Monday, January 11, 2010

Sam Zell, What the hell?

The biography of real estate maverick Sam Zell is a decent introduction, but not the final word
Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: Inside the Contrarian Mind of Billionaire Mogul Sam Zell
Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: Inside the Contrarian Mind of Billionaire Mogul Sam Zell. Ben Johnson. Portfolio. 246 pages.

Great title, of course, though the sub-title doesn't really deliver what it promises, as there's scant inside info about the mind of this billionaire mogul. Regardless, this breezy biography of successful real estate investor Sam Zell provides a pretty good profile of this character.

As a kid, the canny young Zell bought copies of the new (at the time) Playboy magazine and sold them to his suburban Illinois classmates at a nice markup. As a young law student, he chanced into real estate, investing in student housing. The venture proved so lucrative that young Zell abandoned plans to practice law after holding exactly one job at a firm, then quitting to begin his real career as an investor.

He found distressed properties and rehabilitated them, earning a nice profit when he flipped 'em. It was a formula he'd repeatedly follow until he bought into a business that might be immune to such tactics: media — newspapers and broadcasting.

But before he faced his Waterloo on Lake Michigan, Zell continued to invest and profit, mostly from real estate though he also, according to Johnson, began to diversify. He became knowledgeable in international markets and invested cautiously though astutely in real estate ventures in developing countries.

Johnson's biography sheds little light on Zell's motivations beside avarice. Surely there's more, not merely in psychological terms or mystical mumbo jumbo.

In other words, what makes Sammy run? If the author has no opinion or insights to offer, I didn't see them herein. And other than his early days, there's little of the character's personal life. He's married. Any kids? No idea. But we do know he likes to ride motorcycles. It's his trademark. Nice.

Nevertheless, as Johnson turns his attention to the main event, the Tribune deal, Zell has more than enough money for several lifetimes worth of comfortable retirements, yet he goes far out of his element and comfort zone into a field quite foreign to him, despite his proclivity for reading six newspapers every day, per Johnson.

No need to recount the miseries endured by advertiser-supported publications and the broadcast industry, but when contrarian Zell and his cadre of like-minded mavericks looked at Chicago's venerable Tribune Co. what did they see? Johnson doesn't really provide much in the way of details, instead focusing on the background leading up to the company's sale and the machinations of the deal itself.

That's fine and well done but given the crumbling landscape, was it hubris, ignorance or hallucinogenic drugs that led the otherwise canny Zell into such an unastute investment.

Newspapers are generally staffed with overeducated underachievers whose monastic dedication to the pursuit of truth can be baffling to those using their own prodigious skills to merely make money. The ensuing culture clash between Zell and the journalists at his newly acquired papers was inevitable.

So, too, was bankruptcy, despite his stellar track record and apparently good intentions. Johnson provides the general outline of the ongoing dissolution of the Trib and its sister papers and broadcast properties — and the Chicago Cubs, which were part of the package — though another whole book might better detail the sad collapse. In all, Money Talks is a decent intro to Zell, but likely not the final word.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bull**** is correct. He is full of Bull. Promised we would make money together. Workers haven't had a raise in the last 2 years, but Managers have gotten large bonuses. Plans to consolidate business functions, more layoffs coming. Doesn't matter how long you worked for Tribune, you will not get any severance, or a thank you for all your hard work. Oh U.S. Trustee help us!