Famed investor Sam Zell passed away last week. In Barron’s, Oscar Schafer discusses Zell’s life, writing:
Sam Zell, the renowned real estate investor, died last week and, knowing we were close, the editors at Barron’s kindly asked if I would write a few words.
People read Barron’s to learn about investing, and there are so many lessons one can learn from Sam. It is hard to know where to start. I could highlight his bold bets on out-of-favor industries or his creative knack for complex structures. I could mention his prescient sales at the top of the cycle or perhaps his repeated warnings when he saw others acting imprudently.
I first met Sam in 1984 when we were both buying shares in a distressed railcar leasing business called Itel. A mutual friend suggested that we meet to compare notes. I saw a cheap asset. Of course, Sam saw that too, but he also saw an opportunity for growth and value creation. Sam would eventually take control of the company, restructure its balance sheet, and buy and sell an array of related businesses over the course of decades. He created tremendous value along the way.
In truth, it is impossible to distill such a varied investment career into a single article. And it is unfair to define a man like Sam just by the deals he did or the money he made. The best we can learn from Sam isn’t simply how to invest. It is how to live.
Sam recognized the importance of having fun. He threw elaborate parties and told dirty jokes. He had a giant personality. He was a serious investor, but he never took himself too seriously. When he was negotiating the largest deal of his life—the $39 billion sale of his office REIT—he famously tempted one bidder with an email written as a poem.
Sam was fiercely independent. He dressed and spoke however he wanted. He refused to conform. He wasn’t afraid to say the unpopular thing. When WeWork was valued at nearly $50 billion and gearing up for a blockbuster IPO, Sam went on television to call “bull—-” and predict disaster. Yet despite his bravado he was intensely loyal, and I always knew that if I ever needed him, he would be there, a true friend.
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