Sam Zell’s Multifamily Legacy

The prolific investor forged one of the industry's most consequential careers.

Sam Zell, 1941-2023. Photo courtesy of Equity Investment Group

Sam Zell, the founder of Equity Residential and one of real estate’s most consequential figures of the era, has died at 81. The announcement was made by Equity Investment Group, the parent company of Equity Residential.

Equity Residential was only one of many companies founded by Zell across multiple industries. He started the company’s predecessor in 1968 while he was a student at the University of Michigan. In August 1993, the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange. Today Equity Residential is a $31 billion company that owns or has ownership interests in more than 79,000 multifamily units in major markets from coast to coast, including Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco and Southern California.

His real estate platform extended beyond the multifamily sector. Zell was also the founder of Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS), a manufactured home community and resort REIT. Equity Office Properties Trust was the largest U.S. office property owner and the first REIT to be included in the S&P 100. It was eventually sold for $39 billion in what was then a record for a leveraged buyout.

Zell’s reputation for pursuing a robust investment strategy during industry downturns earned him the nickname, “the grave dancer.” He was well known for his sharp and often contrarian views on the economy and business, as well as on real estate.

As part of its succession plan, Equity Residential named David J. Neithercut as chairman of the board of trustees. Neithercut was the company’s CEO from 2006 through 2018 and has been a member of the company’s board since 2006.

Although he was best known for his real estate entrepreneurship, Zell’s business interests encompassed a broad cross-section of the economy. His holdings included transportation, logistics, energy, waste and infrastructure, manufacturing, health-care, and agribusiness. Zell was chairman of such companies as Covanta Holding Corp., an international energy-from-waste company; Jacor Communications, a media holding company; and Anixter International Inc., a global provider of wire and cable products, which he sold in 2020 for $4.5 billion.

The son of refugees who fled Poland during World War II, Zell focused much of his philanthropy on education. Through the Zell Family Foundation, he sponsored 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 and 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.

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

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