THE BLOG
11/13/2014 02:11 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Meet the Grave Dancer: Sam Zell, Real Estate Billionaire

I walked into Huntsman Hall at The Wharton School expecting to hear another Wall Street junkie spew rhetoric that half the audience wouldn't understand. Instead, I was startled when an older man in jeans and a T-shirt bolted into the room unexpectedly.

Next to me, a mysterious blue-eyed man in a black hat, dark suit and glasses sat down. "Sam Zell is a master psychologist," he told me, asking to remain anonymous. A psychiatrist at Penn Medicine, he was attending this real estate mogul's lecture to learn about sales from the master.

"I've been sitting in on his lectures here for over a decade. Zell is a contrarian immigrant who directs a Jewish Motorcycle Gang in Chicago, skis in Idaho and is investing in Egypt," the black-hatted man said. "He's called the grave dancer -- he makes money when everything is failing."

Zell, who speaks at Penn annually, stressed that he hoped to provide listeners with an alternate perspective, discouraging the audience from listening to the "bullshit" of "suits, ties and academics."

Zell began by discussing the changing landscape of real estate. When he started in the business world, there were no computers. "Guys stayed up all night making 10-year projections." Then came the HP 12. "Most of you don't even know what the f**k that is."

His firm, Equity Group Investments , which had largely benefited from the "incredible inefficiency" of real estate before computers, decided it needed to change as the real estate investment market became more highly saturated.

Zell grew up in an upper-middle class family in Chicago before attending the University of Michigan, where he launched his first real estate business with his frat buddy and long-time partner Bob Lurie . "By the time I graduated law school, we managed 4,000 apartments and 40-50 buildings." After law school, which Zell described as the "biggest f**king bore that ever existed," he headed off to work at a law firm, which he described as even worse. "I walked into the senior partner's office after four days and I said, 'This isn't for me.'"

Today, Zell is worth $4 billion dollars and his firm controls three of the largest public real estate companies in history.

A self-proclaimed "career opportunist" and "lone evangelist," Zell spoke about his "radical" investments in Brazil, Colombia and emerging markets that have paid off. His next stop is India. "The hardest thing is finding an honest man," he said.

After Zell's general talk, he fielded a few questions before heading off to see his grandson, Wharton sophomore Aaron Zell . One student asked Zell why he invested outside of real estate, his specialty.

"Diversification has saved my ass a number of times," Zell explained, saying that, in his mind, all you really need in the business world is to understand supply and demand. "Business is business is business," he said.

Zell concluded with tips for his audience, stressing long-term vision and the importance of compromise, stating that, "There is no greater negotiation tactic than understanding what the other guy wants."