This book is like a complete life story in detail written by Sam Zell himself. It is recommended instead of reading this book you could buy an audio version which is available on Amazon in his own voice.

This article is based on the key takeaways from this book from investing and life perspective. It’s always recommended to read the complete book to get a better learning understanding.

1. Early Life

Sam Zell’s success is one of the typical American dream stories. These parents were immigrants who ran from Nazi-occupied Poland under the terrain of Adolf Hitler.  His father was a smart grain trader who was aware of the expanding German occupation and its motive.

So he create a plan and smuggled a few thousand dollars out of the country via various means and decided to move to America at the age of 34. This turn out to be a great decision as most of his cousins died and whom he had advised moving with him. 

But the journey was not that simple he was not able to directly go to America by the normal West way so he went eastwards via Japan. Sam’s mother was pregnant with him at the time they arrived and America.

Sam’s first business venture was selling Playboy magazine to his friend which he bought for 50 cents and sold for $3. Through this trade, he understood the concept of demand and supply as this type of magazine was not sold in Suburban residential areas but was sold in city areas, which resulted in being one of the most important concepts of his investment in the future.

The first project he took up as an undergrad was a management project where has he transformed the apartments and give them an aesthetically modern look as he was aware of what want the students wanted to be opposed to what the owner had planned; Sam actually returned back all the material which they had bought to refurbished the apartments and it resulted in achieving 100% occupancy in a very few time. The owners gave him another apartment building to manage as well.

During his undergraduate and while pursuing a law degree he took up various deals and management contracts for residential buildings. When Mr. Zell graduated from law college he had $250,000 in the bank and made $150,000 that year at the age of 23 which was equivalent to 1.1 million in 2016.

2. Concentration on Risk 

Sam Zell’s Investment strategy at its center always focuses on how much can I lose on a deal.

If the risk-reward ratio in a deal is favorable then he would take up such a deal. He always says – to think in a simple way, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line you don’t need to complicate things.

On this simple criteria, he made many successful deals over his career in different segments of real estate and equity markets.  He has also started a course based on this topic to help students understand in detail how to identify and analyze risk.

For example, when he bought the famous Chicago newspaper Tribune he invested 300 million dollars out of which $100 million was of his own; he says if his forecast were right he would have made 1.5 to 1.6 billion dollars but at the same time he also said you he and his investors were willing to lose $300 million dollars for the upside.

3. Independence of thought (Contrarian bet) – 1973 & 1990

Unlike other investors who were investing in fully developed cities at the time. Zell decided to focus on developing small college cities where it had an understanding of college students’ mentality and opportunities and the risk and reward ratio were great. 

Mr. Zell in the mid to late ’20s was making great investment deals in the real estate market, but at the start of 70’s he realized that the real estate market is getting overheated with the huge quantum of extra supply coming even though the occupancy was reaching 90% level he thought the supply was too much.

Having this insight he decided to stop making new deals and instead raised capital for one of a kind at the time distress fund to take advantage of this coming fall in the real estate market. He was told he doesn’t understand the market and the party will go on forever. But Sam played the waiting game and the fall eventually came in the ’70s.

Zell invested and bought $3 billion of real estate with each being $1 down and promissory notes and made a killing from 1973 to 1977.

This contrarian attitude again played out well but in the equity market where he bought distressed inefficient companies in the market also at the time the government also passed a provision for extending the NOL (Net operating loss) for more years, these losses can be used to set off future profits against it.

He used the same real estate investment strategy to turn around these companies and later IPO’d them in the public market again making a great investment for himself as well as his investors.

Sam called his investing style in distressed real estate and companies as Grave Dancing.

Read these famous articles here written by Sam Zell:

A detailed video on the life of Sam Zell on Youtube by one of my favorite Youbuter i.e.FINAiUS.

4. Relationship more than money (Leaving money on the table).

Born and brought up by Jews immigrants he many times shared this room with people who came out of the war zone of Europe and others which his parents took in. Which helped me to realize the importance of helping others.

Most of Sam’s deals were leveraged and scaled by other people’s money. Also during the booming period when the market was overpriced, he only invested on his own as a proportion to over and vice versa in case of the distressed market where there was blood on the street.

Thus making relationships with people a very important part of this business. Mr. Zell always left money on the table for the other party instead of squeezing every penny out of the deal even though many times his own team didn’t agree. 

This simple rationale was if that person goes out happy with his deal, he will be willing to make more deals with him.

This philosophy came to be handled during the credit crunch of the 1990s. 

Sam Zell had a very good relationship with Jay Pritzker, one of the legends in the business world and the co-founder of the famous business group Hyatt Corporation.

Mr. Zell had bought a stake in a company from David Murdoch via its company called Itel and had bought it via cash plus share with a condition that if after a period of four years if the stock did not reach the stick price; Itel will require to buy them or he could sell the shares in the market and Itel would have to make up the difference.

Sam went to Jay with this problem as he was not left with any option. He explained the entire situation to Jay and within minutes Mr. Pritzker said yes and agreed to give $50 million.

5. Importance of Culture 

Mr. Zell always inculcated a culture of entrepreneurship by giving complete autonomy to its managers. There is a line in the book which says I am the Chairman of all my companies and CEO of none. Through this, he is able to access a lot of information and resources and creates a culture of self-motivated professions.

In this long business history of running many companies, only senior executives left this firm, just come back after a while. When he returned, Sam asked him if he was given a bigger title, salary, and power at the other place why did you come back, to which the executive said if he had a problem he had to write a memo and wait for weeks to get the answer; but here I can walk down the corridor and get the answer from you. 

Sam Zell described this situation as “Fast decision making and autonomy had become like oxygen to him”.

One more similar incident happened when Sam wanted to start a new office company worth $6 billion dollars from scratch just in a few months. He received many job applications and within a few weeks, he had 30 people running the company out of which 26 came were from the Equity office and other businesses which he ran previously.


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