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Who was Sam Zell? The billionaire real estate tycoon and self-proclaimed ‘Grave Dancer’ dies at 81

Born to parents who fled from the Nazis, Sam Zell went on to become a self-made billionaire earning the nickname ‘The Grave Dancer’. He has died at age 81.

Sam Zell, ‘the Grave Dancer’ billionaire has died
Brendan McDermidREUTERS

One could say that Sam Zell lived the American dream. His parents fled Poland shortly before the Nazi invasion, they finally arrived in the United States in 1941. They settled in Chicago where he was born that same year. While he had business acumen from an early age, he got his start in real estate, where he built his fortune, managing apartment buildings as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

He went on to set up Equity Group Investments, in 1968, which was his chief investment vehicle. He grew the company into a real estate empire by acquiring distressed properties from indebted developers. He wrote about his strategy of “resurrecting the real estate corpses” titled “The Grave Dancer” which stuck as a nickname for him, one that he happily embraced.

He would use that same strategy to venture out beyond real estate investing in manufacturing, travel, retail, healthcare and energy businesses. The practice made him a billionaire several times over. Bloomberg Billionaires Index puts Zell’s net worth at $5.9 billion.

Sam Zell’s biggest deal and biggest flop

One of Zell’s biggest claims to fame was playing a key role in popularizing real estate investment trusts (REITs) in the 1990s. The structure involved leasing properties and then the rents collected were distributed as profits to investors as dividends. His Equity Office Properties Trust became the first to be part of the benchmark S&P 500 index.

That REIT was later sold to Blackstone Inc, an asset management behemoth, for $39 billion one of the largest real estate deals ever and from which he pocketed $1 billion.

Another REIT he founded, Equity LifeStyle Properties, is the largest landlord of mobile home parks in the US with over 400 under its management.

But Zell hasn’t always hit the ball out of the park. He dubbed the acquisition of media giant Tribune Co, the “deal from hell”. In a highly leveraged deal, he bought Tribune for $8.2 billion. However, the company went belly up a year later during the financial crisis. The market had changed as readers switched to viewing content online and advertising revenue dried up.

Who was Sam Zell?

Zell died at the age of 81 due to complications from a recent illness, a statement from his private investment firm said. In life he loved motorcycles, even forming a group called Zell’s Angels. The group consisted mainly of his business tycoon friends with whom he would go on rides around the world.

The self-made billionaire was very protective of his private life. It’s believed he was married at least three times. He is survived by his wife, three children and nine grandchildren.


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