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The Grave Dancer’s Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell

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Discover the life of Sam Zell, the daring real estate titan known as "The Grave Dancer," who danced on the skeletons of distressed assets.
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Table of Contents
The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - Krakow, Poland, bird's eye view, dusk, cloudy sky, street lights, city center, tall buildings and shops

The Grave Dancer’s Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell: Immigrant’s Journey

In the world of real estate investing, few names shine brighter than that of Sam Zell. Born as Shmuel Zielonka on September 28, 1941, Sam was the son of Jewish immigrants who fled Poland during World War II.

His parents, who made their living as a grain trader and a jewelry wholesaler, instilled a strong work ethic in young Sam, which would serve him well in his future entrepreneurial endeavors​​. 1​​ 2 ​​3

Dubbed “The Grave Dancer,” Sam’s investment strategy was straightforward and unapologetically opportunistic. He once described his approach as “dancing on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes.”

His focus was on distressed assets, seizing opportunities where others saw disaster, and turning misfortune into success. This strategic approach turned him into a billionaire businessman, with an estimated net worth of $5.3 billion as of February 2023​. 4

Zell’s storied career began while he was still in school, managing a 15-unit apartment building in exchange for free room and board.

He quickly expanded his portfolio, and by the time he graduated with a law degree from the University of Michigan, he and his partner were managing over 4,000 apartments and owned 100–200 units outright.

Despite a brief stint as a lawyer, Zell soon realized that his true passion lay in real estate, leading him to establish Equity Group Investments in 1968. ​5 ​​6

Under Sam’s leadership, Equity Group Investments expanded its portfolio into a vast array of sectors. From apartment buildings and trailer parks to radio stations and drug stores, there seemed to be no limit to Zell’s ambition.

Among his most successful ventures was his use of real estate investment trusts (REITs) as a means to go public, attracting investment from a wide array of sources and significantly boosting the liquidity and value of his portfolio. ​7

Sam Zell’s life wasn’t all business, though. Known for his love of motorcycles and adventure, Zell also led a group of riders known as Zell’s Angels on annual rides down some of the world’s most dangerous roads.

His adventurous spirit and zest for life were as much a part of his persona as his sharp business acumen​. 8

From humble beginnings to billionaire status, Sam Zell’s journey was nothing short of extraordinary. His life and achievements serve as a testament to the power of hard work, strategic thinking, and unyielding perseverance.

His story continues to inspire current and aspiring investors, marking him as a true titan in the world of real estate.

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - brick concentration camp buildings in background, barbed wire fence in front, Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau

Early Life

Born in Chicago to Polish Jewish immigrants Ruchla and Berek Zielonka, Sam Zell grew up in an environment that valued hard work and resilience.

His parents had bravely escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland, finding refuge in America and changing their names to Rochelle and Bernard Zell.

Bernard transitioned from a successful grain dealer to a jewelry wholesaler in his new home, setting a strong example of adaptability and tenacity for his son. ​1 ​​2

Sam’s entrepreneurial spirit manifested early. Living in the Albany Park neighborhood before moving to the North Shore suburb of Highland Park, he began to dabble in small-scale business ventures.

In fact, he even sold used Playboy magazines to classmates in high school! It wasn’t until he attended the University of Michigan, however, that he found his true calling in real estate​. 3

While studying for his bachelor’s degree at the university, Sam discovered an opportunity that would shape his future. He managed a 15-unit apartment building, trading his services for free room and board.

This initial foray into property management turned out to be quite lucrative, and it didn’t take long for Sam to expand his operations.

The owner of the apartment building was so impressed with Sam’s abilities that he entrusted him with the management of his other properties. ​4

During this time, Sam’s partner in crime was his fraternity brother, Robert H. Lurie. Together, they won a contract with a large apartment development owner in Ann Arbor.

Before Sam even graduated with his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 1966, he and Lurie were managing over 4,000 apartments and owned between 100 and 200 units outright. ​5 ​​6

Though Sam briefly worked as a lawyer after graduation, it didn’t take him long to realize that his passion lay elsewhere.

A week into his legal career, Sam decided to make the leap into real estate investing full-time. And thus, one of the most illustrious careers in the world of real estate was born.​ 7

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - law library, law books, judge's gavel, book shelves in background, open book on table

Career Beginnings

After obtaining his law degree, Sam Zell decided to dip his toes into the legal profession. But it was a short-lived venture. He only spent a week as a lawyer before deciding that the field wasn’t the right fit for him.

