Samuel Zell (born Shmuel Zielonka; September 28, 1941 – May 18, 2023) was an American billionaire businessman and philanthropist primarily engaged in real estate investment. Companies founded by or controlled by Zell include Equity Residential, Equity International, EQ Office, Covanta, Tribune Media, and Anixter.

Samuel Zell
Shmuel Zielonka

(1941-09-28)September 28, 1941
DiedMay 18, 2023(2023-05-18) (aged 81)
EducationUniversity of Michigan (BA, JD)
Occupation(s)Businessman, philanthropist, lawyer
TitleChairman, Equity Residential, Equity International, EQ Office, Covanta, Tribune Media, and Anixter
SpouseHelen Herzog Fadim Zell (3rd wife)



Early life and education


Zell was born on September 28, 1941, in Chicago.[1] His parents, Ruchla, later Rochelle, and Berek, later Bernard, Zielonka, were Jews who immigrated from Poland four months before his birth to escape the Invasion of Poland by the Nazis.[2][3] In Poland, his father was a grain trader.[2][4] They immigrated to the United States with their young daughter, Leah, via Russia and Tokyo, pretending to be tourists at the Bolshoi Ballet so as not to stand out.[5][6][2][7] They then moved from Seattle to Albany Park, Chicago, where his father became a wholesale jeweler who also made successful investments in real estate and the stock market.[3][2] In eighth grade, Zell took pictures at his prom and sold them. He later bought Playboy magazines in downtown Chicago and resold them to his classmates in Hebrew school for a 200% markup.[3] When he was twelve, the family moved to Highland Park, Illinois, where he graduated from Highland Park High School.[2] In 1963, Zell graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, where he was also a member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.[2]

While in school, Zell managed a 15-unit apartment building in return for free room and board.[2] By the time of his graduation, he was managing several properties and was netting $150,000.[8] Joined by his fraternity brother Robert H. Lurie, he won a contract with a large apartment development owner in Ann Arbor. In 1966, he graduated with a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.[9] By that time, 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.[2]

Real estate investments


After graduation, Zell worked as a lawyer for one week before deciding that the legal profession was not for him. With funding from one of the senior partners, Zell purchased a 99-unit apartment building in Toledo.[2] In 1967, he purchased a profitable apartment complex in Reno, Nevada, later spending a lot of time in Reno, calling it a "hidden gem" from a real estate investment perspective. In 1969, he was introduced to Jay Pritzker, who provided him with funding.[10] He acquired Arlington Towers, then the tallest building in Reno, for $9 million.[6][11] To convince the owners to sell, Zell's brother-in-law conceived offshore transactions, the legality of which was described as "murky", to shield the sellers from tax liability; Zell reached a deal with the Internal Revenue Service to avoid prosecution in exchange for his testimony while Zell's brother-in-law served 2 years of jail time.[6]

In 1968, Zell founded the predecessor of Equity Residential and was joined a year later by his former partner, Robert H. Lurie. Lurie died of cancer in 1990 at age 48.[12] During the 1973–1975 recession, Zell was able to acquire many bankrupt properties for almost nothing as lenders did not want to foreclose and Zell provided financial plans that would enable the lenders to be repaid.[10] During the early 1990s recession, Zell had personally guaranteed $600 million in loans and was working 80 hour weeks to resolve them. He then pursued taking in more investors to spread the risk. In August 1993, after acquiring a large portfolio from Barry Sternlicht in exchange for a 20% stake in the company, the company became a public company via an initial public offering.[13][14] At that time, the company owned 22,000 apartments.[15]

In 1976, Zell founded the predecessor to EQ Office to invest in office buildings.[16] In 1988, he co-founded the first of four Zell/Merrill Lynch Real Estate Opportunity Partners Funds; these were consolidated into EQ Office in 1997. In 2006, The Blackstone Group acquired the company for $36 billion in the largest leveraged buyout in history at the time, then selling off the portfolio in pieces; both Zell and Blackstone had impeccable timing, selling just before the 2007–2008 financial crisis.[17]

In 1984, Zell founded Equity Lifestyle Properties. It owns more than 400 trailer parks or mobile home parks.[18]

Distressed investments


In 1985, Zell acquired Itel Corporation, a diversified transportation and logistics company, shortly after it emerged from bankruptcy.[19] In 1986, he acquired Anixter, remaining in charge until it was sold in 2020. In 2004, he acquired Covanta via a 363 bankruptcy sale process.



