Spring/Summer 2023

In Memoriam

Sam Zell, ’66

Sam Zell, ’66
Sam Zell, ’66

Sam Zell, ’66, an entrepreneur and maverick in the business world, died May 18, 2023, at his home in Chicago. He was 81. 

Zell launched and grew hundreds of companies over more than 60 years, including Equity Group Investments, Equity LifeStyle Properties, Equity Residential, and Equity Commonwealth. He was most widely recognized for his critical role in creating the modern real estate investment trust, which today is a more than $4 trillion industry.

He also was a generous alumnus who, along with his wife, Helen, made transformative gifts to many parts of the University of Michigan, including the Law School. His $5 million gift helped launch the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law Program in fall 2011. The program established an entrepreneurship clinic to offer free legal advice to the University’s burgeoning number of student start-up and business ventures. It also boosted the Law School’s curriculum to train law students to better serve startups and existing businesses. The clinic was the first of its kind in the country. 

In 2022, Zell and the Zell Family Foundation made an additional gift of $2 million to the clinic, which was renamed the Zell Entrepreneurship Clinic in recognition of his support. 

“Sam was a visionary thinker who reshaped the business landscape. He saw opportunities and challenged us to think differently, always encouraging us to forge new paths to success,” says Mark West, the David A. Breach Dean of Law and Nippon Life Professor of Law. “We are grateful for Sam’s unwavering support and for his legacy through the Zell Entrepreneurship Clinic. The clinic was born, at Sam’s encouragement, of the idea that there had to be a way to partner our student-attorneys with some of the amazing innovations taking place on campus. These partnerships have enabled us to transform promising ideas into real-life solutions, products, and services, and thanks to Sam’s gift, the clinic will continue to be an exceptional learning opportunity for students while also playing a critical role in the U-M entrepreneurial ecosystem.” 

Zell was born in Chicago in 1941, following his parents’ escape from Poland during World War II. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he started his first business, an apartment management and investment company. 

In 1968, Zell founded Equity Group Investments, a private investment firm headquartered in Chicago. A year later, Bob Lurie, a fraternity brother, joined him as a partner. Together, they built an empire, branching out from real estate to invest across industries in the 1970s and 1980s. Zell and Ann Lurie, on behalf of her late husband, established the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at U-M’s Ross School of Business in 1999. 

“My goal with entrepreneurial endeavors at the University has always been to create cross-pollination across multiple disciplines,” Zell said in 2011. “We’ve got top schools in law, engineering, business, and medicine. That’s an entrepreneurial jackpot just waiting to be cashed in.” 

Forbes recognized Zell in 2017 as one of the 100 Greatest Living Business Minds. Also that year, he chronicled his fundamental principles for life and business in a book, Am I Being Too Subtle? The title was a play on his reputation as a straight shooter. 

The Zell clinic at the Law School continues to serve U-M entrepreneurs. Since its inception, it has advised 363 clients on more than 1,000 distinct matters, from entity formation, conversation, and dissolution to corporate governance and intellectual property protection. Most recently, it has started advising student-athletes in regard to name, image, and likeness.

“As founding director of the clinic, I have witnessed the significant impact the clinic’s work has had on U-M’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Dana Thompson, ’99. “I am inspired by what our students accomplish on a daily basis, and none of this would be possible without the generosity of Sam Zell.” 

Zell is survived by his wife, Helen; his sister Julie Baskes and her husband, Roger Baskes; his sister Leah Zell; his three children, Kellie Zell and son-in-law Scott Peppet, Matthew Zell, and JoAnn Zell; and his nine grandchildren.