Though sometimes gruff, foul-mouthed, contrarian, and a political instigator, Sam Zell is known for his prowess in timing market-cycles, is credited with having helped create the modern CRE industry, and has been dubbed “the Grave Dancer” for his ability to “dance on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes” and profit off of distressed deals. At the LA Tribune, a newspaper he owned, a memo was sent following his profanity laden visit: “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.”

Zell’s career essentially began when he managed a 15-unit apartment building at University of Michigan in exchange for free rent. His ability to work with and attract tenants, would win him the management of 4,000 units by the time he graduated Law School in 1966. Zell and his best friend and business partner , Robert Lurie, owned about 150 of those units. In 1969 they would form Equity Group Investments. Lurie would eventually pass in 1990 but is still listed on the company’s team page with Zell’s tribute: “Bob was a business partner, a brother and a best friend. There have been many times over the years that I’ve wished I could talk to him. I’d want to show him what we’ve created here. I know he’d be proud.”

Like him or not, in many ways Zell embodies the American real estate entrepreneur and the greatness of the industry. Born in Chicago to two polish immigrants, Zell utilized his hard work-ethic, street smarts (and book smarts), entrepreneurial spirit, and toughness to build a real estate empire and an estimated net worth of nearly $5B. 

Our Ten Favorite Sam Zell Quotes: 

10) The definition of a true partner is someone who shares your level of risk.

9)  I think it was Confucius who said that ‘money talks and bulls*t walks.’ 

8)  (on hiring) I look for people who in no way, shape, or form can be intimidated. My greatest fear is somebody telling me what they think I might want to hear.  

7)  When it’s all said and done, the petroleum of the real estate industry has always been capital.  

6)  A tie cuts off the blood supply to the brain.

5)  Sentimentality about an investment leads to lack of discipline.

4)  Whatever goals you set, you need to constantly readjust them so that at no time do you reach your goals before your time is up. 

3)  (on whether opportunities are disappearing) The world always looks nigh on impossible from the perspective of a desk. But once you get out into the world and if you have what I would call the entrepreneurial characteristics, I just think this country still provides a very unique opportunity.

2)  Liquidity = value.

1)  Every day you’re not selling an asset that’s in your portfolio, you’re choosing to buy it.