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Sam Zell, billionaire real estate investor, dies at age 81


Billionaire Sam Zell, who built a real estate empire and was known for betting on distressed assets, died at the age of 81 due to complications from a recent illness, his private investment firm said in a statement on Thursday.

Born in 1941 to Polish parents who fled to the United States during the German invasion of Poland, Zell had a keen interest in real estate from a very early age.

He began his career managing student housing as a student at the University of Michigan and founded his primary investment vehicle, Equity Group Investments, in 1968.

In addition to real estate, his company also invested in manufacturing, travel, retail, healthcare and energy companies.

Zell played a key role in popularizing the structure of real estate investment trusts (REITs), which in the 1990s leased and collected rent from real estate and paid out profits to investors as dividends.

One of its REITs, Equity Office Properties Trust, was the first to be part of the benchmark S&P 500 index. It was later sold to asset management giant Blackstone Inc for $39 billion in one of the largest real estate deals ever.

However, another of his ambitious ventures went bankrupt. He took media giant Tribune Co private in a highly leveraged $8.2 billion deal that saddled the company with too much debt.

Tribune filed for bankruptcy protection a year later during the global financial crisis, after advertising revenues plummeted as more readers began getting their news online. Zell called the acquisition a “deal from hell”.

According to Forbes, the Chicago real estate czar had a net worth of $5.2 billion.

An outspoken businessman, Zell had a passion for motorcycles, which led him to form a group called Zell’s Angels with whom he would go on annual motorcycle rides.

In 2017, he published a book titled “Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk From a Business Rebel” in which he talked about his experiences.

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.