications Commission. Minoo noted that Zell was “a real-estate rookie,” Guthman recalled.

“It turns out he’s become a giant,” Guthman said. “I think of him as someone with a great imagination. He made deals that other people couldn’t conceive of.”

He earned a reputation as one of America’s largest adverse investors, snapping up real estate in distress—from mobile homes to office buildings and industrial assets—and breathing new life into it.

Along with his friend and business partner, the late Robert Lowery, Zell rode the real estate market boom of the 1980s but then predicted doom—and was proven right.

Today, as investors face yet another crash in the commercial real estate market after a protracted boom, they routinely listen to Zell and his opinions from 30 years ago.

Zelle has had a reputation as an iconoclast. He dressed up and preferred an annual motorcycle trip with friends to membership in Chicago establishment clubs.

He displayed characteristic courage when buying Tribune, telling employees and investors: “Everything I do is driven by doing it better, doing it differently, and answering questions that no one else can.”

But he ended up befuddled by the same forces that afflicted other newspaper owners, including the collapse of print advertising. The disrespectful and aggressive work culture introduced by Zell and his managers faded as the company weakened and prized assets, such as the Cubs and the Los Angeles Times, were sold off. Zell later blamed the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of credit markets for the problems with the deal.

Nevertheless, he and his wife, Helen Zille, were a mainstay among Chicago’s philanthropists. They have supported the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and Invest for Kids, which helps nonprofit organizations that serve underprivileged children.

“Commitment to Chicago is a valued quality, and he was greatly appreciated,” said Gottman.

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