In 1991, in partnership with Chilmark Partners, Zell co-founded Zell/Chilmark, a $1 billion investment fund, to invest in distressed securities. That year, it acquired $550 million in junk bonds and vendor claims against Carter Hawley stores, the parent of Broadway Stores, eventually taking control; it was sold to Federated Stores (now Macy's, Inc.) in 1995.[20][19] In 1992, the fund invested $250 million in drugstore Revco, then in bankruptcy; it received $363.8 million for its stake when Rite Aid acquired the brand in 1995.[21] In 1992, it acquired an interest in Jacor, a radio broadcast group that included a television station, which was sold to Clear Channel Communications in 1999.[22] It acquired Schwinn Bicycle Company from bankruptcy for $60 million in 1993; it was sold for $86 million in 1997.[23] It acquired energy company Santa Fe Energy Resources in 1993.[24] It also acquired mattress company Sealy Corporation.[25] In 1994, it infused $25 million into Midway Airlines for a 90% stake.



In December 2007, in a leveraged buyout, Zell acquired control of Tribune Media, owner of the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, The Hartford Courant, and other newspapers as well as the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field. For the $8.2 billion acquisition, Zell only invested $315 million of his own money, all in the form of debt.[26]

In a decision sharply criticized by the employees, Zell immediately put Randy Michaels, a former radio executive and disc jockey with no newspaper experience, in charge. Michaels allegedly created a hostile workplace and culture promoting sexual harassment and debasement, with executives openly discussing the "sexual suitability" of employees in the office. He also oversaw 4,200 layoffs while giving large bonuses to the executives and hosting lavish beer-and-poker parties in the office of former publisher Robert R. McCormick, long considered a shrine. Michaels resigned in October 2010.[27]

In December 2008, less than a year after Zell acquired the company, due to the increased debt and the effects of the Great Recession, the company filed the largest bankruptcy in the history of the American media industry, listing $7.6 billion in assets against a debt of $13 billion.[28]

In January 2009, as part of the bankruptcy reorganization, Zell sold the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field, and the 25% interest in Comcast SportsNet Chicago to Joe Ricketts and family for $900 million.[29] Zell relinquished control of Tribune upon its emergence from bankruptcy in December 2012.

In 2019, Zell and other former Tribune executives paid $200 million to settle allegations of fraud for alleged "unlawful" dividends and fraudulent transfers as part of the acquisition of Tribune, from which executives received $107 million.[30][1]





In 1983, Zell endowed the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania's Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center.[31] In 1999, Zell endowed the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan.[32][33] He also endowed the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the University of Michigan.[34] He funded the establishment of the Zell Center for Risk Research[35] and the Zell Scholar Program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.[36]



In 2012, Zell donated $10 million to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.[37] In 2014, he donated $17 million to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.[38]



In 2014, Zell donated $10 million to Start Early (formerly The Ounce of Prevention Fund), which promotes early childhood development in underserved communities in Illinois.[39]

Jewish causes


Zell donated 3.1 million dollars to the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.[5] Zell also donated to Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, a free market oriented Israeli think tank founded by Daniel Doron, the American Jewish Committee and the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, a Chicago Jewish primary school named after his father.[40] In 2015, Zell donated over $10 million to Chicagoland Jewish High School, which renamed the school to Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, after Zell's mother.[41][42]

Personal life


Zell married three times and divorced twice; he had three children:[8] son, Matthew and daughter, Joann Zell Gillis, from his first marriage to Janet (née Skolnick) Zell Kessler; and an adopted daughter, Kellie Zell Peppet, from his second marriage.[2] His second marriage began in 1979 and ended in 1994.[6] His third wife was Helen (née Herzog) Fadim Zell.[2][6] He had nine grandchildren.[43]

Zell was an avid motorcycle rider. He often rode his Ducati to work at high speeds and he once rode a motorcycle at 145 miles per hour (233 km/h) across the pampas. He formed Zell’s Angels, a group of mostly business tycoons who would ride motorcycles worldwide. Zell also was a skier, racquetball player, paintball enthusiast, and sports fan.[3][1]

Zell had homes in Chicago, Sun Valley, Idaho, and Malibu, California.[3][8][44] In 1998, he bought a 12,000-square-foot home in Malibu, California, designed by John Lautner for $13 million.[45]

