Multifamily titan Sam Zell, founder and chairman of Equity Residential, died May 18 due to complications from a recent illness. He was 81.

Sam Zell
Sam Zell

An active investor in real estate since the 1960s, Zell is credited with helping revolutionize the industry through the popularization of the real estate investment trust (REIT) structure in the 1990s. He had founded the predecessor company to Equity Residential while he was a student at the University of Michigan and took it public in 1993.

Under Zell’s leadership, Chicago-based Equity Residential grew into a $31 billion apartment owner, developer, and operator as well as an S&P 500 member. In addition to real estate, he also invested in and grew businesses in multiple industries, including manufacturing, retail, travel, health care, and energy.

“The world has lost one of its greatest investors and entrepreneurs,” said Equity Residential president and CEO Mark J. Parrell. “Sam’s insatiable curiosity and passion for dealmaking created some of the most dynamic companies in the public real estate industry. He was a generous philanthropist and an incredible mentor and friend and will be missed by all who were lucky enough to be part of his extraordinary world. We extend our deepest condolences to Sam’s family and loved ones.”

With long-term succession planning in place, Equity Residential has appointed David J. Neithercut as chairman of the board effective immediately. Neithercut served as the company’s CEO from 2006 through 2018 and as a member of the board since 2006.

“Sam spent decades creating value for the investors in Equity Residential and his many other enterprises. It was my great privilege to work closely and learn from him for more than 35 years and my honor to succeed him as chairman of Equity Residential,” said Neithercut. “The board, executive leadership, and all the employees of Equity Residential are committed to honoring Sam’s legacy through a continued focus on value creation for our shareholders.

The business leader also was a founder and supporter of the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC).

“Sam Zell was one of the most influential individuals, not just in commercial real estate, but in American business writ large. He was a great friend and an advocate on behalf of the multifamily industry,” said David Schwartz, former NMHC chair and CEO and chairman of Chicago-based Waterton, in a statement.

“Sam really was the godfather of the modern REIT era with the creation of Equity Residential, Equity Office, and Equity Lifestyle. Not only that, but he also pioneered casual dress in the office, being one of the first CEOs to wear jeans,” added Schwartz, who worked at Equity Group Investments in the early 1990s. “Personally, he was a terrific friend and mentor to me for more than 30 years, and I was privileged to work for him early in my career. He is the epitome of the great American story, his family having immigrated to the United States following the Nazi invasion of Poland, on a worldwide trip that eventually ended in Chicago. He will be profoundly missed.”

Zell also was an active philanthropist. He established several leading entrepreneurship programs, including the Zell Lurie Institute at the University of Michigan, the Zell Fellows Program for entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the Samuel Zell & Robert Lurie Real Estate Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and the Zell Entrepreneurship Program at Reichman University in Israel.