Sam Zell, the Chicago real-estate magnate whose knack for buying up distressed assets turned him into a billionaire and earned him the nickname “grave dancer,” died on Thursday, his company said. He was 81.
Equity Residential, the company he founded decades ago, did not provide a cause of death but described Zell as an “iconic figure in real estate and throughout the corporate world.”
Among his wide-ranging portfolio of investments were distressed assets in real estate and in media, including an ultimately disastrous bet on the Tribune Company. Zell had a personal net worth of $5.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Zell had a penchant for scooping up cheap real estate and selling it later at a profit, a strategy he outlined in a 1978 article titled “The Grave Dancer,” which became his nickname in the industry.
“I was dancing on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes,” he wrote.
But Zell’s impressive track record of successful bets was marred by a brief, unsuccessful foray into media in 2007 when he orchestrated the $8.2 billion leveraged buyout of Tribune Company.
The next year, the media group, which owned newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, among other properties, collapsed into bankruptcy. More than 4,200 staff were laid off.
Zell’s handpicked managers were said to have ushered in a toxic workplace culture marked by offensive office banter and sexual innuendo, according to a 2010 New York Times article based on interviews with more than 20 employees.
“Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk,” the Times wrote.
Zell’s own salty language was the subject of controversy as well. In 2018, during the rise of the #MeToo movement, Zell sparked outrage by making a lewd comment about hiring women.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his fiery language and bold bets, he won over legions of investors who saw him as a savant.
“The world has lost one of its greatest investors and entrepreneurs,” Mark J. Parrell, Equity Residential’s CEO, said in a statement. “He was a generous philanthropist and an incredible mentor and friend.”