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Sam Zell's Latest Gamble: Tribune Co.

Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell is often called the "Grave Dancer" for his willingness to take on business risks. His latest bold maneuver is the purchase of the Tribune Company — a struggling media congomerate based in his hometown.

Richard Kincaid has worked for Sam Zell for nearly 17 years, heading up Equity Office Properties. It was the country's largest office landlord. The business was sold earlier this year for $39 billion to the Blackstone Group

Although Zell has invested in other businesses, Kincaid says Zell has made his biggest mark in real estate.

"He's really a hands-off manager," Kincaid said. "But in terms of the strategist — being able to look around the corner and see how trends are coming together — I think there's probably nobody better than [Zell]."

Zell, 65, grew up in Chicago. He is the son of Jewish immigrants who left Poland before the Nazi invasion.

Bearded, blunt-spoken and bald, Zell is small in stature at 5'5" tall. But his personality is outsized. He is an avid skier, paintball enthusiast and motorcycle rider, rolling with a group called Zell's Angels.

His willingness to go against the odds has helped Zell amass an estimated $4.5 billion fortune. Zell starting making money while still a student at the University of Michigan by buying distressed properties.

Judd Malkin, a real estate mogul in his own right as the chairman of J&B Realty, says Sam Zell has been an industry leader. In particular, his 1980s push into real estate investment trusts showed the way for many in the industry.

"In the late '80s ... the bubble sort of burst in the real estate business ... [and] people were wringing their hands and not doing much," Malkin said. "Sam was doing a lot, and put together some wonderful companies."

The businesses Zell got into included a mobile-home company and the country's largest apartment properties firm.

There have been missteps. Analysts have said the near bankruptcy of a department store and mistakes at Equity Office cost shareholders money. But Zell redeemed himself when he sold that company in what's been called the country's largest leveraged buyout ever.

Now Zell is ready to take on new risk with the Tribune Company.

David Hiller, the current publisher of the Tribune's Los Angeles Times, and the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune, says he didn't see any of Zell's bid presentations. But he did meet the mogul, and was impressed.

"He loves newspapers in terms of his own use. He's more of an optimist about the future of newspapers than a lot of people are, including some in the industry," Hiller said. "It's my sense that he's in this because this is a business he feels he can build and grow. He wants to ride it up and not down."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.