His entrepreneurial spirit was too strong, and he felt a pull toward the world of real estate investing. So, he left his brief legal career behind to focus on what he truly loved. ​1

His first major investment came when a senior partner from his former law firm decided to back him. This provided Sam with the capital he needed to purchase an apartment building in Toledo.

He didn’t stop there, though. Sam also bought several apartment buildings in Reno, Nevada, proving himself as a promising real estate investor with a keen eye for opportunities. ​2

In 1968, Sam took a significant step forward in his career by founding Equity Group Investments. This firm, initially a small operation, was poised to become a giant in the real estate investment field.

A year later, his old friend and business partner, Robert H. Lurie, joined the company. Together, they steered the company towards impressive growth, expanding their portfolio and increasing their influence in the real estate market. ​3 ​​4

From managing an apartment building during his university days to founding his own investment firm, Sam’s career beginnings were anything but ordinary.

His story serves as a testament to his knack for identifying lucrative deals and his courage to follow his passion.

His early experiences set the stage for his future success, leading to his eventual status as a billionaire and one of the most influential figures in the real estate industry.

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - man walking alone upstairs holding briefcase, wearing business suit, walking between tall buildings

Business Successes

Sam Zell’s career trajectory wasn’t just a steady climb; it included some fantastic leaps. A standout moment was the sale of Equity Office Properties Trust.

In a record-breaking deal, he sold the trust to the Blackstone Group for a whopping $36 billion in 2006. This was the largest leveraged buyout in history at the time and marked a significant milestone in Sam’s career. ​1 ​​2

But Sam didn’t limit his ventures to office properties. He also showed a keen interest in a unique type of real estate – trailer parks and mobile home parks.

Through Equity Lifestyle Properties, Sam owned over 400 such parks. This might seem like an unconventional investment, but it’s a testament to Sam’s ability to spot opportunities others might overlook.

He saw value in these communities and turned them into a profitable part of his portfolio​. 3

The sale of Equity Office and the ownership of trailer parks were just a few of the many achievements in Sam’s storied career. Each success marked a new chapter in his journey as a real estate mogul and underscored his talent for making shrewd investments.

His ability to diversify his portfolio and continually identify unique opportunities cemented his legacy as a leading figure in the world of real estate investment.

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - word diversity on top of $100 USD bills

Diverse Investments

One of the fascinating aspects of Sam Zell’s career was his ability to cast a wide net with his investments. He wasn’t just about property; he had stakes in a variety of companies across different sectors.

This sort of diversification is a crucial aspect of a balanced investment strategy and is often the hallmark of a savvy investor.

  • Schwinn Bicycle Company was one of the companies where Sam had a stake. This iconic brand is synonymous with quality and tradition in the world of cycling, and Sam’s investment showed his knack for recognizing the value in established brands. 1
  • He also saw potential in the health sector, owning a piece of Revco, a notable drugstore chain. This investment underscored his ability to spot growth opportunities even in seemingly saturated markets. 2
  • It wasn’t all health and fitness, though. Sam also had a stake in Broadway Stores, a department store chain, and Sealy, a mattress company. These investments demonstrated his willingness to invest in everyday consumer goods and services, industries that are often considered stable and reliable. 3
  • Zell’s diversified portfolio even extended into the media sector, where his Chilmark fund owned Jacor Communications, a successful radio broadcast group. This acquisition highlights his strategic approach to investments, understanding the value and influence of media in modern society. 4

In short, Sam Zell’s investment portfolio was as diverse as it was impressive. Whether it was bicycles, drugstores, department stores, mattresses, or radio broadcasts, he was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity.

His ability to spot value across a wide range of sectors is a testament to his broad understanding of business and investment. It’s clear that his influence extends far beyond the realm of real estate investment.

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - dark, gloomy graveyard, talk thin trees, dark walkway with burial plots and stones on each side

The Grave Dancer

Ah, the Grave Dancer! Now, this wasn’t just a catchy nickname; it was an embodiment of Sam Zell’s unique investment philosophy.

So, let’s dive into the story behind this intriguing moniker and what it says about Sam’s approach to investing.

