Joseph J. Zilber, Bus Ad ’39, Law ’41
You name it, he built it.
In a career spanning nearly 70 years and nearly every U.S. state, Joseph Zilber constructed, developed, owned or operated everything from single-family homes to towering office buildings, sprawling resorts and entire subdivisions. But the project he may be remembered for most is one he did for love, not money.
In May 2008, Joe, founder and chairman of Zilber Ltd., his family-owned real estate and investment company, announced that the Zilber Family Foundation was donating $50 million to revitalize deteriorating neighborhoods in his beloved hometown of Milwaukee.
“By God, Milwaukee needs this,” he said at the time.
Joe died March 19 in Milwaukee at the age of 92.
Joe’s massive rebuilding effort, encompassing bricks and mortar as well as the social fabric of the city, employed a strategy he used his entire career: Lead by example. His $50 million gift was intended to spur a wave of philanthropy, ultimately creating a $200 to $300 million investment pool.
“Our hope for a brighter future for Milwaukee starts right here, right now,” he said when announcing his initiative at Milwaukee’s City Hall. “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Joe’s own sleeves had been rolled up since 1941. Back then, fresh out of Marquette Law School and eager to work, he strolled into the finest law firm in Milwaukee — and walked out without a job.
So he went to work in real estate instead, closing deals for $5 apiece. Four years later, he started his own business. He likes to tell the story of the first house he built, a modest home on Milwaukee’s north side. It sold for $5,950, netting Zilber a loss of $100. From this inauspicious beginning, he drew a lesson.
“It taught me that I cannot build one house,” he later told a reporter. “I’d have to build hundreds of houses, thousands of houses, to make anything out of the real estate business.”
Within a few years, he’d done just that. GIs were returning from World War II, and they needed places to live. Through his new company, Towne Realty, Zilber built and sold them houses. He purchased office buildings in downtown Milwaukee and eventually owned 10 percent of the real estate in the city’s center. People tiring of Wisconsin weather sought warmer climates, so Joe opened branch offices and built homes in Arizona, Hawaii, California, Texas and Florida.
The sleeves-rolled-up attitude paid off handsomely for Joe, whose modest real estate business grew into an empire generating hundreds of millions in annual revenue. So he decided it was time to give back, in part through the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative.
In the words of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett: “Joe Zilber climbed the ladder of opportunity. And when he got to the top, he never forgot about those who did not climb it.”
Joe also never forgot his alma mater. In 2007, he gave $30 million to Marquette Law School: $25 million in law school scholarships and $5 million to fund a forum in the new building, which is scheduled to open in 2010.
“Marquette provided me with a strong sense of community, a belief in the value of collaboration and cooperative efforts,” he says. “My commitment to rebuilding Milwaukee’s most challenged neighborhoods is deeply rooted in the knowledge and values that were a critical part of my Marquette education.”
Watch a video of Joe Zilber's acceptance speech on Marquette Magazine online.