Sam Zell’s “Am I Being Too Subtle?”

A quick read (or audiobook) that’s entertaining for any deal junkie but has applicability to goals setting and management philosophies and some (badly needed) Chicago pride.  I’ve seen him speak many times.  He’s typically – though not always – ahead of the curve.  One of my favorite speaking engagements of his was when he played his New Year’s 2000 Zellennium song.


  1. It appears that Sam wrote his autobiography long ago, and then shaped actions to build the desired legacy.  If this is true, this is a great example of the habit of writing your biography or eulogy.
  2. He’s a list maker, a common activity for high-performing individuals. I view them as “mini goals.”
  3. As a risk-taker, he says that his greatest fear is making a decision without having all the information.  He’s confident in his ability to evaluate and assess the known risks but, it’s the unknowns that bother him.  He clearly did not see the capital markets shut down right after the Chicago Tribune acquisition.
  4. He prides himself at being innovative and incentivizes his employees/partners to do the same.
  5. He hired a creative director early on to build his brand and leverage his considerable skill set in this regard.  He understands the value of his personal and Equity Group’s brands. Forward thinking.
  6. Incentivize employees to act like owners – think big, long-term and be conscientious.
  7. Creating wealth is about leverage. The primary levers are people and capital.  I know someone that calls the structure that pulls these levers a “pyramid.”   Such hierarchical structures are demoralizing.  It’s not a coincidence that both Zell and Ray Dalio talk about meritocracies (though I haven’t researched how well Dalio’s people share in the spoils).  A key question is how to motivate people for the common good.  It goes beyond financial rewards.
  8. History (re)written?  The winners get to write History and I always question the biases of an author. Does Sam rewrite it?  The physicist in me probes every observation.  Zell is clearly concerned about his legacy and paints a favorable picture, as one would expect.  I’d like to believe it.  He’s been so generous with his time, speaking around Chicago, and does indeed make large donations, though these good just be examples of ways to pacify an ego.  His reputation supports much of what he extols in the book.  Perhaps my one area of doubt, which he ultimately convinces me of, is whether those on the opposite side of the negotiating table share his perception that the negotiation was win-win.  My experience is that the more the counterparty says “I’m a good guy” the less (s)he will be.  Regardless, it is instructive to see how concerned he is for this aspect of his reputation.  When you need to do that many deals (because you have so much capital to place), I’m sure his reputation is important.

There is certainly, on average, a different/higher professional courtesy amongst corporate real estate brokers and with landlords that work in a given geographical market and must do so repeatedly.  This can help the corporate occupier client, oftentimes getting to final deal terms more quickly.  The downside is when there’s a “market-middling” of the transaction, particularly common when brokers also represent landlords.  For those brokers active in a geographical market, they are worried about future transactions and may therefore be reserved in the representation of their corporate clients’ interests.