  • The origin of the nickname “The Grave Dancer” can be traced back to a 1978 article Sam wrote. The title? You guessed it – “The Grave Dancer.” And it wasn’t about his smooth dance moves; instead, it was a metaphor for his strategy of cashing in on distressed assets, akin to dancing on the metaphorical graves of other people’s mistakes. ​1
  • Distressed assets? Sounds bleak, right? But that’s where Sam saw opportunity. He was drawn to situations, not long-term trends. This approach allowed him to swoop in and seize assets at a fraction of their potential value. In his own words, he was “dancing on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes.” ​2
  • But Sam wasn’t all about buying low. He had a few rules he stuck to. He wasn’t one for coveting trophy properties. He avoided auctions like the plague. And outdated office space? Not on his watch. It was all about sniffing out value, not chasing after shiny objects​. 3
  • He even came up with his own catchy phrases, or “Sam-isms,” to describe his investment approach. One of his most famous ones? “Liquidity equals value.” It was this mindset that led him to embrace real estate investment trusts (REITs) as a means of attracting investment and providing liquidity, a move that showcased his innovative thinking in the world of real estate investing. ​4

Sam Zell’s approach to investing was unconventional, to say the least, and it’s this unique style that earned him the nickname “The Grave Dancer.” His method may not have been for everyone, but there’s no denying it worked for him. He danced his way to success, proving that sometimes, you’ve got to shake things up to come out on top.

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - motorcycle, dusk, cloudy sky

Adventurous Life

Sam Zell wasn’t just a sharp businessman – he was a thrill-seeker too! His life outside of work was just as colorful as his professional journey.

So, let’s cruise through some highlights of Sam’s personal life and hobbies. Buckle up, because it’s going to be a wild ride!

  • First up, motorcycles. Sam wasn’t your average motorcycle enthusiast – he was the leader of a group he fondly referred to as “Zell’s Angels.” Each year, he’d guide this pack on motorcycle rides along some of the world’s most challenging routes. Now that’s what we call leading from the front! ​1
  • But Sam didn’t limit his thrill-seeking to the road. He was also an avid skier and not the type to stick to the bunny slope. No, Sam was all about the black-diamond trails, the ones that would make most people’s knees wobble just thinking about them. And he wasn’t just skiing these trails for fun; he was also the first one down the slope during staff outings​. 2
  • Apart from his love for high-octane adventures, Sam was also a family man. He married three times and had three children – Matthew and JoAnn from his first marriage, and Kellie, whom he adopted during his second marriage. His third wife, Helen, was deeply involved in the family’s philanthropic work, a testament to their shared values and commitment to giving back​. 3
  • Sam even found time to pen a book amidst all this adventuring. In 2017, he published “Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight Talk from a Business Rebel,” offering readers a glimpse into his world and his unique approach to business and life​. 4

Sam Zell’s adventurous spirit didn’t just manifest in his business endeavors. It was a significant part of his personal life as well, shaping his hobbies, his relationships, and even his approach to writing. His zest for life and his daring personality made him a true maverick in every sense of the word.

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - large green tree in park, lost of leaf coverage


Let’s talk about the lasting impression Sam Zell has left on the world of real estate investing. His influence reaches far beyond his nickname, “The Grave Dancer” – it’s embedded in the very fabric of the industry.

Let’s unpack the legacy of this real estate titan.

  • Sam Zell played a crucial role in popularizing the real estate investment trust (REIT) structure. He took what was a fairly obscure concept and turned it into a preferred vehicle for public funding. This move helped shape the modern real estate market, making it more accessible to both large and small investors. 1
  • His investment strategies, often referred to as Zell’s Rules, have become a guiding light for many in the industry. His focus on avoiding trophy properties, shunning auctions, and not buying outdated office spaces has influenced countless investors to follow suit. These strategies are a testament to his practical, no-nonsense approach to real estate investing. 2
  • Zell’s businesses have also left a significant mark on the sector. His companies, such as Equity Group Investments, were among the largest owners of office properties and apartment buildings, and the top operator of mobile home parks. These companies have set standards for the industry and paved the way for many future real estate enterprises. 3
  • Zell’s influence is also seen in the realm of distressed asset investment. His ability to identify opportunities where others saw only failure earned him the nickname “The Grave Dancer.” His strategies have inspired a new generation of investors to take risks and find value in unexpected places. 4

The legacy of Sam Zell is not just about his wealth or his companies – it’s about his impact on the real estate industry, his innovative strategies, and his fearless approach to investment. His influence continues to shape the sector, inspiring countless others to dance to their own beat.

Sam Zell passed away on May 18, 2023, due to complications from a recent illness. At the time of his death, his estimated net worth was $5.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He leaves behind his wife, Helen, two sisters, three children, and nine grandchildren. ​14 ​​15

RIP Sam Zell.

The Grave Dancer's Final Tango: Life of Real Estate Titan Sam Zell - black and white grayscale photo of Sam Zell, RIP Sam Zell 1941-2023

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