Book tells story of Zilber journey

A biography of Milwaukee-based Zilber Ltd. founder Joseph Zilber, written by Zilber and longtime Milwaukee journalist Kurt Chandler, will be published this month by Marquette University Press.

Zilber died in 2010 at the age of 92. Chandler was recently named editor of Milwaukee Magazine.

The book, “How I Built an Empire & Gave It Away,” tells Zilber’s amazing life story and entrepreneurial and philanthropic journey.

“I started out with nothing and created a real estate empire that has endured for over 60 years, bringing me success and more wealth than I ever could have imagined,” Zilber says in the book.

After graduating from Marquette University Law School, Zilber was unable to find a job with a law firm so he took a job with Milwaukee real estate company George Bockl Enterprises. There he learned about the real estate business and then left the company to start his own business. With a partner he bought homes, often run-down, fixed them up and flipped them. Zilber wanted to build new homes so he split with his partner and formed Towne Realty in 1949. He lost $100 on the first house he built, at 37th and Fairmount, and realized he needed to build homes in volume. Zilber then built thousands of homes in Milwaukee and that led to other investments and ventures. His firm built churches, college dormitories, nursing homes, hotels, grocery stores and parking structures. The firm bought and sold office buildings, a chain of movie theaters and the Schroeder Hotel (now the Hilton Milwaukee City Center hotel). He also acquired the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee.

“At one point, we were one of the largest holders of commercial real estate in Wisconsin,” Zilber said in the book. “Sometimes it paid off, sometimes it didn’t.”

Zilber’s nursing home business led him to create a public company, which diversified into others businesses including a toy company, fitness clubs for women, video stores, restaurants, and a pharmacy company. The nursing home division was eventually acquired by Extendicare Inc. As part of the deal, Zilber insisted the company move its headquarters from Toronto to Milwaukee. Today that firm’s Extendicare Health Services Inc. remains based in downtown Milwaukee.

Zilber’s firm also diversified into government construction projects including military housing, a radio navigation system in Hawaii, missle silos in North Dakota and a vehicle assembly building for NASA at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

But over the years the focus of Zilber and his company kept returning to what he knew best: real estate.

The book reveals several interesting anecdotes from Zilber’s career and life, including:

– None of Zilber’s senior managers initially supported his plans to purchase and redevelop the former Pabst brewery in downtown Milwaukee. “The vote was 12 to one,” Zilber said.

– Zilber kept working until he died. He tried retirement once, in his 50s, but it only lasted two weeks. “Running the business was part of who I was. It was in my blood. I needed to work,” he said.

– Sometimes when negotiations were stalled, Zilber would flip a coin to settle a deal, with thousands of dollars at stake based on the flip. “I don’t think I’ve ever lost (one of those coin-flips),” he said.

– Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier asked Zilber to buy the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985 when it appeared the team might leave town. Instead Herb Kohl bought the team. Kohl called Zilber. “‘Do you want to go in with me as part owner of the Bucks,’ he asked. I wasn’t interested,” Zilber said. “‘Not for what you paid, Herb,’ I told him. ‘You paid too much.’ That just goes to show you how wrong I was. Herb bought the Bucks in 1985 for $19 million. In 2008, Forbes Magazine estimed the team to be worth $278 million.”

– After previous management companies failed to sustain a turnaround in the Riverside Theatre’s business, Zilber turned to Michael Cudahy, who had revitalized the Pabst Theatre. They met over lunch to discuss a partnership. “Cudahy agreed to have his team take care of the bookings and management. I agreed to put new money into the theater to upgrade the sound system and the seats. ‘We don’t need any goddamn lawyers to do this,’ he said to me, and we shook hands on the deal,” Zilber says in the book.

– The book also covers Zilber’s personal life, including his courtship and then 61-year marriage to Vera Zilber. He was devastated by her death in 2003, when she suffered an aneurism while in the hospital receiving a blood transfusion for treatment of an illness. “In all my years, I never, ever dreamed that she would pass away before I would,” Zilber said. “I wasn’t sure what I would do without her.”

– Zilber also writes about his son, Jimmy, who struggled with drug additiction and died at the age of 50 from a drug overdose. “No one has a hundred percent happiness and no one has a hundred percent misery. We learn to accept the bad with the good and move forward through lifes’ hardships. To this day, Jimmy is always on my mind,” Zilber wrote.

– Zilber contributed $100,000 and led an effort to raise funds to buy all of mass murder Jeffrey Dahmer’s personal items that had been seized by police as evidence. Family members of Dahmer’s victims wanted to sell the items at auction to perverse collectors. Soliciting other donations, Zilber raised more than $400,000 to purchase the items and then had them buried in a landfill in Illinois. “I had no problem with the families receiving some kind of compensation for their pain and suffering, but I just couldn’t see the Dahmer materials become worldwide souvenirs. It wasn’t right,” Zilber said. “To think that those things might have been scattered around the world would have been terrible.”

Zilber and Vera donated $1 million for construction of the Aurora VNA Zilber Family Hospice in Wauwatosa. Some family members whose loved ones had spent their final days at the hospice told Zilber how grateful they were for the care provided at the facility. Inspired by their gratitude Zilber said he then decided to dramatically increase his charitable giving in the final years of his life. His philanthropic donations to the community included: $30 million to Marquette University Law School, $10 million to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee School of Public Health, $3 million to the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, $1.5 million to the United Way and $50 million to the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative, which he created to do various projects to improve Milwaukee’s inner city neighborhoods.

“I had made a conscious decision to take action in a particular way with a particular result in mind: to spend my life’s investments on worthy causes in my hometown,” he says in the book. “Why not? I was almost 90. I figured we come into the world with nothing and go out with nothing. Giving it all away was the right decision.”

The book can be purchased for $25 through Marquette Press or Amazon.com.

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