Sam Zell, Jewish billionaire whose media purchase tarnished a legendary career, dies at 81

Zell was a major donor to Jewish causes both inside and outside of Israel.

 Sam Zell, founder and chairman at Equity Group Investments, speaks during the SALT conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. May 17, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/RICHARD BRIAN)
Sam Zell, founder and chairman at Equity Group Investments, speaks during the SALT conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. May 17, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/RICHARD BRIAN)

Sam Zell, a Chicago real estate magnate and son of Holocaust survivors who led a tumultuous leveraged buyout that bankrupted the Tribune media company in the early 2000s, died Thursday. He was 81. 

Before buying the Tribune Co. in 2007,  the billionaire was known for his gift for reviving moribund companies. He developed an office-tower company that he sold to the Blackstone Group for $39 billion in 2007. His firm also invested in manufacturing, travel, retail, healthcare and energy. He pioneered the use of REITs, real estate securities that trade like stocks on the major exchanges.

But Zell appeared to lose his magic touch in 2007 after buying the Tribune company and its assets, which included televisions stations, the Chicago Cubs baseball team and major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. The company foundered in what Zell himself called the “deal from hell,” and filed for bankruptcy in December 2008, one year after Zell took the company private in a heavily leveraged $8.2 billion deal. Although the deal took place at a time of declining fortunes in the media industry, Zell’s personal leadership and decision to saddle the company with debt were widely blamed for the failure.

“The ‘grave dancer’ of real estate development was now the ‘grave digger’ of the newspaper world,” a Forbes columnist wrote at the time.

Zell was a major donor to Jewish causes, including the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, the American Jewish Committee and the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School, named for his father, in Chicago. (Its alumni include former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and actor Ike Barinholtz; a Jewish high school in Chicago is named for Zell’s mother Rochelle.)

MORE THAN 1,800 students from all over the world study at the IDC Raphael Recanati International School in Herzliya. (credit: IDC)MORE THAN 1,800 students from all over the world study at the IDC Raphael Recanati International School in Herzliya. (credit: IDC)

According to a 2007 profile in the Forward, Zell would regale campers as a Jewish summer camp counselor with tales of his parents’ escape from the Holocaust. According to his 2017 autobiography, “Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk From a Business Rebel,” Zell’s parents, then known as Ruchla and Berek Zielonka, escaped from Poland at the onset of the Nazi invasion and embarked with their 2-year-old daughter on a circuitous, 21-month journey that took them through Lithuania, Russia and Japan before they made it to the United States. They traveled on transit visas supplied by Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Vilnius who saved thousands of Jews.

Zell was born on Sept. 28, 1941, in Chicago. He graduated in 1963 from the University of Michigan, where he was also a member of the  Jewish Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He managed student housing apartments as an undergraduate and founded his chief investment vehicle, Equity Group Investments, in 1968.

Self made entrepeneur

“Sam Zell was a self-made, visionary entrepreneur. He launched and grew hundreds of companies during his 60-plus-year career and created countless jobs,” Equity Group Investments said in a written statement on Thursday. “Although his investments spanned industries across the globe, he was most widely recognized for his critical role in creating the modern real estate investment trust, which today is a more than $4 trillion industry.”

Zell was married three times. His survivors include his wife, Helen, three children and nine grandchildren.

Zell credited his own drive to the lessons he learned from his parents. In his memoir, he recalls seeing footage of the concentration camp atrocities that his parents escaped.

“Those unforgettable images were my introduction to the Holocaust,” Zell wrote. “Looking back, I can see that they accelerated my maturity and gave me a sober awareness of the world. That film also went a long way toward helping me understand my parents’ orientation toward life — why they pushed so hard and were so determined for their children to succeed. Economic success had been critical in securing their freedom. They had escaped Poland in part because they had the means to do so — my father’s prescience in storing away money.”