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Real estate tycoon Sam Zell slams WeWork: 'Every single company in this space has gone broke'

Key Points
  • Sam Zell, who amassed a nearly $6 billion fortune with roots in commercial real estate, slams office-sharing firm WeWork.
  • WeWork, which is planning an IPO, is not doing anything new, the Chicago billionaire investor says.
  • Zell points to WeWork's net losses of more than $900 million for the first six months of 2019 on revenues of $1.54 billion.
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Sam Zell weighs in on WeWork's office-sharing business model

Sam Zell, who amassed a nearly $6 billion fortune with roots in commercial real estate, is slamming WeWork, the office-sharing firm that's widely expected to go public as early as this month.

WeWork, which rebranded itself as the We Company, is not doing anything new, Zell told CNBC on Wednesday.

"I had the privilege of investing in this kind of company once before. As a matter of fact, this kind of company began in 1956," when office subletting emerged, Zell said in a "Squawk Box" interview.

"Every single company in this space has gone broke," he said, pointing to WeWork's IPO disclosure last month of net losses of more than $900 million for the first six months of 2019 on revenues of $1.54 billion.

WeWork reported 527,000 members as of June 30, an increase of more than 90% from the year before. However, it also put long-term lease obligations at $17.9 billion.

"They should have just changed the name of the company to 'saving and loan.' That's really what you're talking about, creating long-term liabilities and short-term assets," said Zell, chairman of Chicago-based Equity Group Investments. "Every other time in history when they create that, results are predictable. Why is this any different?"

WeWork did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment. It is in the mandatory quiet period ahead of its initial public offering. 

WeWork was recently valued at $47 billion, after SoftBank, the company's biggest backer, invested an additional $2 billion in January. WeWork, which rents out co-working spaces to start-ups, was founded in 2010.

It has 528 locations, up from 485 at the end of the first quarter of 2019, and plans to open 169 new locations. The company said 50% of its memberships are based outside the U.S. and that enterprise customers, which made up 40% of its memberships, are its fastest growing membership type.

Zell also said the real estate industry as a whole has "committed suicide," by allowing WeWork to buy up so many properties. "They are the largest landlord in New York, London, etc." Last year, WeWork said it became the largest private occupier of office space in Manhattan, London and Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, WeWork announced, under pressure, that it added a woman — former Uber Senior Vice President Frances Frei — to its all-male board of directors. The company also said it unwound a $5.9 million payment to CEO and co-founder Adam Neumann for the use of the trademarked word, "We."

On the issue of corporate governance, Zell was critical of Neumann because of his control of the majority of the voting rights through WeWork's class B and C shares. Both classes carry 20 votes per share compared with one vote per share for class A.

Acknowledging that many other companies centralize voting power, Zell said, "I don't think any of the other ones are any better than WeWork in that respect. WeWork has just taken it to an extreme that nobody's ever seen before."

Zell founded EGI more than 50 years ago. Its portfolio has branched out to industries including health care, logistics, manufacturing, transportation and media. He also chairs five NYSE-listed firms, including three real estate investment trusts.

— CNBC's Jesse Pound and Annie Palmer as well as Reuters contributed to this report.