Zell vs. Zeckendorf

Have just finished reading two excellent autobiographies, one by Sam Zell and the other by William Zeckendorf.

For those who don’t know:

  1. Zell is a legendary investor, particularly in distressed assets. He created companies that, at one point, were the largest multifamily REIT, the largest office REIT, and the largest mobile home REIT. He has also branched out into private equity investing across all kinds of industries.
  2. Zeckendorf was an absolute master developer, responsible for enormous projects including putting together the land for the UN building in Manhattan, Kips Bay (an enormous apartment project in NY), an enormous hotel / retail complex in the heart of Denver, and a massive redevelopment of Southwestern D.C. He also discovered and nurtured the talents of I.M. Pei, one of the 20th Century’s greatest architects.

Reading these books back to back, I noticed a major difference in how these guys think: Zell mostly cares about finding broken companies and projects and fixing them (both operationally and in terms of how they are capitalized). And Zeckendorf mostly cares about re-imagining cities on an almost impossibly grand scale.


Zeckendorf built massive complexes. Zell built a few small apartment buildings early in his career, ran into some trouble, then decided never to build anything else ever again.


Superficially, Zeckendorf is more inspiring… except that he died personally bankrupt, because he took on far too many projects and far too much debt.

Zell is a billionaire and pretty unlikely ever to lose that status.

Reading these books back-to-back forced me to think about what, exactly, I want out of my career. And, while I, like any other developer, would love to make nice things that people appreciate for a long time, I’m primarily interested in building a business that follows the rules, treats its stakeholders with respect, pays its debts, and makes money for its investors and owners.

Someone else can go build monuments.