Tim Klein/Aurora

It is possible to step inside the offices at Two North Riverside Plaza in Chicago, listen to Equity Residential president and CEO David Neithercut and vice president of acquisitions and dispositions Alan George talk about their 2010 deal flow, and never once hear the name Sam Zell. Indeed, Neithercut and his team have gained the confidence of Wall Street over the past five years. Despite this, Zell’s shadow still looms large. Take Equity’s $475 million acquisition of three of New York developer Harry

Macklowe’s assets last January. While the deal had been shopped to a number of people in a number of different forms, one call from Macklowe to Zell is what really got the ball rolling. “By working with Sam Zell, our presence is everywhere,” Neithercut says. “If we wanted to buy deals in Ecuador right now, we could.”

Equity, the third-largest owner on the 2010 Multifamily Executive Top 50 list with 137,007 units, didn’t need to go to Ecuador in 2010 to close 16 apartment deals (plus six land deals), making it the largest apartment buyer in the industry last year. Indeed, Equity scooped up more than $1.4 billion of assets from San Diego to New York in 2010. [See “Trophy Assets”] Of course, helpful to that achievement is the presence of Zell, who, along with Neithercut, George (called a “tireless buyer” who “knows his markets cold” by one competitor), and two board members, sits on an investment committee that signs off on all deals. But the real story behind Equity’s dealmaking success in 2010 is deeply ingrained, highly experienced teams in acquisitions, finance, and even operations, all of which allow the company to recognize market improvements before others in the industry do—and then capitalize on it.