Advice from Sam Zell

The legendary Sam Zell has spoken at many conferences over the years, but his keynote to a packed ballroom at the Urban Land Institute Fall Meeting on Thursday took a different tack.
Sam Zell

Sam Zell

The legendary Sam Zell has spoken at many conferences over the years, but his keynote to a packed ballroom at the Urban Land Institute Fall Meeting on Thursday took a different tack. Interviewed by Green Courte Partners L.L.C. chairman, longtime investor and one-time Zell company executive Randall Rowe, the founder of Equity Group Investments and chairman of Equity International offered insights and advice learned from his parents and gained over a half-century career.

Among those insights:

Advice from his father:

  • It’s OK to pursue a transaction that keeps you up at night but nets a profit, and it’s OK to pursue a transaction that has less benefit but presents fewer concerns. “The only thing you don’t want to do is enter into a transaction where you can’t sleep and you can’t eat.”

    Randy Rowe interviewing Sam Zell at ULI

    Randy Rowe interviewing Sam Zell at ULI

On developing a strategy:

  • There is no secret formula to the amount of reading you do. He reads constantly, which allows him to develop directions and ideas. “You’ve gotta be prepared.” Nobody can predict for you what the next opportunity is, but the more broadly you educate yourself, the better you’ll be able to recognize those opportunities when they come up.

On taking risk:

  • “I never knew what I couldn’t do,” so it never stopped him from trying new things.
  • “Taking risk is great, (but) you’ve got to be paid to take risk.”
  • “The risk/reward ratio is the determinant of success.”
  • Some people are not acclimated to take risk. They may be smart and have great judgment, but they don’t have the ability to accept the negative result.
  • “My focus has always been on understanding and defining the downside. If you understand and define the downside, then effectively you have assessed the risk.”

On the characteristics he looks for in new members of his leadership team:

  • People who are smart but not brilliant and who are driven (“hungry”) are the ones that make the difference. Try to find the best possible people you can and give them rope, and they will either make a lasso or hang themselves. Constantly look for challenges and test their ability to respond.

On retirement and giving back:

  • “I love what I do. I’m challenged by what I do. I get to the office at 6:30. I’m 72 years old. I hope I can do this for the rest of my life.”
  • “Anyone can put their name on a building. My focus has been on trying to make a difference.”