Anyone who has met Sam Zell—whether it’s one of his CEOs, a competitor in a business deal, the head of an organization or a journalist—knows where they stand with him.
Mr. Zell’s voice was hoarse and frank, with little patience for malaise or emotion. He reveled in his reputation for using salty language even in politically correct times. It made him popular on the speaking circuit, as those present eagerly listened to his business vision and the entertainment he would give.
Mr. Equity Group Investments, where he was chairman, said Mr. Zell passed away at his home Thursday from complications from his recent illness. He was 81 years old.
With a career spanning more than 60 years, Mr. Zell has amassed one of the leading fortunes in Chicago business circles. It used to focus on real estate, but has expanded into many other areas, including transportation, energy, manufacturing, and radio stations.
He had a penchant for taking over businesses that needed a makeover, or “dancing on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes,” as he wrote in a 1970s article. She bore the nickname “The Grave Dancer”, and the nickname became his calling card. In 2017, Mr. Zell published a book about his nature, Am I Too Accurate?
Those close to him knew he had another mantra — don’t take yourself too seriously. Besides, have some fun. He used to lead a group of friends called Zell’s Angels on motorcycle tours around the world. He was an avid skier on the toughest runs.
Around the office, he favored jeans and open-collared shirts long before they came into the tech world.
“Sam lived life to test his limits and help those around him do the same,” said Scott Pibet, president of the Chai Trust and Mr. Zell’s son-in-law.
“He had an unapologetic passion for life, a brilliant mind, an infectious wit, and a deep sense of civic responsibility and personal loyalty. All who loved him and learned from him will be sorely missed.”
In announcing the death, Equity Group said: “Loved by family, friends, employees and colleagues, Sam was an honest, straightforward, inspiring, creative, kind and brilliant man. He valued humor, loyalty, integrity and her body. Above all, he fulfilled his own vision for his legacy: he was tireless A man of his word, or shem tov, the Hebrew term for a good name or reputation.”
Forbes estimated Mr. Zell’s wealth at $5.2 billion. He popularized the concept of real estate investment trusts, or REITs, which allow people to invest in large-scale properties through equity ownership. Among the companies he has founded is Equity Residential, an owner of apartment buildings that Mr. Zell started while he was a student at the University of Michigan.
Mr. Zell also served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Equity LifeStyle Properties, which owns mobile home communities, parks and RV campers. His portfolio at various times included Schwinn Bicycle Co., Ltd. and mattress maker Serta.
He previously owned the Equity Office Properties Trust but sold it in 2007 for $39 billion. It was the largest leveraged buyout in the company’s history and is widely considered the pinnacle of Zell’s career. He personally liquidated about $1.1 billion.
Most of Mr. Zell’s deals were successful, but his reputation was damaged after a high-profile failure—the same year his stock office triumphed. Mr. Zell entered into a debt-fueled agreement to buy the Tribune Company, then owner of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and other major newspapers and television stations. He followed his playbook by cutting jobs and selling off non-core assets, including the Chicago Cubs.
But he made the move as revenue plummeted in the Great Recession and technology changed, and Tribune declared bankruptcy just a year later. Even after the sale closed, Mr. Zell called it “the deal from hell.” The company’s failure cost him $315 million, and the bankruptcy led to a restructuring that cost about 4,200 jobs.
Over the years, Mr. Zell got annoyed when reporters asked him about the rare defeat. He preferred that they focus on the jobs he had created throughout his career.
In a 2012 interview with the Financial Times, he said his premise of buying the Tribune was sound, but he was overwhelmed by a rapid 30% drop in revenue that he said no company could have survived. Urging the interviewer to focus on other things, Mr. Zell said, “And I have a lot of other things in my life that I do. That was a very important investment for us five years ago. It just didn’t work out.”
Life on his own terms
Our co-workers long remembered Zell as living on his own terms, but with a dedication to philanthropy and bringing others into the business world.
“Sam’s insatiable intellectual curiosity and passion for deal-making have created some of the most dynamic companies in the general real estate industry,” said Marc Barrell, CEO of Equity Residential. “He was a gracious philanthropist, teacher and wonderful friend and will be missed by all those fortunate enough to be a part of his extraordinary world.”
“Mr. Zell’s endorsement at key inflection points helped propel my real estate career at a time when there were almost no women in the industry,” said Debra Cafaro, chairman and CEO of Ventas, which owns healthcare facilities.
Among the famous Chicagoans, Mr. Zell’s annual birthday parties were a celebrity-studded affair. He hired the Eagles, Jay Leno, Elton John and others to entertain the guests.
Mr. Zell Shmuel Zielonka was born in Chicago on September 28, 1941, about four months after his parents arrived in the United States from Poland, having fled Nazi persecution of Jews. His parents, Bernard and Rochelle Zielonka, shortened their family name to Zell.
“Growing up as the child of an immigrant, things were a lot different in my home than they were in anyone else’s home,” Mr. Zell said in an interview posted online by Equity Group Investments. “So the little question of it all wrapped together produced a different person than the average. Any Another thing I may pretend to be, I certainly pretend to be different.”
His father was a jeweler who worked in real estate. The family settled in Albany Park but moved to Highland Park, where Mr. Zell graduated from high school.
He showed his entrepreneurial bent as a boy, buying Playboy magazines and selling them at a markup price to friends. At the University of Michigan, he ran apartments in exchange for a free room and board.
He had a law degree, but was drawn to real estate with his brother, Robert Lowry, who became a business partner and prominent investor in his own right. Laurie’s death from cancer in 1990 affected Mr. Zell deeply.
Lurie and Zell are associated with the entrepreneurial foundations at the University of Michigan and at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Zell has also supported programs at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Reichmann University in Israel.
Mr. Zell was active in business and media subscriptions until his death. In the past few weeks, he has criticized the Federal Reserve and the work-from-home culture in his own signature style. He was quoted as saying that the Fed was “screwed up” by raising interest rates and that working from home was “bulls—“.
Mr. Zell is survived by his third wife, Helen. She is the Executive Director of the Family Foundation, which is active in the fields of arts and education. Among the survivors are three children, two sisters and nine grandchildren.
Services have not been announced.
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