Chicago, Illinois, US
|Occupation||Chairman of Equity Group Investments|
|Net worth||US$5.0 billion (January 2018)|
|Spouse(s)||Helen Herzog Fadim Zell|
Zell is the founder and chairman of Equity International, a private investment firm focused on building real estate-related businesses in emerging markets. In addition, Zell maintains substantial interests in, and is the Chairman of, several public companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange, including: Equity Residential (EQR), the largest apartment real estate investment trust (or REIT) in the U.S.; Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS), a REIT that owns and operates manufactured home and resort communities; Equity Commonwealth (EQC) an office REIT; Covanta Holding Corp. (CVA), an owner/operator of energy-from-waste and power generation facilities; and Anixter (AXE), a global provider of communications, security, and wire and cable products. He is chairman of Equity Group Investments (EGI), the private investment firm he founded in 1969.
Zell was born in Chicago to a Jewish family, the son of Ruchla and Berek Zielonka. His parents were Jewish emigrants from Poland, where his father had been a successful grain trader. They immigrated to the United States with their young daughter, Leah, via Tokyo just before the German invasion of Poland of 1939. Soon after arriving, his parents changed their first and last names, becoming Rochelle and Bernard Zell. They then moved from Seattle to the Albany Park neighborhood in Chicago where his father became a jewelry wholesaler. When he was twelve, the family moved to Highland Park, Illinois where he graduated from Highland Park High School. In 1963, Sam graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan, where he was also a member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. While in school, Zell managed a 15 unit apartment building in return for free room-and-board and was soon managing the owner's other properties. Joined by his fraternity brother Robert H. Lurie, he won a contract with a large apartment development owner in Ann Arbor who was impressed with Zell's knowledge of what students wanted. By the time he graduated with a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 1966, he and Lurie were managing over 4,000 apartments and owned 100-200 units outright. After school, he sold his interest in the management company to Lurie and moved to Chicago.
After graduation, he worked as a lawyer for one week before deciding that the profession was not for him. One of the senior partners who admired Zell's zeal decided to invest with him, enabling Zell to purchase an apartment building in Toledo. Zell also purchased several apartment buildings in Reno, Nevada, including Arlington Towers. In 1968, Zell founded the predecessor of Equity Group Investments and was joined a year later by his former partner, Robert H. Lurie. Together, they went on to grow the small firm into a vast enterprise, until Lurie's death in 1990. Equity Group Investments was the genesis for three of the largest public real estate companies in history, including: Equity Residential, the largest apartment owner in the United States; Equity Office Properties Trust, the largest office owner in the country; and Equity Lifestyle, an owner/operator of manufactured home and resort communities. With their entry onto the public markets in the 1990s, Zell became recognized as a founding father of the modern real estate industry. In addition, Zell has created a number of public and private companies in various other industries.
Zell affiliates owned the Schwinn Bicycle Company, the drugstore Revco, department store chain Broadway Stores, energy company Santa Fe Energy Resources and mattress company Sealy. In 1985, Zell took over Itel Corporation.
Between 1992 and 1999, Zell's Chillmark fund owned Jacor Communications, Inc., a successful radio broadcast group that included a television station. The company was sold to Clear Channel Communications in 1999. On April 2, 2007, the Tribune Company announced its acceptance of Zell's offer to sponsor the going-private transaction of Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the company's other media assets. On December 20, 2007, Zell took the company private, and the following day he became the Chairman and CEO. He sold the Chicago Cubs and the company's 25 percent interest in Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Under the burden of the debt incurred as part of Zell's leveraged buyout and in context of the unexpected severity of the Great Recession, the Tribune Co. filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in December 2008.
In a sharply critical June 2008 opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled, "The L.A. Times' Human Wrecking Ball", veteran Los Angeles-based or and columnist Harold Meyerson took Zell to task for "taking bean counting to a whole new level", asserting that "he's well on his way to ... destroying the L.A. Times." Comparing Zell to James McNamara, who was sentenced to life in prison for the notorious 1910 Los Angeles Times bombing (which killed 21 employees), Meyerson concluded his article by opining that "Life in San Quentin sounds about right" for Zell.
In January 2008, Zell bought a controlling share in the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, among other newspapers. His decision to put Randy Michaels in charge was one of several moves that were sharply criticized by the employees. Besides creating a hostile workplace, Michaels laid off several employees while giving large bonuses to the executives. Less than a year after Zell bought the company, it tipped into bankruptcy, listing $7.6 billion in assets against a debt of $13 billion, making it the largest bankruptcy in the history of the American media industry. More than 4,200 people have lost jobs since the purchase, while resources for the Tribune newspapers and television stations have been slashed."
Zell and his wife, Helen, are active philanthropists who focus heavily on education and the arts. Among their public beneficiaries are: the University of Michigan with the sponsorship of the Zell/Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program, Northwestern University's Kellogg School Zell Center for Risk Research and Zell's Scholar Program, the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School's Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center, Ounce of Prevention, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Symphony.
Zell, according to The Forward, is also "a major donor to causes in Israel. His donations include a $3.1 million donation to the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel and separate donations to the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a free market oriented Israeli think tank founded by Daniel Doron. In the United States, he has given major gifts to such Jewish causes as the American Jewish Committee and the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, a Chicago Jewish primary school named after his father." Zell donated to Chicagoland Jewish High School renaming the school to Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, after his mother.
In 2008, Zell confirmed a plan to place the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field up for sale separately in order to maximize profits. He also announced he would consider selling naming rights to Wrigley Field. These announcements were widely unpopular in Chicago and a poll taken by the Chicago Sun-Times showed that 53% of 2,000 people who voted said they would no longer attend Cubs games if the field were renamed.
In 2010, The New York Times ran a highly damaging article about Zell's and new top executive Randy Michael's management of The Tribune Co. entitled "At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture." The report details a culture promoting sexual harassment and debasement, with executives openly discussing the "sexual suitability" of employees in the office and a tight circle of executives who were earning tens of millions of dollars in bonuses despite being deep in bankruptcy and a failure to stem declining profits.
Zell donated $100,000 to Restore Our Future, the Super PAC supporting the 2012 presidential election campaign of Mitt Romney.
Zell has been married three times and divorced twice; he has three children: son, Matthew and daughter, JoAnn, from his first marriage; and an adopted daughter, Kellie, from his second marriage. His third wife is Helen (née Herzog) Fadim Zell.
Zell is known for using "salty" language in the newsroom. In February 2008, the website LA Observed reprinted an internal memo that said:
Last week you may have encountered some colorful uses of the lexicon from Sam Zell that we are not used to hearing at the Times... But of course we still have the same expectations at the Times of what is correct in the workplace. It's not good judgment to use profane or hostile language and we can't tolerate that... In short, nothing changes; the fundamental rules of decorum and decency apply... Sam is a force of a nature; the rest of us are bound by the normal conventions of society.