It is perhaps unfair that Sam Zell comes at the end of our list. In many respects, his name should be at the beginning. One of the most successful real estate investors in the modern era, Zell helped lay the foundation for the private equity real estate industry. In the late 1980s, he teamed up with Merrill Lynch to raise $410 million for Zell/Merrill Lynch Real Estate Opportunity Partners I, the first private equity real estate fund ever.
Though Zell's contribution to the asset class is impossible to ignore—a significant number of industry observers put him near the top of their recommendations—his influence extends beyond the opportunity fund arena. As chairman of Equity Office Properties, Equity Residential and Equity Lifestyle, he is considered the father of the modern day REIT industry. Via his private equity real estate affiliate, Equity International, he is becoming one of the leading property investors in Latin America. And through the establishment of academic programs at The Wharton School and the University of Michigan, he is helping to shape the real estate moguls of tomorrow.
Despite all these accomplishments, however, elder statesman may not be the most apt description. Often dressed in jeans and a sweater, Zell still rides a motorcycle to work and peppers his conversation with expletives. In other words, he doesn't play the part of a polished diplomat.
Then again, this is real estate, not politics. Zell plays the part just fine.