In his first-ever, just-released book, Chicago billionaire Sam Zell comes off as a confident entrepreneur driven in business and in life by his parents’ harrowing escape from the Holocaust. Even failed business deals are a learning lesson, Zell writes in “Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk From a Business Rebel.”
One chapter, though, stands out for showing Zell’s frustration at a deal gone bad. That was his failed ownership of the Chicago Tribune.
The backdrop to “the Tribune saga” was the Great Recession, he writes. “I don’t think anyone envisioned how bad it was going to get. I certainly didn’t.”
Zell describes butting heads with journalists on how to turn around the Tribune.
“Our backs were against the wall” and Tribune needed to make “drastic” changes. He called for advertising on Page 1, wraparound ads and consolidating news bureaus, all of which were seen as “desecration,” he writes.
“The more stubborn the writers, editors and executives got, the more agitated I became. It often seemed like they just didn’t get it. Maybe I was too rough. But I wasn’t wrong about where the business needed to go.” Today, those ideas are commonplace in newspapers.
In an interview, he tells me, “I understood when I did the Tribune deal what the risks and rewards were. I truly believed that I would be able to convince the people at the Tribune that making the radical changes necessary were to everybody’s benefit. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful in doing that.”
Zell’s book covers a fraction of the deals he’s done over the years. He hits on the big ones, including the whopping $39 billion sale of Equity Office in 2007. And he shares losses. Along with Tribune, there was the $50 million loss in the sale of Carter Hawley Hale and the $100 million loss when the American Classic Voyages cruise line tanked.
Woven throughout are Zell’s views on life, fueled by his parents’ immigration. His father took a risk bringing the family to the United States and that has stayed with Zell.
The book carries his name as author, though he acknowledges having ghostwriting help.
Readers of this column will enjoy details about his birthday parties, holiday gifts and youthful escapades — including the time he hitchhiked across the country without his parents knowing.
“I’m not a reckless person,” he writes, “but taking risks is really the only way to consistently achieve above-average returns — in life as well as in investments.”
Did mayor lose a friend, too?
Mayor Rahm Emanuel didn’t just sever ties with a bureaucrat when he showed Barrett Murphy the door last week. Emanuel pushed out a longtime friend.
Murphy, who headed Department of Water Management, erred big time in (not) handling an employee’s racist/sexist emails. So Emanuel stepped up as a boss.
But what happens to the mayor’s decadeslong friendship with Murphy and his wife, Lynn Lockwood?
Those who know Murphy and Emanuel well call the incident “shocking” and “jaw-dropping” on both levels — for the offensive emails and for the mayor’s response given their friendship.
Lockwood is a trusted confidante, fundraiser and behind-the-scenes player in Emanuel’s administration.
Consider recently released Emanuel emails. When concert promoter Jerry Mickelson had an idea for the mayor, he suggested it to Lockwood who passed it along to Emanuel’s private email.
Emanuel and Lockwood met while working for former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Lockwood met Murphy back then, too. He was working for Jasculca-Terman & Associates, a media strategy firm long associated with D.C. politics.
Lockwood became a confidante and chief of staff to the late Maggie Daley, and Emanuel went to Washington.
When Emanuel became mayor, Lockwood’s power grew.
She was picked to help organize the NATO summit held in Chicago five years ago and later as consultant to Choose Chicago at a time of budget-tightening.
Lockwood and Murphy, who live in the same neighborhood as billionaire J.B. Pritzker, socialize with the mayor and his wife, Amy Rule. The couples have children close to the same age and vacation homes in Harbor Country.
Emanuel and Rule support Lockwood’s nonprofit board work at the Steppenwolf and Chicago Children’s theaters. And when an opening came up on the coveted board of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the mayor named Lockwood.
Radical Anne Ladky bids adieu
The annual fundraising luncheon for Women Employed took guests back in time with a video featuring photos of Executive Director Anne Ladky when she started as a women’s advocate in the radical 1970s.
Those thick glasses were something to admire.
Ladky has led the organization for 35 years and fired up the crowd by talking about how workplace equality has improved. Still, she said, more needs to be done to achieve equal pay, freedom from harassment and opportunities for advancement.
“We need some radical upending of status-quo thinking,” she said to applause.
Read more Taking Names at shiakapos.com.