New York (CNN) Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate mogul whose knack for buying up distressed assets made him a billionaire and earned him the nickname “grave dancer,” died Thursday, his company said. He was 81.
Equity Residential, the company he founded decades ago, did not provide a cause of death but described Zell as “an iconic figure in real estate and throughout the corporate world.”
Among his broad portfolio of investments were distressed real estate and media assets, including a disastrous bet on the Tribune Company. Zell had a personal net worth of $5.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Zell had a penchant for scooping up cheap properties and selling them later at a profit, a strategy he outlined in a 1978 article titled “The Grave Dancer,” which became his industry nickname.
“I danced on the skeletons of other people’s mistakes,” he wrote.
But Zell’s impressive track record of successful bets was marred by a brief, failed foray into the media in 2007, when he orchestrated the $8.2 billion leveraged buyout of the Tribune Company.
The following year, the media group, which owned newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, among other properties, went bankrupt. More than 4,200 employees were laid off.
Zell’s handpicked managers allegedly did ushered in a toxic workplace culture marked by offensive office banter and sexual innuendo, according to a 2010 New York Times article based on interviews with more than 20 employees.
“Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of a stable company, has come to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, jukeboxes and rampant sex talk,” the Times wrote.
Zell’s own salty language has also been subject to controversy. In 2018, during the rise of the #MeToo movement, Zell sparked outrage by making a lewd comment about hiring women.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his fiery tongue and bold bets, he won legions of investors who saw him as a scientist.
“The world has lost one of its greatest investors and entrepreneurs,” said Mark J. Parel, CEO of Equity Residential. “He was a generous philanthropist and an incredible mentor and friend.”