As of February 2023, Zell had an estimated net worth of US $5.3 billion, according to Forbes.[8]

In May 2017, Zell's book, Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight Talk From a Business Rebel, detailing his business philosophy on finding business and investment opportunities anywhere, was published by Portfolio.[46]

Zell died on May 18, 2023, at the age of 81 after a short illness.[47][1]

Political involvement


Zell donated $100,000 to Restore Our Future, the Super PAC supporting the Mitt Romney 2012 presidential campaign.[48] In 2015 he donated $50,000 to the John Bolton Super-PAC.[49] In 2019, he and his wife each donated $75,000 to the campaign of Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot.[50] He has also made smaller contributions to members of both the Democratic Party and Republican Party.[51]

Use of foul language


Zell often used language considered "salty",[52] "obscentity-laced",[53] and vulgar.[54][55]

Awards and honors

  • 1987, Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement[56]
  • 1999, Hall of Fame of the Chicago Association of Realtors[57]
  • 2007, Kellogg Award for Distinguished Leadership[58]


  • Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight Talk From a Business Rebel (2017) ISBN 978-1591848233
  • "The Grave Dancer: A Guide to The Risky Art of Resurrecting Dead Properties," Real Estate Review (1982)[59]
  • "Pension Fund Perils in Real Estate," Real Estate Review 61 (Spring 1975).[60]


