Real estate pioneer Sam Zell, considered one of the founders of the modern REIT era, died May 18, 2023, at age 81. His passing was announced by Equity Residential (NYSE: EQR) and Equity LifeStyle Properties, Inc . (NYSE: ELS), two REITs he founded and served as chairman, and Equity Commonwealth (NYSE: EQC), where he was chairman.
Zell was also Nareit’s chair in 1999 and 2000 and was a past recipient of Nareit’s Industry Leadership Award. He was a highly vocal and active champion of the listed REIT approach to real estate investment, and the transparency, predictability, and accountability that REITs bring to the industry.
Nareit President & CEO Steve Wechsler described Zell as the principal “architect and progenitor of the modern REIT era, with a vision that few had and one that has truly come to fruition. It’s proved his far-sightedness, came about through his diligence and doggedness, benefited from his creative spark, and underlined his will to achieve as well as his ability to overcome barriers.”
Wechsler said that, in many ways, Zell served “as a guiding light in the effort to help democratize real estate so that approximately 150 million Americans today benefit from the REIT approach to real estate. He was first and foremost a mentor to me as well as a friend and it’s impossible to imagine the last several decades without him in terms of the role he played in and for our community.”
Zell founded Equity Group Investments in 1964 with partner Robert Lurie, who passed away in 1990, after the two had run an apartment management business together while attending the University of Michigan. That business was the predecessor company to Equity Residential, which Zell took public in August 1993. Under his leadership, Equity Residential grew into a $31 billion apartment owner, developer, operator, and S&P 500 member.
“Sam’s insatiable intellectual curiosity and passion for deal making created some of the most dynamic companies in the public real estate industry,” Mark Parrell, Equity Residential's president and CEO, said in the announcement of his passing.
Marguerite Nader, president and CEO of Equity LifeStyle Properties, said Zell established “an entrepreneurial culture focused on excellence, value creation, skilled and empowered teams and, most importantly, doing the right thing. He was a visionary who trusted his own sensibilities.”
Zell also founded Equity Office Properties Trust, which was the first REIT in the S&P 500 and the largest office building owner in the country when it was sold to Blackstone Group in 1997 for $39 billion.
In addition to his achievements in real estate, Zell also invested in and grew businesses in multiple industries including manufacturing, retail, travel, health care, and energy.
Zell was also an active philanthropist with a focus on entrepreneurial education. He established several leading entrepreneurship programs including the Zell Lurie Institute at the University of Michigan; the Zell Fellows Program for entrepreneurship at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management; the Samuel Zell & Robert Lurie Real Estate Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and the Zell Entrepreneurship Program at Reichman University (formerly IDC Herzliya), a private higher education institution in Israel.
Zell is survived by his wife, Helen; his sister Julie Baskes; his sister Leah Zell; his three children, Kellie Zell, Matthew Zell, and JoAnn Zell; and nine grandchildren. The son of Polish refugees Bernard and Rochelle Zielonka, Zell was born in 1941 in Chicago four months after his parents’ arrival in the United States following their escape from Poland during the German invasion.
More Nareit stories about Zell are available — Nareit spoke to Zell on many occasions, including this 2018 interview and this 2014 interview.