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

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 travelling 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 environments.”

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

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