Sam Zell, real estate mogul and one-time owner of Tribune Company, dies

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Friday, May 19, 2023
Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell dies
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Sam Zell, a real estate mogul and one-time owner of the Tribune Company, has died.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Sam Zell, a Chicago real estate magnate who earned a multibillion-dollar fortune and a reputation as "the grave dancer" for his ability to revive moribund properties has died due to complications from a recent illness. He was 81.

To the average Chicagoan, Zell may be best known as the former owner of Cubs, which was part of the Tribune Company when he took it over in 2007.

But Zell apparently had little interest in owning a baseball team. He promptly put the Cubs up for sale.

"It allowed the Ricketts family to step in and take over, but it had a devastating impact on followers of the Cubs and the Tribune and that whole association," said Fred Mitchell, a retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter.

Mitchell said shortly after buying the Tribune for more than $8 million, Zell eliminated about 4,000 jobs at the company.

"He did not have a journalism background and showed us through actions and words, salty words, that his intention was to maximize his profit at the expense of good journalism," Mitchell said.

Outside of the sports and journalism worlds however, Zell, the son of immigrant parents who fled Poland just before World War II, was known as a self-made billionaire.

"People would refer to him as iconic, legendary," said Alby Gallun, with Crain's Chicago Business.

He built his wealth starting in college, buying distressed properties cheap, fixing them and selling for a profit. He was a pioneer in taking real estate investment public.

"A lot of people have holdings in real estate investment trusts, and Sam Zell is a big reason why," Gallun said.

One of his real estate companies, Equity Residential, is headquartered at 2 N. Riverside Plaza downtown.

In a statement, their CEO said, "Sam's insatiable intellectual curiosity and passion for deal making created some of the most dynamic companies in the public real estate industry. He was a generous philanthropist and an incredible mentor and friend and will be missed by all who were lucky enough to be part of his extraordinary world."

Zell is survived by his wife, Helen; his sister Julie Baskes and her husband, Roger Baskes; his sister Leah Zell; his three children, Kellie Zell and son-in-law Scott Peppet, Matthew Zell, and JoAnn Zell; and his nine grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.