Real estate legend Sam Zell dies at 81

Real estate legend Sam Zell dies at 81
Sam Zell, Founder and Chairman, Equity Group Investments

Sam Zell, the chairman of Equity Group Investments, Equity LifeStyle Properties, Equity Residential, and Equity Commonwealth, has passed away at the age of 81 due to complications from a recent illness, said Equity Group Investments in a written statement on Thursday.

The son of Polish refugees Bernard and Rochelle Zielonka, Sam Zell was born in Chicago in 1941 four months after his parents’ arrival in the U.S. following their escape from Poland during the German invasion.

He launched and grew hundreds of companies during his 60-plus-year career and created countless jobs.

I’ve spent my whole life testing my limits’

Sam Zell began his career by managing student housing apartments as an undergraduate at the Universityof Michigan. His first employee was Bob Lurie, a fraternity brother. In 1968, he founded Equity Group Investments (EGI), a private investment firm headquartered in Chicago.

A year later, Lurie joined him as a partner at EGI. Together, they built an empire, branching out from real estate to invest across industries in the 1970s and 1980s. Lurie died of cancer in 1990, just before he launched what became some of the largest and most successful REITs in history: Equity Residential (EQR), one of the largest apartment REITs; Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS), a manufactured home community and resort REIT; and Equity Office Properties Trust (EOP), which was the largest office building owner in the country and the first REIT in the S&P 500 when it was sold in 1997 for $39 billion in the largest leveraged buyout in history at that time.

In 1999, he founded Equity International to focus on building real estate–related businesses in emerging international markets. He was among the first U.S. investors to heavily target Brazil and other emerging markets, recognizing the upward movement of the growing middle class there. He was active in bringing a number of Equity International’s companies to the public markets.

In 2014, Zell made another major real estate investment and took control of CommonWealth REIT, an internally managed and self-advised real estate investment trust with commercial office properties in the U.S. He renamed the company Equity Commonwealth (EQC) and was chairman of the board. Sam infused his entrepreneurial culture and contrarian perspective into EQC, which is led by executives with deep real estate experience. Sam’s Equity family of companies and his unwavering focus on corporate governance is recognized by Wall Street. In total, Sam sponsored 12 IPOs across a range of industries.

Sam’s legendary reputation in real estate often overshadowed his investment activity in the corporate sector, although the majority of his holdings were across industries such as transportation and logistics, energy, waste and infrastructure, manufacturing, health care, and agribusiness. He served as chairman of Anixter International Inc., a global provider of wire and cable products, for 34 years and stewarded the sale of the company in 2020 for $4.5 billion. Sam also chaired Covanta Holding Corporation, an international energy-from-waste company; Jacor Communications, Inc., a media holding company that led to the radio industry’s consolidation in the 1990s; and many other companies.

Zell was recognized by Forbes in 2017 as one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds. Also that year, he chronicled his fundamental principles for life and business in a book whose titleAm I Being Too Subtle?, captured his humor and his penchant for conveying messages through storytelling.

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