Samuel Zell, Real Estate Pioneer, Dies At 81

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Zinger Key Points
  • Zell, known as 'The Grave Dancer,' started in the 1960s, co-founding Equity Group Investments and transforming distressed assets.
  • Beyond business, Zell's philanthropy was notable. He established entrepreneurship programs at renowned educational institutions.

Samuel Zell, founder and chairman of Equity Residential EQR, a titan of the real estate industry and a formidable figure in the corporate world, died at the age of 81.

Zell’s influence extended far beyond real estate, touching various sectors including manufacturing, retail, travel, health care, and energy.

Born in Chicago in 1941, Zell started his journey in real estate in the 1960s. Alongside his partner Robert H. Lurie, he co-founded Equity Group Investments (EGI) in 1968, setting the stage for a career characterized by shrewd investments, according to Britannica.

It was during the early years that Zell earned the nickname “The Grave Dancer,” for his unique approach to acquiring distressed assets and reviving their fortunes.

The 1990s marked a pivotal period in Zell’s career as he played a key role in popularizing the real estate investment trust (“REIT”) structure, according to Investopedia, effectively democratizing the ownership of publicly traded real estate companies. It was a revolutionary step, opening up opportunities for investors and reshaping the real estate landscape.

In 1993, Zell took the predecessor company to Equity Residential public on the NYSE. Under his guidance, the company expanded into a highly regarded apartment owner, developer, and operator, with a market value of $31 billion, and secured its place as a member of the S&P 500.

Zell’s business empire also included Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc ELS and Equity Commonwealth EQC, both of which became leading names in their respective sectors.

His ventures into the media industry, though, were marked by a challenging Tribune Company acquisition. The company went bankrupt in December 2008, less than one year after Zell’s acquisition. A frat house corporate culture at the Trib under Zell’s leadership was later detailed in a 2010 New York Times article.

Beyond the boardroom, Zell was known for his philanthropic efforts, particularly in entrepreneurial education.

He established entrepreneurship programs at several institutions including the University of Michigan, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and Reichman University in Israel. Those initiatives reflect Zell’s commitment to nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders.

Read next: Work-From-Home Discussions Are ‘Basically A Bunch Of Bullsh*t,’ Says Real Estate Billionaire Sam Zell. Here Are The Companies Set To Benefit If Workers Return To Office

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