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Zucker can’t explain exactly how he met so many people. He just knows them, and it seems like his life has always included them. Sometimes that is truly the case. He and Linda Johnson Rice spent their early years living in the same Gold Coast building; he and J. B. Pritzker have been friends since seventh grade.
He was born to Michele Young Scher and her husband Monty, who owns a large auto dealership on South Michigan Avenue. But the two divorced when Neal was very young, and his mother eventually married Steve Zucker, the sports management juggernaut. Neal’s last name was changed, and “Steve became my day-to-day father, the one I call Dad,” he says. “But I have a good relationship with Monty, too.” The oldest of four—brother Herbie works in sports management and sisters Jennifer Healy and Tory Boyer are both attorneys living on the North Shore—Zucker started at the Latin School of Chicago. When he was in third grade, the family moved to Winnetka, and he began attending school there. He dates many friendships back to his school days at both places. He attended New Trier High, where he was an active social planner, and then the University of Michigan, where he studied business and economics.
After graduation, Zucker returned to Chicago and became a bond broker for Exchange National Bank. He picked up his MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and meantime embarked on charitable projects, including building a junior board for his mother’s cause, juvenile diabetes. “I had very smart, solid parents who emphasized education and giving back to society,” he says. His first big philanthropic splash came in 1988 when he helped create the Green Tie Ball for Gateway Green, a nonprofit dedicated to greening and beautifying Chicago’s expressways and neighborhoods. “Mary Cameron Frey [social columnist for the Sun-Times] came to me and asked me to help her friend Don DePorter [former vice president for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts], who had started this new organization,” recalls Zucker. “Don was looking to bring in a younger crowd, so I signed on to help organize what became the first Green Tie Ball.” Zucker worked hard on that event, calling everyone he could think of. “I would say: ‘How are you? How was college? Listen, there is going to be this great event . . .’” The first Green Tie Ball brought 500 young adults to the cause and established the party’s long-standing reputation as a hip affair. It also helped establish Zucker’s reputation as a savvy and well-connected young guy in the city, the kind of person who could bring out a new well-heeled generation for charity.
Zucker’s green profile dovetailed nicely with the eco-conscious agenda of the newly elected Richard M. Daley, providing more civic cred to Zucker. Over the years, the Green Tie Ball grew to draw, at its peak, 3,500 guests. BizBash, an event-industry trade publication, once ranked it as the number one charity gala in Chicago, based on its youthful profile and massive mix of entertainment and food. Zucker joined the Gateway Green board, and he chaired the tenth-anniversary Green Tie Ball, although after that he moved on to other missions, other boards. “It was just time to rotate off after a decade of working on that cause,” he says. (In the past several years, Gateway Green has seen its Charity Navigator rating drop from five stars to one star, and in 2010 the Green Tie was canceled.)
At the same time, he was on the prowl for an enterprise he could call his own. One day in the nineties, Zucker looked out of his high-rise apartment and thought, Wouldn’t this be much nicer if the windows were cleaned regularly? “From then on, everywhere I looked, I saw windows. I mean, every place has windows: hotels, hospitals, condo buildings.” With research, Zucker discovered that the window-washing business was complicated: It was dangerous; it needed a constant inflow of money for newer, safer equipment; and there was a workers’ union to deal with. Nonetheless, he approached his friend Elizabeth Alkon, whom he had first met in college, about starting the business. With backing from Alkon’s boyfriend at the time, the Lakeshore Entertainment producer Tom Rosenberg, Zucker and Alkon created Corporate Cleaning Services in 1994. Rosenberg owned several condo buildings, so the two partners started with a small but ready-made customer base. They both had connections and organizational minds, and, slowly, they built a business. In 2004, when Alkon and Rosenberg—by then married—moved to Beverly Hills, Zucker bought out Alkon’s share. (The two remain friends.)
Since then, Zucker has concentrated on promoting the latest safety techniques for his crews while achieving a clockwork precision in the management of the business. “Basically, it’s a service business, and he gives very, very good service,” says one real-estate insider. If you want a dead bird off your 36th-floor windowsill or remedial caulking around your 15th-level window frame, Corporate Cleaning will do it. They put methanol in the water so they can clean windows even in winter; they are also the only Chicago window-cleaning company certified by the state for spider abatement. “You don’t want to hear the stories I know about monster spiders around some of these buildings,” Zucker says. His company once washed all 54 stories at Harbor Point Tower in one day, so residents could enjoy clear views of the Fourth of July fireworks.
He has turned down offers to expand the business into other areas. “I’d rather stick with what we know,” he says. Still, he has these thoughts running through his head: How can we grow? What can I do better? and—the big one—What’s the right thing to do? The questions race through his mind so frequently that they form a rhythm to his days and nights until, like yoga poses, they sync up with his breathing.
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“Neal has created a great life for himself,” says one friend. “But is he enjoying the moment?”
He seems to be. Certainly, at times, there can be a fast-forward quality to his enthusiasm. “This is fun, isn’t it?” he will say. “When are we going to get together again? And what should we do?” But his spillover excitement is similar to that of a boisterous puppy: harmless and endearing. “I am excited because there are so many wonderful things going on,” he says. And if he can contribute to that, add a little spark to the world, get some people together—why not? Even when he’s home, in his apartment a short walking distance from work, he’s restlessly energetic. He Tivos everything and then watches the shows late at night. He reads newspapers and magazines (because he eats out all the time, restaurant reviews are of particular interest), handles e-mails on his BlackBerry, and keeps his color-coordinated closet up to snuff. (Years ago, a friend mismatched his shoes and disorganized his ties as a joke; Zucker stayed up for hours putting everything back in its rightful place.) Then he gets up early and starts a new day, handling the business, staying in touch with friends, planning his social outings. “Friendship takes a lot of work; there is a constant nurturing that has to be done,” he says. “But there are a lot of rewards. I think people appreciate one’s efforts. I really do.”