Sam Zell started out on his business career early. While he was attending the University of Michigan he became adroit at managing apartment buildings in exchange for room-and-board, at first. After graduating with a BA Zell and his school friend, Robert Lurie, had a contract with a large apartment developer in Ann Arbor. At the time of Zell’s graduation from law school at the University of Michigan, he and his partner were managing more than 4,000 apartments, and owned 100-200 of their own. After he graduated he sold his share of the management company, and moved to Chicago, where he had grown up.
Zell took a job at a law firm, but quit after only one week, deciding that he was unsuited for the profession. But he was week at the law firm was not in vain. One of the senior partners was so impressed with Zell that he gave him seed money to buy an apartment building in Toledo, Ohio. He also invested in buildings in Reno, Nevada. Within a year his old partner Bob Lurie joined the business, and together grew the small company into a giant enterprise. The company they created, Equity Group Investments, spawned three of the biggest public real estate companies in history: Equity Residential, the largest apartment owner in the US; Equity Office Properties Trust, the largest office owner in the US; and Equity Lifestyle, an owner/operator of manufactured home and resort communities.
In addition to his real estate empire, Zell invested in other industries, including Schwinn Bicycle company, Revco, Broadway Stores, and many others.
Business never got in the way of Zell’s desire to give back to the community. Zell and his wife Helen focus their generous giving on education and the arts. They are the sponsors of the Zell/Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies of the University of Michigan; the Kellogg School Zell Center for Risk Research at Northwestern University and the Zell’s Scholar Program; and the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School’s Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center. The couple also supports the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Symphony.
Sam and Helen have not held back their generosity from Jewish causes, either. The couple made a $3.1 million donation to the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel; and the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress. Back in the US he is a giver to the American Jewish Committee and the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago which is named after Sam’s father. He also gave money to the Chicagoland Jewish High School, which is now called the Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, after his mother.