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A life in and out of real estate

Samuel Zell, 66, is a self-made billionaire, whose investments are spread across many industry sectors but whose name has been closely associated with real estate since the 1960s.

Zell was born in Chicago in 1939, his parents having fled Poland on the eve of the Second World War. He attended the University of Michigan where, as an undergraduate studying law, he began investing in apartments and real estate in Ann Arbor and across southeast Michigan. He also struck up a defining friendship with fellow student Robert Lurie that turned into a formidable business partnership. The two men founded Equity Group Investment in 1968, with Zell in the forefront as the charismatic deal-maker. They invested in real estate and a wide variety of corporate enterprises.

Lurie died in 1990, leaving Zell to build the company further. In the recession and real estate downturn at the start of the 1990s, he snapped up distressed real estate assets and earned the nickname "the grave dancer" for deriving value from others’ distress. He was a master at finding finance for these investments from every source. Zell became a key driver of the quoted real estate investment trust sector, which grew rapidly from 1993 and he served for two years as the chairman of the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts between 1998 and 2000.

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