Sam Zell, the billionaire investor who called himself “the Grave Dancer” for his bets on distressed assets, including a losing wager that drove the Tribune Co. into bankruptcy, has died. He was 81.
He died Thursday due to complications from a recent illness, according to a statement from his company, Equity Group Investments, which called him “a self-made, visionary entrepreneur.”
Zell cut an elfin figure and cultivated a rebellious persona, with displays of salty language, a penchant for motorcycles and frequent media appearances. The Chicago-born son of Polish refugees, he built a fortune in real estate and a hodgepodge of investments that included radio stations, drug stores, parking lots, mattresses and Schwinn bicycles. He amassed a net worth of $5.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
His ventures, managed through Chicago-based Equity Group Investments, included the largest owners of office properties and apartment buildings and the biggest operator of mobile home parks. Zell’s Falcon Building Products Inc. was the top domestic supplier of air compressors for home-improvement use. His American Classic Voyages Co. and American Hawaii Cruises, were first in riverboat and Hawaiian inter-island cruises, respectively.
His highest-profile venture ended badly. In 2007, he sold one of his units, the Equity Office Properties Trust, to New York-based Blackstone Inc. for $39 billion, then the largest leveraged buyout.
The cash helped him orchestrate an $8.3 billion leveraged buyout of Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Chicago Cubs and a portfolio of television and radio stations.
As Tribune chief executive officer, he trimmed 4,200 workers to make the Chicago-based media company more profitable. He took the company private in 2007 and used a little-known strategy to limit its taxes. Even with that edge and selling the Cubs and Newsday to raise cash, Zell got caught in the Great Recession and had to file for bankruptcy protection in 2008 as his leveraged debt became unpayable. He lost more than $300 million.
Zell, with a remarkable record of wins on his investments, had another defeat of sorts when he lost the bidding for Rockefeller Center’s 12-building complex in 1996, losing out to a coalition led by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Undaunted, he moved on, eventually becoming the largest US office landlord before selling to Blackstone a decade later.
REITs as tool
Zell dusted off a modestly used vehicle, the real estate investment trust, and used it as a vehicle to go public, funded by investors large and small. After years of guaranteeing deals with his own assets and worrying about how liquid and vulnerable he was, Zell saw the wisdom of using others people’s money through REITs. From this experience, he coined one of his maxims, which he called Sam-isms: “Liquidity equals value.”
Zell laid out his investment philosophy in a 1978 article titled The Grave Dancer, published in Real Estate Review. “I was dancing on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes,” he wrote.
He was an opportunist whom critics called a vulture capitalist. “It’s the situation, not the long-term trend, that interests us,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2006.
Other Zell rules: Don’t covet trophy properties. Don’t buy at an auction. Don’t buy outdated office space.
“Sam was a legend in every way – a brilliant investor, entrepreneur and business builder,” Jon Gray, Blackstone’s president, said in an emailed statement. “I loved his uniquely direct style and the example he set on how to live life to the fullest.”
Ken Moelis, the founder of investment bank Moelis & Co., said Zell “was brilliant, uniquely insightful and a person who truly enjoyed what he did.”
Moelis added that he learned a lot from Zell, but “most of it is unprintable.”
Zell’s risk-taking spilled over to his personal life. He had annual motorcycle rides with a group he called Zell’s Angels, leading his pack down dangerous roads around the world. He also was first down the slopes on black-diamond ski trails on outings he arranged for his staff.
In 2017 Zell published “Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight Talk from a Business Rebel.”
Samuel Zell was born Shmuel Zielonka in Chicago on Sept. 28, 1941. His parents were Jews who had escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland and made their way to the US through Japan in 1941.
Zell’s father, born Berek Zielonka, changed the family name to Zell. Berek became Bernard, as he made the transition from being a grain dealer to a wholesale seller of jewelry before investing in conservative real estate transactions. His wife, Ruchla, changed her name to Rochelle.
The family initially lived in the Albany Park neighborhood before moving to the wealthy North Shore suburb of Highland Park, where Zell graduated from high school. An early entrepreneur, he sold used Playboy magazines to classmates before getting into managing campus real estate at the University of Michigan, where he earned a bachelors’s degree in 1963 and a law degree three years later.
He worked briefly for a law firm but decided he preferred real estate. He opened his first solo office in Chicago in 1968. Robert Lurie, who had helped him manage apartments at the University of Michgan, joined him, rising from a 15 percent partner to an equal until his death in 1990. Zell, who had relied on Lurie as his operations chief, worked without a partner after that.
Zell married three times. He had a son, Matthew, and a daughter, JoAnn, from his first marriage and adopted a daughter, Kellie, during his second. His third wife, Helen, was active in Zell’s charitable work, which included donations to museums and to his alma mater in Michigan.