Sam Zell was a billionaire real estate investor who was nicknamed “the Grave Dancer” for his tactic of acquiring distressed companies.
Sam Zell’s legacy
Zell embraced his path to building wealth through buying up distressed properties and turning them around for profit before even completing his undergraduate degree. He entered real estate as a college student at the University of Michigan, managing off-campus housing in exchange for room and board. He began flipping cheap houses into apartments for students, and his real estate business was born. Zell founded Equity Group Investments in 1968, continuing to acquire real estate over the decades.
Zell’s holdings via his company included large brand properties, such as Sealy and Schwinn, but he remained largely under the radar outside of financial investment and corporate circles. That changed in 2007 when he acquired the struggling newspaper group the Tribune Company, whose papers included the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. The high-profile sale made him a CEO in an already troubled industry, one in which he had no experience. Less than a year later, the company declared bankruptcy.
Ranked among the world’s 400 richest people in 2020, Zell also practiced philanthropy. His causes included his alma mater, the University of Michigan, as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Northwestern University, and the American Jewish Committee.
“I doubt I would want to buy a newspaper company today. But if I had the same set of facts in front of me now as I did then, I would do the Tribune deal again. Is there some other way I could have communicated how dire the circumstances were and gotten leadership and employees to support it, rather than fight it? Maybe. I didn’t succeed.” —from a 2017 interview for Barron’s
Tributes to Sam Zell
Full obituary: The New York Times