Sam Zell Part 2: Rejection, Risk, and Real Estate Mastery

When Sam Zell returned to Chicago, he was rejected by 43 law firms. When he finally landed a job at a small law firm, he lasted four days. Reviewing contract details all day was painful. When he quit to start doing deals again, the firm made him an offer: if he would stay, they’d do his legal work for him and give him a 50% commission on any legal business he brought in.

According to his autobiography, Sam did so well bringing in new business that he made three times as much money as the junior partners. The firm cut his commission to 25%. What he brought to the table wasn’t being valued, so he quit, which was risky given that his wife was pregnant. Sam was 25 and didn’t want to be held back by anyone else’s rules. He wanted to control his own destiny.

He started his own investment firm focused on investing in small, high-growth cities with limited competing capital. Colleges were growing, so he focused on buying apartments in cities with universities. In 1966, he closed his first major deal, a $1 million apartment building, with his father as an investor. Sam predicted it would yield 19% annually, while his father thought it would yield 8%. It ended up generating 20% annually. Sam expanded to Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Reno.

He tried to develop properties from scratch, but mistakes with Lake Tahoe and Lexington, Kentucky, projects burned Sam. He learned that development was complex and risky. Things outside of your control can change and doom a project between the idea and completion stages. Sam couldn’t stomach that level of risk.

In 1969, Jay Pritzker, part of the family that founded Hyatt Hotel Corporation, tried to hire Sam to scout deals for him. Sam declined, but Jay became a mentor and co-investor with him. Sam’s relationship with Jay elevated his thinking as an investor. Sam learned to understand risk, that most deals depend on one or two things, and that you can organize your thinking to cut to the heart of something complex by breaking it into pieces and creating an outline.

Around 1970, Bob Lurie rejoined Sam in Chicago at the firm, now called Equity Group Investments. Bob complemented Sam and they worked well as partners. Bob stayed in the office, viewed things pessimistically, and focused on details. Sam was Mr. Outside, an optimistic salesman who hated details. They had a team of 10 in the 1970s and encouraged everyone to wear what they wanted, believing that if you dress funny and are great at what you do, you’re eccentric. They wanted to attract eccentric who would do a phenomenal job, not mediocre people who could dress the role. Early on, Bob and Sam reinvested everything in deals and their business, so they were cash poor and ran the company on a shoestring budget.

In the 1970s, Sam and Bob met a brilliant dealmaker named Arthur Cohen, and they learned a valuable lesson from Cohen’s struggles. Cohen acquired an offshore mutual fund that offered daily redemptions to investors, but it held real estate, which couldn’t be sold quickly. When the market turned sour, the combination of long-term assets and daily investor redemptions put pressure on Cohen to raise cash quickly. Sam and Bob took advantage of Cohen’s predicament and bought several of his properties at attractive prices because they could decide and close quickly.

Things were going well for Sam until 1976. Then, partners at a law firm he used to craft tax-advantageous deals were indicted. One partner, Sam’s brother-in-law, was convicted. Sam was indicted, too, but the case was dropped. The stain of an indictment on his record would follow him for years. Sam learned how important reputation is when people began to question his.

Sam was in control of his own destiny, but being in control didn’t mean things were always smooth. Sam learned painful lessons, most notably how to understand and minimize deal and reputational risk. A focus on risk would play a critical role throughout his career, but especially in the next phase of his journey, a period when Sam was known as the Grave Dancer.

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