  1. ^ a b c d McFadden, Robert D. (May 18, 2023). "Sam Zell, 81, Tycoon Whose Big Newspaper Venture Went Bust, Dies". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Johnson, Ben E. (December 31, 2009). Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: Inside the Contrarian Mind of Billionaire Mogul Sam Zell. Penguin. ISBN 9781101163207.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Sam Zell, billionaire real estate investor, dies". Associated Press. May 18, 2023.
  4. ^ Solomon, Lawrence (November 30, 2012). "Lawrence Solomon: The Jewish press and Israel". Financial Post.
  5. ^ a b Popper, Nathaniel (April 13, 2007). "Billionaire Boychiks Battle for Media Empire". The Forward.
  6. ^ a b c d e Burns, Greg (July 25, 2004). "Here's The Deal". Chicago Tribune.
  7. ^ Raphael, Marc (2008). The Columbia history of Jews and Judaism in America. Columbia University Press. p. 237. ISBN 9780231132220.
  8. ^ a b c d "Forbes profile: Sam Zell". Forbes.
  9. ^ Corfman, Thomas A. (July 2, 2000). "SUIT SEEKS TO PLACE BLAME FOR DEATH ON ZELL". Chicago Tribune.
  10. ^ a b "Zell's angels: How the brash tycoon changed the real estate game forever".
  11. ^ "Arlington Towers tax bill prompts suit". Reno Evening Gazette. August 21, 1974 – via
  12. ^ "A zelluva partner". Forbes. June 2, 1997.
  13. ^ Goldfarb, Jeffrey (October 26, 2015). "Keep one eye on Sam Zell's "For Sale" sign". Reuters.
  14. ^ "SCHEDULE 14A". U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  15. ^ Gallun, Alby (June 7, 2007). "Veteran apartment buyer Crocker now in residence at Transwestern". Crain Communications.
  16. ^ Jonas, Ilaina (January 19, 2007). "Blackstone to buy Equity Office". Reuters.
  17. ^ Bagli, Charles V. (February 6, 2009). "Sam Zell's Empire, Underwater in a Big Way". The New York Times.
  18. ^ Sainato, Michael (May 11, 2023). "'It's hell': life under the American mobile home king who calls himself a 'grave dancer'". The Guardian.
  19. ^ a b BERG, ERIC N. (October 23, 1991). "Building a Lost-Cause Portfolio". The New York Times.
  20. ^ WHITE, GEORGE; SILVERSTEIN, STUART (August 15, 1995). "Federated Stores to Buy Broadway in $373-Million Deal". Los Angeles Times.
  21. ^ Strom, Stephanie (November 30, 1995). "Rite Aid Is Poised to Acquire Revco in a $1.8 Billion Deal". The New York Times.
  22. ^ Bodipo-Memba, Alejandro (October 9, 1998). "Clear Channel Wins Bidding Contest, Agrees to Buy Jacor Communications". The Wall Street Journal.
  23. ^ Crown, Judith (May 12, 1997). "ZELL & CO. PEDDLING SCHWINN". Crain's Chicago Business.
  24. ^ Gruber, William (January 11, 1993). "Pritzker Clan, Zell On Investment Roll". Chicago Tribune.
  25. ^ Ziemba, Stanley (January 22, 1997). "Zell's Sealy Sells Furniture Unit". Chicago Tribune.
  26. ^ Siklos, Richard (September 19, 2008). "For Zell, more Tribune hell". CNN.
  27. ^ Carr, David (October 5, 2010). "At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture". The New York Times.
  28. ^ Ovide, Shira (December 9, 2008). "Tribune Co. Files for Chapter 11 Protection". The Wall Street Journal.
  29. ^ Moser, Whet (January 22, 2009). "Zell sells Cubs for $900M". Chicago Reader.
  30. ^ Stempel, Jonathan (June 12, 2019). "Zell, other former Tribune executives reach $200 million settlement over LBO". Reuters.
  31. ^ "Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center - Penn Career Services". University of Pennsylvania. 28 August 2019.
  32. ^ "ABOUT ZELL LURIE". University of Michigan Zell Lurie.
  33. ^ Wilkins, Pete (October 11, 2022). "What Drives The University Of Michigan's Entrepreneurial Success". Forbes.
  34. ^ "Helen Zell Writers' Program". University of Michigan.
  35. ^ Golosinski, Matt (April 12, 2007). "Sam Zell honored for long-time leadership". Kellogg School of Management.
  36. ^ "Zell Scholars Program Introduction 2014-2015". Kellogg School of Management.
  37. ^ "Zells Donate $10 Million to Museum of Contemporary Art". NBC Chicago. November 1, 2012.
  38. ^ McClanathan, Emily (January 3, 2022). "Helen Zell reflects on six years as Board Chair". Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
  39. ^ "Zell Family Foundation Donates $10 Million to The Ounce of Prevention Fund" (Press release). PR Newswire. October 23, 2014.
  40. ^ SILOW-CARROLL, ANDREW (May 19, 2023). "Sam Zell, Jewish billionaire whose media purchase tarnished a legendary career, dies at 81". The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
  41. ^ "Deerfield private high school named for Jewish". Chicago Tribune. November 23, 2015.
  42. ^ "Chicagoland Jewish High School changes name to Rochelle Zell Jewish High School (RZJHS)". Jewish United Fund. November 19, 2015.
  43. ^ "Sam Zell, billionaire real estate investor, dies at 81". PBS Newshour. May 18, 2023.
  44. ^ Clarke, Katherine (September 21, 2017). "Sam Zell: Interview". The Real Deal.
  45. ^ HALL, CARLA (April 3, 2007). "His Malibu home serves mogul well". Los Angeles Times.
  46. ^ ISBN 978-1591848233, Portfolio, copyright 2017
  47. ^ Oster, Patrick (May 18, 2023). "Sam Zell, billionaire real estate investor, dies at 81". Bloomberg News.
  48. ^ "In Obama's Hometown, Billionaire Support Favors GOP". Forbes. May 31, 2012.
  49. ^ "John Bolton Super PAC". OpenSecrets.
  50. ^ "Sam Zell leads post-election burst of donations to Lightfoot campaign fund". The Real Deal. July 3, 2019.
  51. ^ McGarry, Brendan; Welsh, Ben (April 4, 2007). "In political contributions, Zell leans right and wife leans left". Center for Public Integrity.
  52. ^ Roderick, Kevin (February 11, 2008). "Let Sam be Sam, but you be nice". KCRW.
  53. ^ Meyerson, Harold (June 11, 2008). "The L.A. Times's Human Wrecking Ball". The Washington Post.
  54. ^ Fung, Esther (June 6, 2018). "Sam Zell Uses Vulgarity in Discussing Hiring of Women". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660.
  55. ^ Thomas, Lauren (June 6, 2018). "Real estate mogul Sam Zell uses vulgar language to talk about women he promoted". CNBC.
  56. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". Academy of Achievement.
  57. ^ "Hall of Fame". Chicago Association of REALTORS.
  58. ^ "Sam Zell honored for long-time leadership". Kellogg School of Management.
  59. ^ Zell, Samuel (1982). "The Grave Dancer: A Guide to The Risky Art of Resurrecting Dead Properties" (PDF). Real Estate Review.
  60. ^ Real Estate Issues. Vol. 2. American Society of Real Estate Counselors. 1977. p. 24.