Book Review: Am I Being Too Subtle by Sam Zell

am i being too subtle book review at adventures in cre

Why I liked “Am I Being Too Subtle”

This is a real estate book through and through and I had a great time reading it. Sam Zell had a long list of stories ranging from his trip to the spectacular Tepuis mountains (Google them if you’re unfamiliar) to evading the Polish police on one of his “Zell’s Angels” biking trips through eastern Europe. I’ve highlighted below a few of the most enjoyable pieces of advice I have taken from the book.

Full Title: “Am I Being Too Subtle”

Author: Sam Zell

Quick note from Spencer: This is another review in a series of book reviews we publish to A.CRE. This post is written by Guest Author, Matthew de Klerk. A big thanks to Matthew for taking time out of his busy schedule to offer thoughts on this and other important books for real estate professionals.

Liquidity = Value

Sam Zell’s emphasis on liquidity is a key tenet of his investment thesis. He follows the basic laws of demand and supply (buy low and sell high) – simple, right? Implementing this approach in practice however is far more challenging; it’s always difficult to “go right when everyone else is going left”. No one can predict the future with certainty, however an individual can take steps to reduce the possibility of being wrong. Zell’s tactic of taking a big-picture view of basic economics and building up investment experience sure are great places to start though!

Talk Less, Smile More

In the world of real estate, where relationships are key, there truly is great value in being a good listener. Sam exemplifies this through his lively debates at board meetings and his constant advice to his employees to “always have an opinion”. Being able to shut up and just listen shows not only humility (especially for a man who is so successful) but also wisdom as it allows him to keep a close ear to the markets whilst simultaneously fostering key relationships.

“I read risk for a living”

Sam Zell’s approach towards risk is refreshingly simple – focus on minimizing the downside risk because the rest is out of your control. Having acquired The Tribune Newspaper at the peak of the global financial crisis, Zell was later forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Despite of the poor result, he remains adamant the decision was the correct one, acknowledging he would do it all over again given the chance. In my opinion, Zell’s logical and rational approach towards risk mitigation is his strongest attributes and is something we could all learn from.

All About Balance

One of Zell’s closest friends, Bob Lurie, was a man with a pragmatic, calm demeanor who perfectly complemented Zell’s zealous, energetic approach. Sam was the big picture architect whilst Bob was the “numbers guy”, and the two balanced each other out perfecly. This is a great approach Zell took towards building successful relationships in business. As cliché as it may sound, it’s imperative to “know thyself” (Peter Drucker’s “Managing Oneself” is a great place to start) and then find someone who complements your skills.

Become “Rejection Proof”

I recently listened to a podcast which focused on the idea of becoming “Rejection Proof”. The concept was from Jia Jiang’s book (link included below) which promoted constant rejection in order to rewire how we deal with rejection; instead of viewing failure as defeat, we should rather view as a necessary step towards the end goal. Sam Zell’s had a similar experience with such rejection. During college, he was forced to make cold calls as a travelling salesman in his junior and senior years at college. He claimed it was a “humbling experience” that helped him build up a tolerance for rejection and strengthened his persistence.

Shem Tov

Finally, Zell stresses the importance of being a man of Shem Tov (Jewish for “good name”). He discusses the relationships he built over the years and the incredible amount of trust and loyalty people showed him, particularly in the more in trying times (i.e. when banks were not willing to lend to him due to the indictment). In the highly connected world of real estate where your character is highly crucial to one’s long term success, we would do well to do our best to embody such a life mantra.

Rating: 8.5/10

About the Guest Author: Matthew de Klerk started his real estate career at a private equity real estatefirm in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. Matthew then attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School where he completed his MBA in 2019. Matthew is currently a Senior Analyst at a hotel investment firm based in Atlanta, GA.