Day November 26, 2007
In April, 2005, Sam Zell travelled to Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Zell is best known as a real-estate magnate, whose reputation has been enhanced by the sale, last February, for thirty-nine billion dollars, of Equity Office Properties Trust, the largest collection of office buildings in the country. Zell, who is sixty-six, delights in claiming that at the time the sale—to Blackstone, the private-equity firm—was “the largest single transaction that has ever been done.” But for decades his appetite for economic opportunity has lured him beyond real estate into investments in oil and gas, barges, insurance, wineries, cruise ships, department stores, waste-to-energy power projects, and radio stations. In April, he signed an $8.2-billion deal that would effectively give him control of Tribune Company, the giant media conglomerate, whose assets include the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. For about a dozen years, he has also invested aggressively abroad, most recently in the Middle East. He spends about twelve hundred hours a year on his plane—the equivalent of flying from New York to London every few days. “I want to see everybody in their habitat,” he told me, in a low, rasping voice. “When these people see me come halfway around the world to meet them and spend time with them, it creates a level of confidence that translates into other things”—by which he means, he says, “successful business.”
Zell has made much of his fortune by identifying opportunity where others see only trouble. He says that he is constantly trying to “shut out the noise” of conventional wisdom, because, although it may not always be wrong, it is rarely profitable. In the mid-seventies, he bought about three billion dollars’ worth of distressed real estate in cities across the country for “a dollar down and a hope certificate.” He made hundreds of millions of dollars. In 1978, he published an article about his exploits in Real Estate Review, which he titled “The Grave Dancer” (“I was dancing on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes”), and this became his nickname. If Zell gains control of Tribune Company—the deal is expected to close before the end of the year, though obstacles remain—it will be the biggest distressed entity that he has ever acquired. In addition to the Chicago and Los Angeles daily newspapers, the company owns Newsday, six other dailies, and twenty-three television stations, as well as the Chicago Cubs. In part because of rapidly declining profits in the newspaper industry, Tribune’s revenues have been dropping for years. When Tribune’s directors put the company up for sale, in September, 2006, a number of prospective buyers examined its assets and walked away. By the time Zell made his offer, last March, his only competition was a less fully formed bid from the Los Angeles businessmen Ronald Burkle and Eli Broad.