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Samuel Zell, the billionaire investor who helped popularize the real estate investment trust and founded one of the largest apartment-owning companies in the U.S., has died at the age of 81.

Equity Residential — the company whose predecessor Zell founded as a college student, and which he later took public in 1993 — announced the death of its founder and chairman Thursday in a news release.

“The world has lost one of its greatest investors and entrepreneurs,” Equity Residential President and CEO Mark Parrell said in a statement. “Sam’s insatiable intellectual curiosity and passion for deal making created some of the most dynamic companies in the public real estate industry.” 

Sam Zell

Zell had been an active real estate investor since the 1960s, and was one of the early adopters of the real estate investment trust, or REIT, according to the release. This vehicle made it easier for the average investor to own a stake in a diverse range of investment properties without access to large amounts of capital.

After establishing Equity Residential and taking it public, Zell shepherded the apartment developer, owner and operator to a coveted place in the S&P 500. He also served as chairman of several other publicly traded companies, including Equity LifeStyle Properties, Equity Commonwealth, Covanta Holding Corp. and Anixter.

The billionaire’s investment reach extended from the world of real estate to healthcare, energy, manufacturing and retail, the release said.

He was also known for taking the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, and other Tribune Company publications private in 2007. The “deal from hell,” as Zell himself put it, preceded bankruptcy, layoffs and reorganization of that company’s media assets.

Zell, a Chicago native, also established entrepreneurship and real estate programs at his alma mater, the University of Michigan; at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; at Northwestern University’s management school; and at Reichman University in Israel.

“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,” Parrell said in the statement. “We extend our deepest condolences to Sam’s family and loved ones.”

Email Daniel Houston

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