Sam Zell is a man who knows commercial real estate.
Sam Zell is also a man who knows how to bankrupt the holy shit out of a media conglomerate and then write some revisionist history about it later so he doesn't feel too bad.
That's what happens sometimes when you're an eccentric billionaire. Sometimes you call the top by passing a flaming $39 billion hot potato to Blackstone just before the market collapses in what amounted to the largest private equity deal in history and sometimes you orchestrate a no-money-down L.B.O. of a bunch of newspapers and TV stations and drive that fucker right off a cliff into Chapter 11. I mean, it wasn't all Sam's fault - unless you ask all the people who say it was all Sam's fault.
As he told Tribune employees in 2008, "Guys, if this doesn't work, it’s not going to change my life style. But if this does work, it’s going to change yours. So climb onboard." Yes, "climb onboard" - and buckle up dammit.
But hey, you win some, you lose some right? It's all about "thinking outside the box" and as he once put it, "anybody can do it."
Well, Sam sat down for an interview with Goldman's Allison Nathan recently and one thing he doesn't think "anybody can do" is justify Amazon's valuation. Here's what he said when asked if "there are places today where we are at or near the top of the cycle":
I can’t explain the valuation of the big tech companies, and can't believe that we won’t see a significant correction there. For example, in order to justify the multiple that Amazon trades at today, the company would have to be worth 25% of the US economy five years from now. This situation is no different from the one in 1997, when I pointed out that Cisco’s multiple would only be justifiable if the company represented 25% of the US economy five years later.
Obviously, that didn't happen, and I don't think it's going to happen with today’s big tech companies, either. I'm also generally concerned about the size, scale, and influence of these companies, which I think is out of hand and dangerous to our overall society. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and these companies are being set up to do exactly that.
Maybe I'm reading too much into that, but it sure sounds like Sam is worried that the sheer scope and brazenness of Jeff Bezos's world domination plans might just destroy the country.
Now look, perhaps Zell is like the rest of us: genuinely concerned about where we're headed as a society when one man has a monopoly on selling everything from clothes to pharmaceuticals to avocados and is now living in your bedroom and cooing at you in a woman's voice through a talking speaker he also sold you.
But it also kinda seems like maybe Zell is still hung up on the whole Tribune debacle and the reason I say that is because back in 2013, when Bezos bought the Washington Post, here's what Sam told Fox News:
Think about what you just did. You just ran 16 different versions of everybody making this announcement, you'da think we'da bombed Hiroshima. This is a $250 million transaction. You made reference to my $39 billion transaction. I didn't get ... uhhh... 20 anchors yelling about it. So that's the problem.
Yes, "the problem" is that more anchors talked about Bezos buying the Washington Post than talked about Zell selling Equity Office Properties - although it's not at all clear why that's actually "a problem" for anyone other than Zell's ego.
Note what else Sam says in that interview - namely that Bezos is going to "find out that he doesn't actually own the Washington Post." Well, Sam should tell that to Donald Trump, because the President sure seems to think Jeff is pulling some serious editorial levers.
In any event, it's good to know that people like Sam are looking out for the well being of the country. Because if I had to point to one person who can save us all from an increasingly omnipotent tech industry which is becoming "dangerous to our overall society," it's Sam Zell.
Of course if Zell keeps it up with this heresy, Bezos might just buy him - and Jeff damn sure wouldn't need to finance that deal with debt.