New Tune for the 'Grave Dancer'
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
In 1992, Cincinnati's Jacor Communications was a struggling radio company. It was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy because it had tried to buy stations too quickly.
Enter Chicago real estate magnate and nascent radio investor Samuel Zell, bearing a check for $70 million, which bought him controlling interest in the company. He stabilized it.
Six years later, after Zell gobbled up a number of other stations, he sold his radio company to Clear Channel Communications.
Price: $4.4 billion.
Now, Sam Zell has his sights set on the newspaper industry. Chicago's Tribune Co. has accepted Zell's offer, worth more than $13 billion, for the media empire, with its high-profile but struggling properties, such as the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and a number of television stations.
According to Forbes magazine, Zell is America's 52nd-richest person, with a net worth of $4.5 billion. That was before his estimated payday of at least $1.1 billion in February, when he sold his primary business -- the nation's largest office building firm, Equity Office Properties Trust -- for $39 billion.
Numerous newspaper profiles have called Zell a "bottom-feeder," and it's not always a compliment. His deals have not always worked out. Equity Office Properties' stock was flat for many years, partly because investors didn't buy Zell's nationwide office-chain idea, believing real estate to be a regional business. He took a substantial loss on a property he bought in Atlanta. A 1998 venture into the European office market didn't work out.
Zell prefers to call himself the "grave dancer." He is known for spotting undervalued properties that have been overlooked, building them up and selling them. It worked for him in radio.
But Zell has never owned or managed newspapers, and they can be a tough business, full of prickly journalists who equate better journalism with bigger corporate budgets.
Zell also is known as a witty 65-year-old with a love of motorcycles. He founded Equity Office Properties in 1976 with a fraternity buddy from the University of Michigan.
He stands out in the world of real estate deals by wearing blue jeans to high-profile meetings; in fact, jeans have long been the dress code at Equity Office Properties' Chicago headquarters.
"If you're really good at what you do and you dress funny, you're eccentric," Zell told the Cincinnati Enquirer in a 1999 interview. "If you're not so good at what you do and you dress funny, you're a schmuck. So our motivation here has always been to be extraordinarily good at what you do, so therefore we can wear whatever we want."