Brocker.Org: A billionaire says an overheated radiator at age 19 changed the way he does business to this day


was ninety-five degrees. We were driving along near a wooded
area, and as we went through a tunnel, the radiator overheated,”
writes Sam Zell, pictured.

REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Most people dislike business travel.

But not Sam Zell.

“Today I could probably get just about anybody to come to my
office for a meeting, but that wouldn’t tell me much,” writes the
billionaire businessman in his book “Am
I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk From a Business Rebel
“Instead, I spend over a thousand hours a year on my plane
traveling around the world to meet with people.”

It’s not just the appeal of owning a plane that convinces Zell to
leave the office.

“I want to see what they are like on their home court, how they
treat their people and the examples they set,” he writes. He
traces this value back to a breakdown on the Pennsylvania
Turnpike during a cross-country road trip at age 19.

After hitchhiking with a friend from Los Angeles to New York in
17 days — with a friend and without his parents’ knowledge — Zell
and his friend separated and he got another ride back to his
parents’ home in Chicago.

Here’s Zell:

“It was ninety-five degrees. We were driving along near a wooded
area, and as we went through a tunnel, the radiator overheated.
Water and steam were spilling all over the place. I was thinking
‘Sh–, I’ve lost my ride.’ The driver pulled over without saying
a word.

“… The guy got out of the car, walked to the rear, opened the
trunk, took out a gas can, and then proceeded to walk straight
into the forest. Huh? So I followed him. We walked maybe 150
yards, right off the road, straight into the trees. All of a
sudden, there was this beautiful brook. The guy bent down,
filled his gas can, walked back to the car, put the water in
the radiator, and everything was fine. We got in the car and just
started driving again.

“I was speechless. I finally turned to him and asked ‘How did you
know?’ And I’ll never forget it, he just looked at me and said,
‘Well, I didn’t know there was a brook there, but we were in the
mountain, so there had to be a water source close by. I figured
I’d just walk until I found it.'”

Zell, who grew up in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb, was
flabbergasted. “There was no way in the world I would have
conceivably thought of that solution,” he writes.
“If my car overheated, I’d have waved someone down and had them
call a tow truck. That guy had a sense of logic
and orientation that was completely foreign to me. He never
had a doubt. Priceless.”

That experience, he writes, “never left me. It was a lesson in
the value of how much you learn by seeing people in their own

So today, over 50 years later, he gets on the plane.