Am I Being Too Subtle?

Straight Talk From a Business Rebel

Am I Being Too Subtle? book cover
Add Am I Being Too Subtle? to Goodreads

The traits that make Sam Zell one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs also make him one of the most surprising, enigmatic, and entertaining mavericks in American business.
Self-made billionaire Sam Zell consistently sees what others don’t. From finding a market for overpriced Playboy magazines among his junior high classmates, to buying real estate on the cheap after a market crash, to investing in often unglamorous industries with long-term value, Zell acts boldly on supply and demand trends to grab the first-mover advantage. And he can find opportunity virtually anywhere—from an arcane piece of legislation to a desert meeting in Abu Dhabi.

“If everyone is going left, look right,” Zell often says. To him, conventional wisdom is nothing but a reference point. Year after year, deal after deal, he shuts out the noise of the crowd, gathers as much information as possible, then trusts his own instincts. He credits much of his independent thinking to his parents, who were Jewish refugees from World War II.

Talk to any two people and you might get wild swings in their descriptions of Zell. A media firestorm ensued when the Tribune Company went into bankruptcy a year after he agreed to steward the enterprise. At the same time, his razor-sharp instincts are legendary on Wall Street, and he has sponsored over a dozen IPOs.  He’s known as the Grave Dancer for his strategy of targeting troubled assets, yet he’s created thousands of jobs. Within his own organization, he has an inordinate number of employees at every level who are fiercely loyal and have worked for him for decades.

Zell’s got a big personality; he is often contrarian, blunt, and irreverent, and always curious and hardworking. This is the guy who started wearing jeans to work in the 1960s, when offices were a sea of gray suits. He’s the guy who told The Wall Street Journal in 1985, “If it ain’t fun, we don’t do it.” He rides motorcycles with his friends, the Zell’s Angels, around the world and he keeps ducks on the deck outside his office.

As he writes: “I simply don’t buy into many of the made-up rules of social convention. The bottom line is: If you’re really good at what you do, you have the freedom to be who you really are.”

Am I Being Too Subtle?—a reference to Zell’s favorite way to underscore a point—takes readers on a ride across his business terrain, sharing with honesty and humor stories of the times he got it right, when he didn’t, and most important, what he learned in the process. 

This is an indispensable guide for the next generation of disrupters, entrepreneurs, and investors. 


“The notoriously blunt businessman shares the ups and downs of his career and the lessons he’s learned in business—with just a little profanity—in a new book, Am I Being Too Subtle?
--The Wall Street Journal
“Here we have the real Sam Zell: one of our nation’s most interesting, provocative, and successful practitioners of business and life. He’s a wise man who hates fuzzy thinking. He is a biker, wearer of leathers and jeans and boots and his signature quirky beard. He points his skis straight downhill. You know, all the usual things that the few really smart (but not too smart for their own good) business people do.”
--Steve Roth, chairman and CEO of Vornado Realty Trust
“A highly readable and revealingly personal book filled with unique insights and unvarnished straight talk about business, people—their quirks and potentials—and about life itself.”
--The Huffington Post


Chapter One

An Impossible Life

My father was the first person I knew who had done something "impossible." At thirty-four, he escaped his hometown in Poland on the last train out, just hours before the Luftwaffe bombed the tracks, and then led my mother and two-year-old sister on a twenty-one-month trek across two continents to safety.

As a result, I grew up believing that anything is possible. And when you're not aware there are any limitations, nothing stops you from trying.

My parents each grew up in middle-class homes in Polish towns close to the German border. They were from large families, both of which were devoutly Jewish and highly educated. They were distant cousins and met through family, and after they married in 1936 they stayed in the region, settling in a town called Sosnowiec.

My father, Bernard, bought and sold grain throughout Eastern Europe. By virtue of traveling to different countries and interfacing with different people and cultures, he had a more worldly perspective and was more attuned to geopolitics than most of his family and neighbors. He was also an avid follower of current events and relied on his shortwave radio for news, since radio in Poland was censored. He and my mother listened to reports in different languages, including reports from Germany, Britain, and America. So he was very aware of the growing danger for Jews in Poland at a time when many of his more provincial friends and family dismissed the possibility of extreme scenarios.

My father was a realist, and a man of foresight and action. By 1937, growing anti-Semitism in Poland, and Germany's increasing aggression concerned him enough to take action. My mother, Rochelle, sewed jewelry into the lining of some of their clothes to use as currency, in case they had to escape, but they knew they would need more funds than they could carry. At the time, Poland had outlawed the transfer of assets out of the country, and people suspected of economic crimes were known to disappear. So my father took an enormous risk by making a clandestine transfer of money to a bank in Tel Aviv (then Palestine). To avoid detection, he requested that no confirmation of the deposit be sent.

