Sam Zell's Latest Gamble: Tribune Co. The man behind the buyout of Chicago-based Tribune Co. has a penchant for risky investments. But they tend to pay off: Real estate mogul Sam Zell, 65, is worth an estimated $4.5 billion.
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Sam Zell's Latest Gamble: Tribune Co.

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Sam Zell's Latest Gamble: Tribune Co.

Sam Zell's Latest Gamble: Tribune Co.

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If some of the nation's major newspapers survive, they may depend on billionaire Sam Zell. He made the winning bid for the Tribune Company, which owns the newspapers and TV stations in cities including Los Angeles and Chicago. Sam Zell made his fortune in real estate. He's often called the grave dancer for taking on risky properties.

NPR's Cheryl Corley has this profile.

CHERYL CORLEY: By some accounts, real estate mogul Sam Zell's first venture into publishing began where I'm standing right now, under Chicago's elevated train tracks, right next to a newspaper stand.

What kind of magazines do you sell?

Mr. ACTOR ARTHUR(ph) (Newsstand Owner): People Magazine, Ebony.

CORLEY: Do you have Tribunes here newspaper?

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah, we have Chicago Tribune. We have New York Times.

CORLEY: Actor Arthur sells just about everything at his newsstand. But in the 1950s, as the story goes, it wasn't a newspaper teenager Sam Zell was looking to buy when he stopped at Chicago's newsstand, but Playboy magazines - which he sold to his friends in the suburbs for a much higher price. Richard Kincaid laughs when he hears the story.

Mr. RICHARD KINCAID (CEO, Equity Office Properties): Sounds like him. I know that story. He's always been an entrepreneur.

CORLEY: Kincaid has worked for Sam Zell nearly 17 years, heading up Equity Office Properties, which 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's biggest mark has been in real estate.

Mr. KINCAID: He's sort of imbued us all with this culture of work hard, play hard. He put a lot of smart people together, and he's really a hands-off manager. But in terms of a strategist and being able to look around the corner and see how trends are coming together. I think there's probably nobody better than that.

CORLEY: Sixty-five-year-old Zell grew up in Chicago. He is the son of Jewish immigrants who left Poland before the Nazi invasion. Bearded, blunt spoken and bald, Zell may be small in stature - at about 5-feet-5-inches tall - but he's big in personality. He is an avid skier, paintball enthusiast, and he rides motorcycles with a group called Zell's Angels. His willingness to go against the odds has helped him amass an estimated $4.5 billion fortune. Zell started making money while still a student at the University of Michigan, buying distressed properties.

Judd Malkin, a real estate mogul in his own right, the chairman of JMB Realty, says Sam Zell has been an industry leader, particularly with his push of real estate investment trust beginning in the 1980s.

Mr. JUDD MALKIN (Chairman, JMB Realty): I think that in the late '80s when the bubble, sort of burst in the real estate business, for a couple of years there people were wringing their hands and not doing much. And at that time, Sam was doing a lot. He put together some wonderful companies.

CORLEY: Those businesses included a mobile home company and the country's largest apartment properties firm. There had been missteps. Analysts have said the near bankruptcy of a department store and mistakes at equity office, for example, cost shareholders' money.

But Zell redeemed himself when he sold that company in what's been called the country's largest leverage buyout ever. Now, Zell is ready to take on new risks with the Tribune Company. David Hiller, the current publisher of the Tribune's LA Times and the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune, says he didn't see any of Zell's presentations describing his bid, but he did meet him and was impressed.

Mr. DAVID HILLER (Publisher, Los Angeles Times): He loves newspapers in terms of his own use. He is more of an optimist about the future of newspapers than a lot of people are. My sense is he's in this because this is the business that he can build and grow. He wants to ride it up and not down.

CORLEY: Now the question is whether Zell can be as successful in the media world as he has been in real estate.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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