Sam Zell, one of the most influential figures in the U.S. commercial real estate industry, passed away at the age of 81.
Zell became involved in real estate when he managed student housing while he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and co-founded Equity Group Investments, a Chicago-based private investment firm, with university classmate Robert H. Lurie in 1968. The pair grew their business into the creation of some of the most prominent real estate investment trusts including the apartment-focused Equity Residential, the manufactured home and resort-focused Equity LifeStyle Properties, and Equity Office Properties Trust, which was the largest office building owner in the country and the first REIT in the S&P 500 when it was sold in 1997 for $39 billion in the largest leveraged buyout in history at that time. Lurie passed away in 1990.
Zell also founded Equity International in 1999 to focus on building real estate–related businesses in emerging international markets. In 2014, he gained control of CommonWealth REIT, an internally managed and self-advised real estate investment trust with commercial office properties in the U.S. He renamed the company Equity Commonwealth (EQC) and was chairman of the board until his passing.
In the course of his career, Zell sponsored 12 IPOs across a range of industries. He also served as chairman of three non-real estate companies: Anixter International Inc., a global provider of wire and cable products; Covanta Holding Corp., an international energy-from-waste company; and Jacor Communications Inc., a media holding company.
As of February, Zell had an estimated net worth of $5.3 billion, according to Forbes, and was actively engaged in philanthropic endeavors to promote higher education, including the creation and funding of the Samuel Zell and Robert Lurie Real Estate Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Growing up in the greater Chicago area, Sam Zell was larger than light. A force in commercial real estate, locally, nationally, and worldwide. So many tried copying what he and his partner created, and they changed the landscape of how one looked at real estate investment trusts.