Sam Zell isn’t known for being subtle—and the tongue-in-cheek title of his newly-released book, Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk from a Business Rebel, hints at his penchant for sarcasm.
With its forthright commentary and distinctive humor, the book is akin to having a conversation with the author.
“There were a whole series of lessons that I’d learned, and I needed to find a vehicle to share them with future generations,” Zell said during a recent interview. The book is his way to mentor and motivate aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, and anyone pursuing success in business and in life.
Zell is a lifelong Chicagoan, but a global investor. His business deals have at times spurred controversy, such as when the Tribune Company went into bankruptcy a year after he agreed to steward the enterprise. But he’s started and grown dozens of companies and he’s created thousands of jobs. Moreover, his employees are uncommonly loyal, many of them working with him for decades.
“Being an entrepreneur, among other things, is generally a lonely perspective,” he said. “You’re going left when everyone else is going right.”
This sort of antithetical thinking saved his parents’ and sister’s lives. Bernard and Rochelle Zell fled from Western Poland with his 3-year-old sister in tow, in August 1939—one day before the German invasion. “My parents made numerous appeals to their brothers, sisters, and parents to leave Poland,” Zell wrote. But their family refused, and all but two members survived.
The Zells spent the next two years going through Lithuania and Russia, and then to Japan. They landed in the United States in 1941 just months before Sam was born. “They traveled on foot, by bus, by horse-drawn carts, and by cattle train,” he wrote. “Growing up, I heard many stories of the help my family received along the way, often from my father’s business associates, Jews and non-Jews alike.”
His parents’ experiences—and his own experience as a Jew growing up in a mixed environment—had a profound effect on his life. “I was always a minority. I think that always set higher standards of performance,” he said.
The family lived in Chicago, eventually moving to Highland Park. As a teen, Zell attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. “Camp Ramah had a very big impact on my life because it was an environment where everybody, including the younger people, was given a lot of autonomy,” he said. He added that the intersection among campers of all ages, outside the social norms of school, gave him the opportunity to discover his leadership ability. He took those experiences to heart, and created a similar culture of meritocracy over seniority in his business.
“Motivation is an extraordinarily large part of people’s success. Much larger than I think conventional wisdom suggests. And motivation and meritocracy are very connected. If there is no meritocracy, it’s hard to get motivated,” he said. When standards are fair rather than based on time served, “the overachiever is always comfortable that he or she is going to achieve in any scenario.”
Zell refuses to buy into social convention. “Early on, I realized that I had to listen to my own drummer, and that when I didn’t I was unhappy,” he said. “I gained the greatest degree of satisfaction and feeling of achievement when I thought through an issue and executed a strategy based on my own thinking.”
He wants to encourage others with a similar orientation. Zell has been a pioneering sponsor of entrepreneurship education, with programs at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and at IDC (Interdisciplinary Center) Herzliya, a private university in Israel. The latter is making significant contributions to Israel’s future.
“My goal at IDC was to create a cadre of people who were focused on business creation and idea execution,” Zell said. “But I also wanted to create a global network that would be relevant throughout the graduates’ careers.”
In 2016, the Zell Entrepreneurship programs at University of Michigan and Northwestern joined the IDC alumni group. “Today, we have 330 alumni in 12 countries,” Zell said.
He wrote: “I believe my purpose in life is to make a difference, and I define making a difference as driving growth.” It’s not so much about the deals he has made; rather, it’s the way he has accomplished them.
He ends the book by listing his philosophies—among them, being ready to pivot, keeping it simple, keeping your eyes and mind open, doing the right thing, shem tov (a good name), being consistent with your values, and appreciating loyalty. And most important, “Not taking yourself too seriously.”
At 75, Zell has no intention of slowing down. “People ask me if I’ll retire, and I always answer, ‘Retire from what?’ I love what I do.”
This article was originally published June 29, 2017, in JUF News and in the July 2017 print edition of the magazine.