Sam Zell, billionaire real estate magnate, dies at 81

Sam Zell, the US property investor whose business ventures included Equity Group, Anixter, The Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, died on Thursday. He was 81. 

Zell began his career by managing student housing apartments as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. In 1968, he founded Equity Group Investments (EGI), a private investment firm headquartered in Chicago.

Together with Bob Lurie, he 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 Zell launched what became some of the largest REITs in history.

These included 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 bn (€36 bn) 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 US investors to heavily target Brazil and other emerging markets, recognising 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 propertiesin the US.

He renamed the company Equity Commonwealth (EQC) and was chairman of the board. In total, Zell sponsored 12 IPOs across a range of industries.

Although he was well known as a real estate investor, his career spanned a number of businesses, including publishing, as chairman of the Tribune Company, which was largely considered a failed venture, ending in bankruptcy.

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, a global provider of wire and cable products, for 34 years and stewarded the sale of the company in 2020 for $4.5 bn.

Zell also chaired Covanta Holding Corporation, an international energy-from-waste company; Jacor Communications, a media holding company that led to the radio industry’s consolidation in the 1990s; and many other companies.

'Sam lived life testing his limits and helping those around him do the same. He was a self-made entrepreneur, an industry creator and leader, a brilliant dealmaker, a generous philanthropist, and the head of a family he fiercely loved and protected,' said Scott Peppet, president of Chai Trust Company and Zell's son-in-law.

'He had an unapologetic passion for life, a brilliant mind, a contagious wit, and a deep sense of civic responsibility and personal loyalty. All those who loved and learned from him will miss him terribly,' Peppet concluded.



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