A year later, by the time of the Kristallnacht in late 1938, my father had made the final decision to leave. But he first wanted to establish a broader economic base outside of Poland. The plan was to confirm that the funds he had sent to the Anglo-Palestine Bank in Palestine were indeed there, send those funds to a bank in the U.S. and replace them with more money from Poland. This money transfer operation was organized by a Jewish agency to help Jews move their assets out of Poland. To make the transfers, however, my father needed my mother's help, and they had to be very careful.

He went to Tel Aviv on a three-week tourist visa, and wrote my mother every day to make his communications back home seem commonplace. Every letter coming in or going out of Poland was read by police, so he had to provide inconspicuous clues as to what he needed her to do. Each of his letter emphasized the number "50," which my mother knew indicated she was to prepare 50,000 zlotys (about $10,000). (They kept all their money that was in Poland in the house.) One day, my mother received the typical envelope, but all that fell out was a tiny piece of torn paper with just a few words on it. It was odd, and she knew it meant something but had no idea what. Then, on the last week of my father's trip a stranger showed up, unannounced, on the family's doorstep. This was in itself always an anxiety-producing event. The man said he was the president of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and he had a carbon copy of the little torn piece of paper my mother had received in the mail from my father, so she gave the stranger the 50,000 zlotys. He could have been from the police or he could have just kept the money. She had no real way of knowing how genuine he was. But it all worked out; my father returned home having completed his mission. He had added money to his account in Tel Aviv and transferred money to a bank in New York, listing both his and Rochelle's signatures on the accounts.

My parents each had six siblings, and they made numerous appeals to their brothers, sisters, and parents to leave Poland. But every one of their family members refused to consider it. Like many people in the community, in spite of witnessing and experiencing anti-Semitism, they thought they would be okay if they just stuck it out, like they had during the Great War. After all, the Germans were civilized, cultured people. Certainly the prospect of leaving their entire families behind most certainly delayed my father's decision to pull the trigger.

Then, on August 24, 1939, my father was traveling east on a business trip to Warsaw when his train made a stop at the halfway point. He saw a newsboy selling papers and stepped off to buy one. The headline read that Germany and the Soviet Union had just signed a nonaggression pact. He knew with certainty that Poland, squeezed in the middle between Germany and Russia, would be attacked from both sides and divided between the two aggressors. It was time to get out. My father immediately crossed the tracks to board a train heading back home.

His train arrived in Sosnowiec at 2:00 p.m. It was a ten-minute walk home, and when he got there he told my mother to pack what she could carry; they were boarding the 4:00 train out that afternoon.

He took my mother and sister Julie to a relative's house in Kielce, about seventy-five miles away, and then returned to their hometown in one last effort to beg their families to leave Poland with them. It felt like a race against time. But again they refused. So my parents and sister started out alone on a nearly two-year odyssey. The Germans invaded Poland at dawn. My father had caught the last train out of Sosnowiec before the Nazis bombed the railroad tracks.

My family couldn't go west toward Germany, so they headed northeast, across Poland, into Lithuania. They traveled on foot, by bus, by horse-drawn carts, and by cattle train. They were often part of an early wave of refugees to enter each city. Growing up, I heard many stories of the help my family received along the way-often from my father's business associates, Jews and non-Jews alike. For that reason he always impressed upon us the importance of tzedakah-righteousness, kindness, and giving to others. Tzedakah saved my parents' lives.

In Vilnius, Lithuania, they rested and my father began selling grain to local merchants. My mother was tired of running and wanted to settle there to wait out the war. But my father never lost his sense of urgency to get out. He was right, of course. Most of the Jews who remained in Lithuania perished.

His ultimate goal was either Palestine or the U. S., but first they had to get out of Europe, and for that they needed visas from a safe country that was willing to accept them. There were few consulates left in Vilnius, and most were from countries in Western Europe that were already at war or under German occupation. However, there was an honorary Dutch consul named Jan Zwartendijk who lived in nearby Kaunas, and the Dutch-controlled island of Cura‚ao, off the coast of Venezuela, didn't require visas to get in. The bad news was that the Dutch government literally didn't have a process to issue visas for Cura‚ao; no such visa existed, and the refugees needed something official-looking to travel through the Soviet Union. So a Jewish tradesman in the refugee group crafted a fake stamp with the Dutch crest and brought it to Zwartendijk, who then used it to forge entrance visas for Cura‚ao.

The island was located fifty-six hundred miles southwest of Lithuania, on the far side of Poland, Germany, and France. Clearly, travel through those countries was not an option. The only way to Cura‚ao was through Russia and Japan, a journey of eight thousand miles, across the entire continent, to then go west. An additional hurdle was the necessity of a travel visa for Japan.

