Zell, Sam

Zell, Sam
▪ 2008
Samuel Zielonka 
born Sept. 28, 1941, Chicago, Ill.

      Those who expected tycoon Sam Zell to retire after he sold his commercial real-estate firm, Equity Office Properties Trust, in February 2007 were mistaken. Not long after he had closed the $39 billion sale to the private equity firm Blackstone Group, Zell became the preferred bidder for the Tribune Co. in his native Chicago, with an offer of $315 million for a controlling interest in the media firm. Under the deal, which was completed in December, he gained veto power over management decisions, the right to select a minority of board members, and an option to buy a remaining 40% share in the company, which was valued at $8.2 billion.

      Zell was the son of Polish émigrés who had circled more than half the globe before settling in the U.S. Midwest, where Zell's father entered the wholesale jewelry business and invested in Chicago-area real estate. While studying (B.A., 1963; J.D., 1966) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Zell began purchasing and leasing properties to other college students. He also met Robert Lurie, an engineering student, who became Zell's business partner for the next three decades. While Zell worked (1966–68) as an attorney in Ann Arbor, the two friends managed apartment buildings in southeastern Michigan. In 1968 Zell returned to Chicago, and within two years Lurie had moved there to join him. They remained business partners until Lurie's death in 1990, and in 1999 Zell and Lurie's widow jointly endowed $10 million to establish the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School.

      Although Zell's investments included railroad cars, radio stations, trailer parks, insurance, and a minority stake in the Chicago White Sox baseball team, his fortune arose primarily through investments in commercial real estate. Having developed a knack for turning around distressed businesses, he coined the self-applied moniker “Grave Dancer.” Zell transformed Equity Office, which he founded in 1976, into the largest U.S. office landlord, largely by identifying opportunities that other investors overlooked. He was still finalizing the sale of Equity Office—and driving up the price via a bidding war between Blackstone and Vornado Trust, another real-estate investment trust—when he began pursuing the Tribune Co. acquisition.

      Few bidders expressed interest when Tribune put itself on the market in September 2006. Once Zell came forward, however, the Tribune's management favoured his offer over competing proposals from two Los Angeles-based billionaires, Eli Broad and Ronald Burkle. The agreement would transfer Tribune shares to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) and thereby would permit stockholders (i.e., Zell and employees) to avoid taxes on income earned from the shares. Some observers categorized Zell as another billionaire pursuing a trophy media property despite its dwindling profitability, while others assumed that he would use the Tribune's newspaper, broadcast, and Internet outlets to advance a political agenda. Yet Zell insisted that his plans were purely economic and that, after selling a few Tribune assets—such as the Chicago Cubs baseball team—he would remain a long-term owner of the company.

Sarah Forbes Orwig

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Universalium. 2010.

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