Sam Zell est un entrepreneur américain connu notamment pour avoir revendu sa société immobilière au prix astronomique de 39Mds de dollars en 2007. De surcroit, la société n’a pas été vendue à un novice puisqu’elle fut cédée ce qui est aujourd’hui le plus grand fonds immobilier au monde, le géant Blackstone. Il me semblait donc intéressant de lire l’autobiographie qu’il a écrite, dans l’idée de glaner quelques précieux conseils. Je reproduis ici ce qui a le plus retenu mon attention, classé en 3 catégories : stratégie en général, entrepreneuriat et immobilier.
Note : je ne traduis pas les citations originales, pour cela Google Translate fait un excellent travail.
I run my company as a meritocracy with a moral compass. And for those who raise their eyebrows at that statement—who think you can’t get to the top unless you beat the crap out of everybody—you’re wrong. When you’re a repeat player, when your world is your business and your business is your world, it’s all about long-term relationships.
For me, business is not a battle to be waged—it’s a puzzle to be solved.
Where there is scarcity, price is no object. This basic tenet of supply and demand would later become a governing principle of my investment philosophy.
Frankly, there’s no substitute for limited competition. You can be a genius, but if there’s a lot of competition, it won’t matter. I’ve spent my career trying to avoid its destructive consequences. Competition skews people’s assessments; as buyers get competitive, the demand for assets inflates pricing, often beyond reason.
Redundancies are much more predictable and transparent than theoretical opportunities to add value. My focus is always on the downside. Overly optimistic assumptions lead to the graveyard of corporate acquisitions. (Note : cette citation doit se lire dans le contexte de rachats d’entreprises)
A lot of Wall Street’s headaches—the executive compensation issues, the accounting scandals, the options backdating, the subprime mortgage mess—can be chalked up to misaligned interests created when there’s too much reliance on outsiders who don’t have a stake. Similarly, a lot of people who get burned by depending on Wall Street analysts, or hedge fund managers, or their local stock picker discover quickly that the advice they’re getting isn’t coming from a committed owner—it’s coming from a professional who is collecting a fee. After all, it ain’t their money.
I believe in the radius theory of business, where your ability to succeed is ultimately limited by the number of people between you and the decision. That’s because the farther from you the decision is made, the less you control the risk. History shows that businesses get buried when they don’t delegate enough—but also when they delegate too much.
When there’s an imbalance, I look at where the two lines will intersect and then determine whether it is cheaper to buy or to build. Usually the answer is in acquisition, which eliminates a lot of the risk inherent in development. I like to invest below replacement cost, thereby creating a competitive advantage.
In general, the buildings I chose had a few common denominators. First, they had to be available below replacement cost. If I could set rents based on a $10,000-per-unit purchase price, and the sunk costs of new development were $20,000 per unit, a new building would be priced out of the market. Second, they had to be good-quality, well-located properties, which usually perform better than market throughout economic cycles. Tenants tend to stick in the up cycle, and upgrade to nicer space in the down cycle as rental rates fall. So better assets provided more stable cash flow, and that gave us downside protection. Many of the properties I chose also had deferred maintenance. While the structures were good, repairs and upgrades had been neglected. So there was room for improvements that would help us lease more space, often at higher rents, thereby improving the value of the asset.
To manage so many properties effectively and with the care needed to protect and enhance their value, I knew the management had to be done in-house. That’s where FPM, our new distressed property management company, came in. We brought our $4 billion of newly acquired assets—apartments, office buildings, shopping centers, hotels, and so on—right into FPM.
My first priority was cash. I couldn’t jeopardize what we had built by selling in desperation, but I couldn’t keep going without cash. I didn’t know it then, but this phase in my career was the genesis of a mantra I would repeat regularly for decades to come: Liquidity equals value.
Today, instead of expressway frontage, apartments are measured by their “walk scores”—how many steps to public transportation, to the grocery store, to Starbucks, to the gym. Go deeper and you can see the changes from the deferral of marriage across industries. The shift in priorities, lifestyle, and discretionary income that began in the 1990s was a harbinger for a new era of consumerism. Real estate isn’t just about buildings as inanimate objects. It often reflects the pulse of the nation.
People love focusing on the upside. That’s where the fun is. What amazes me is how superficially they consider the downside. For me, the calculation in making a deal starts with the downside. If I can identify that, then I understand the risk I’m taking. What’s the outcome if everything goes wrong? What actions would we take? Can I bear the cost? Can I survive it?
In addition to looking at worst-case scenarios, I look at how hard something is to execute. The simpler the goals and the steps to reach them, the more likely I’ll be successful. And if they aren’t simple to begin with, I look at how I can untangle the complexities.
I remember this event so clearly because it was at this point in my career that I fully realized the value of tenacity. I just had to assume there was a way through any obstacle, and then I’d find it. This is perhaps my most fundamental principle of entrepreneurialism, and to success in general.
Today, the term “entrepreneur” has almost become synonymous with tech start-ups, but that’s a narrow definition in my view. I believe you can find entrepreneurs in every endeavor. It could be a start-up, but it could just as easily be within a conglomerate, in business, in academia, in medicine, in nonprofit, whatever. An entrepreneur is anyone who is independent, creative, inventive, and willing to take risks.
Well, I doubt that many company founders who reach billion-dollar valuations are motivated solely, or even primarily, by money. To be sure, making a lot of money is a carrot. But I would venture that most great entrepreneurs simply love what they do—whether it’s problem-solving, building something from the ground up, or a passion for their product or service.
Critical thinking is the hallmark of an entrepreneur.
Be Ready to Pivot. I never hesitate to pursue a new endeavor just because I haven’t done something similar before. I just use what I’ve learned that might cross over. I see myself as a frontline player, and that means being able to envision where demand is going to be, or where it won’t be—not just in the next five years but in the next twenty or thirty years. It means spotting opportunity early on so you can have first-mover advantage. And it means not sticking to assumptions that limit your opportunity.
I’ve said it before and I’ll underscore it here: I am a voracious consumer of information. I have honed my ability to digest a lot of information, sift out what’s potentially relevant, retain it, and then recall it when it’s useful. I read at least five newspapers every day, and five business magazines a week.
I equate this fundamental truth with an entrepreneurial mind-set. It’s tenacity, optimism, drive, and conviction all rolled into one. It’s commitment to get it done, see it through, make it work. In my world, I call that being an owner.