A Jewish refugee delegation, including my father, went to the Vilnius Japanese vice consul, Chiune Sugihara, for these transit visas. Sugihara wired Tokyo three times for permission to help the refugees, but was denied each time. The vice consul was a Japanese career diplomat, but he had also been raised in a middle-class samurai family. And part of the code of the samurai is benevolence and mercy, and appreciation and respect for life. Despite the risk to his career and his family, Sugihara ignored his direct orders and decided to do as much as he could. For the next month, he and his wife barely stopped to eat or sleep as they wrote out thousands of transit visas. My family was among the six thousand Jews Sugihara saved-the Sugihara Survivors.

It's always been remarkable to me that my parents' lives were saved by a Japanese man disobeying orders, considering the Japanese culture. When I went to Japan for the first time in the early 1980s and told this story to the people I was meeting, they flat out said it couldn't be true-an official in the Foreign Service would never violate a direct order. But he had. It wasn't until 1985, when Sugihara was an old man, that his actions were officially recognized in Israel. He was revered as "the Japanese Schindler" and received Israel's recognition as a Righteous Gentile by the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

Before Sugihara's death, we found out where he was living, and my sister Julie and her husband went to Japan to meet with him. Julie asked him, "How could you have taken that chance, against orders?" His answer was "I'd never had an opportunity to literally save people before-and then I did. And I had to do it." His courageous act became his legacy-his way to make a difference.

My parents and sister traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Through every one of the fifty-six hundred miles they were at risk. Jews were being sent to camps in Siberia for any infraction, real or not, at the time, and my family was traveling in the dead of winter. But they made it; they were the second group of what would become thousands of Jewish refugees to reach Japan during the war.

My family spent nearly four months in Japan, most of it in Yokohama. My mother spoke fondly of the kindness and warmth of the Japanese people; it was meaningful, particularly after their harrowing trip. Later, after my parents had settled in the States, they struggled to reconcile their experience there with Japan's actions during the war and with their new country's animosity toward the Japanese people.

My family traveled thousands of miles, through four countries, over the course of twenty-one months to safety, arriving in Seattle on May 18, 1941. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. They had spent almost everything they had except for about $600 they had sent ahead to the Manufacturers Trust Company bank in New York.

The evening after they landed, my parents took their first English class; they were eager to improve their language skills and to begin the process of becoming Americans. My father's great-uncle in New York offered him a job, but my father was independent-minded and saw Chicago as a natural place to settle, as it was the center of the country's grain business and he expected to pick up his profession as a grain merchant.

The first hotel my parents went to in Chicago turned them away. My father was furious. His immediate reaction was "Here I thought we had finally escaped anti-Semitism. But I come to the United States, try to check in to a hotel, and they won't take us." When he'd tell the story, it was a rare moment of levity for him because it was a joke. My father couldn't read English at the time, and apparently the sign outside the hotel had read "Men Only."

My parents settled in a largely Jewish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. That's where I was born, on September 28, four months after my family arrived in the U.S. and two months before Pearl Harbor.

Among the last letters from my parents' families in Poland was one that told them my mother's brother-in-law, Samuel Moses, had been shot in the street. (I was subsequently named after him.) Before long their families disappeared into the ghettos, and then into the concentration camps. Most all of the family was murdered-their parents, all but two of their brothers and sisters, and all of their siblings' eighteen children. Only my mother's brother Isaac and her sister Ann survived.

My parents' worldview was cast in their survivor experience. And the imprint of the immigrant was never far from the surface in our home, even after the war ended when I was four. But I was largely ignorant of the family story until I stumbled upon it at the age of six. My parents belonged to an organization called the Harmony Circle Club, which included a bunch of Polish refugees who met once a month to share news of the war in Europe and discuss how their lives were going in America.

I vividly remember the night I snuck out of my bedroom and into the dark living room where an 8-mm film was flickering on the wall. My parents and their friends were watching a clandestine film from the concentration camps. I saw jumpy black-and-white images of trucks overflowing with bodies, bones protruding from skin, human beings discarded like garbage-absolutely horrible stuff. Those unforgettable images were my introduction to the Holocaust. Looking back, I can see that they accelerated my maturity and gave me a sober awareness of the world. That film also went a long way toward helping me understand my parents' orientation toward life-why they pushed so hard and were so determined for their children to succeed. Economic success had been critical in securing their freedom. They had escaped Poland in part because they had the means to do so-my father's prescience in storing away money.

The day after my father died in 1986, my mother gave me his pinky ring. It held the diamond they had hidden in my sister Julie's shoe during their long escape from Europe. I transferred the stone to a bracelet that I wear on my right wrist and never take off-to always remember where I come from.