Remembering Sam Zell, Billionaire Real Estate Investor

Sam Zell, a well known Chicago real estate investor who earned himself a multibillion-dollar fortune through investing and remodeling properties otherwise seen as unrepairable, passed away last week at 81-years-old. 

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Billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell passed away last week at the age of 81 due to complications from a recent illness, according to Equity Group Investments, the company he founded back in 1968. 

Zell was known for his reputation as a “grave dancer,” a term used in the industry to describe someone who’s able to revive properties that other investors would deem as a bad investment, or beyond the point of repair. 

Zell got his start in real estate when he began managing apartment buildings as a college student. By the time he reached 70-years-old, he had a fortune of about $3.8 billion. In 2007, he earned $39 billion after selling Equity Office, the office-tower company he spent three decades building, to the Blackstone Group, according to the Associated Press. 

However, a month after making the massive deal, he acquired the Tribune Company for $13 billion, a deal that would lead to him filing for bankruptcy, which he discussed with AP at the time, explaining real estate only represented about 25% of his holdings.

“I’m a professional opportunist. I’m pretty sure that no matter what topic you pick, we’re involved in some way or another.” 

Zell was born on September 28th, 1941 in Highland Park, Illinois, four short months after his parents immigrated to the US after fleeing Poland before the Nazi invasion.

His business intuition picked up early on in life, he spent his 8th grade prom taking pictures for his classmates and selling them, before moving on to buying Playboy magazines and reselling them to his peers at a 200% markup. 

As a college student at the University of Michigan, he began managing the apartment building he lives in and accepted payment in the form of free rent. The skills he gained at that time led to him managing many other properties, creating his own apartment-management business that he would later sell. 

He ended up teaming up with one of his college fraternity brothers to create a business that invested in distressed properties from developers that needed to be redone. The practice was able to survive the 1970 recession with a lot of success.

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“Sam Zell co-founded the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in 1999.”

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In 1976, Zell was interviewed by a magazine regarding his great success in being able to spot and pursue property/investment opportunities, the article was titles “The Grave Dancer,” which became a well-known nickname for him within the industry for the rest of his career. 

In the 1980’s, as America’s economy coped with the savings and loan crisis, Zell began purchasing a multitude of real estate properties that he encouraged investors to also pool their money into, especially commercial real estate properties that weren’t being as heavily invested in by the 1990’s. 

Zell was known for his love of taking risks, especially when it came to his business. Equity Group Investments made a written statement acknowledging his success and trail-blazing work within the industry throughout the past 50+ years. 

“Sam Zell was a self-made, visionary entrepreneur. He launched and grew hundreds of companies during his 60-plus-year career and created countless jobs. Although his investments spanned industries across the globe, he was most widely recognized for his critical role in creating the modern real estate investment trust, which today is a more than $4 trillion industry.”