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3 Lessons I Learned from Sam Zell

Sam Zell, the legendary American businessman, recently passed away. Here are 3 of the best business lessons he left behind.

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I love reading business biographies. I think they are incredibly underrated.

Reading them allows you to absorb lessons learned from the best business minds of all time.

The stories that are shared are often, quite literally, unbelievable.

One of my favorites is Sam Zell’s Am I Being Too Subtle?

In the book, Zell shares his insights, experiences, and lessons learned throughout his career in real estate and entrepreneurship.

He offers candid and direct advice on business strategies, deal-making, risk-taking, and the mindset required to achieve success in the business world.

The book delves into Zell’s unconventional approach to business and provides valuable perspectives for aspiring entrepreneurs and business professionals.

Sam Zell passed away last week due to complications from a recent illness.

To honor, Zell I want to share my three favorite lessons that I learned from his autobiography.


Lesson #1: Have an immigrant mindset.

Here’s how the book begins….

“My father was the first person I knew who had done something ‘impossible.’ At thirty-four, he escaped his hometown in Poland on the last train out, just hours before the Luftwaffe bombed the tracks, and then led my mother and two-year-old sister on a twenty-one-month trek across two continents to safety.”

Zell goes on to describe how his family traveled thousands of miles, through four countries over a period of almost two years before arriving in the United States in 1941.

At the time, Sam Zell’s mother was pregnant with him.

Zell and his sisters grew up “keenly aware of how fortunate (they) were to be in this country, where opportunity was not defined by birth or religion or anything other than drive, and where there were no limits on how much you could achieve or how far you could go.”

I am not an immigrant.

I grew up just south of Boston, but I love the “immigrant mindset” and try to always remember that, by being born in the U.S. with good parents and having the opportunity to attend decent schools, I’ve won the “Ovarian Lottery” – as Buffett would describe it.

Lesson #2: Be creative in business.

In his book, Zell tells this wonderful story.

It goes as follows:

Zell had bought a bunch of parcels on a city block in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which he was going to repurpose as student housing. The only remaining lot was occupied by Mrs. D whose wealthy uncle let her live there rent-free. No developers could get the wealthy uncle to sell the property because Mrs. D was happy living there.

Over a period of months, Zell got the uncle to sell him the property by doing the following:

1) Personally driving Mrs. D. around to find a place for her to move to.

2) Arranging a tax-free swap (so that the wealthy uncle didn’t have to come out of pocket) with the following characteristics:

a. Same or lower property value.

b. Within 8 blocks of the downtown area, so that Mrs. D’s brother (who lived with Mrs. D) could go out nightly, get drunk, and walk home.

c. An adjacent 1BR apartment that Mrs. D’s brother could access without using stairs (he wouldn’t be able to manage stairs while drunk).

Zell got to know Mrs. D. and what was important to her. And ultimately was able to brainstorm a creative solution that met her needs.

And ultimately, he got the last parcel that he needed to own the entire block.

Lesson #3: Keep it simple.

Zell learned this lesson from Jay Pritzker of the legendary business family in Chicago.

Zell wrote:

“Jay taught me to use simplicity as a strategy. He had an uncanny ability to grasp an extremely complex situation and immediately locate the weakness. He always said that if there were twelve steps in a deal, the whole thing depended on just one of them.”

So, there you have it, the 3 most important lessons that I learned from Sam Zell.

1) Have an immigrant mindset.

2) Be creative in business.

3) Keep it simple.

If you haven’t read it already, I would highly recommend checking out Zell’s book, Am I Being Too Subtle?

RIP Sam Zell.


Rich is a trained economist and Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). He has researched and invested in stocks for more than 20 years and has become a recognized expert in micro-cap stock investing. He started his career at investment advisory firm Eaton Vance where he covered a wide range of sectors including software and internet, financials, and health care.