Birth of a Salesman

Chicago Magazine
Feb 01, 1998
Ted Allen

Seven years ago, Sean Conlon was the city's newest Irish immigrant, pushing a broom at night for five bucks an hour. But then Chicago's real estate market began to boom, and Conlon caught the wave. Last year, he sold an astonishing $55 million worth of condos, an all-time record, here and probably anywhere. Never mind the 100-hour weeks, the divorce, and the ulcer, he says -"Isn't America great?"

The fireplug with the Irish brogue scoots around Lincoln Park in an immaculate black Range Rover, absently cutting off other drivers with a wave of apology and the grin of a practiced charmer. He's got dark red hair, a Vandyke beard, and a look of mischief about him; the kind of guy who could sell Pellegrino to a drowning man. For my benefit, he confesses, he has dressed up a bit: a four-button, silvery olive Armani suit; no tie. He swigs alternately from a cup of Starbucks and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. He will soon be diagnosed with an ulcer. But he maintains -insists, even -that he is happy, and it is happy things of which we speak now.

At every turn, he sweeps his arm expansively over the truck's vast hood, presenting the gracious side streets of DePaul, Old Town, the Gold Coast, where, block after block, his name, Sean Conlon, is emblazoned upon forest-green signs pounded into the valuable front yards of what will soon be brand-new luxury townhouses. "Those are my specialty," he explains, nudging a couple of extra syllables out of the word "spes-seeal-it-ty." Here and there, he hops out to hobnob with contractors, several of whom greet him with handshakes that turn into hugs. He swings by the future site of a 27-story, $23-million high-rise at 1122 North Dearborn Street for which he is the exclusive broker; they've just started drilling for the caissons. And then, on the stoop of a Fullerton Parkway three-flat whose renovated top-floor unit is now listed for more than the whole building was worth ten years ago, he happens to run into Anna Robertson.

"You're about to meet the god!" enthuses Robertson, a fellow agent, to her client when she sees Conlon.

"Another American dream," Conlon tells me, gesturing toward Robertson, an Italian immigrant who married a Swede. "Isn't this country great?"

"You are so hot," she gushes. "Every new building in town, it has your name on it!"

As it happens, she's not far off.

Sometime during calendar year 1997, in the sort of classic, by-the-bootstraps immigrant tale that defines Chicago's history, Sean Joseph Conlon took over the residential real estate market. Nobody can touch him; no one is even close. Just seven years off the boat, with one year of college under his belt, a mere four years after quitting his $5-anhour job as a janitor, Conlon sold more than $55 million worth of condos and townhouses. That is more than any other agent in the city's history had ever sold in a year–much, much more. It's double and then some the 1997 sales of his colleague Joanne Nemerovski, who works a few offices over from him at Koenig & Strey, and who was the top seller in Chicago the previous four years running. And Sean J. Conlon is 28 years old.

If Conlon were an ordinary real estate agent, making the standard 50-50 split of his company's 3 percent commission, he would have earned about $825,000–but a rainmaker of his proportions can command as much as the entire agency's share, which would translate to about $1.65 million (Conlon declined to discuss his income). "He's making a lot more than 1.5 percent," says another high-level Chicago agent. "To have somebody that makes $50 million in sales, he is so valuable to your company."

On its face, Conlon's performance is staggering–up from number two in 1996, and number three in 1995, his second year in the business. A few figures amplify just how extraordinary.

There are 6,500 members of the Chicago Association of Realtors, the largest such group in Illinois. It's a hard business with high turnover: Only about 20 percent make it five years, by some estimates. The job requires great market savvy and sensitivity, and long, long hours to make much money. According to the Chicago Association of Realtors, only about 30 sold more than $10 million worth of property in 1996. "I mean, $10 million is an unbelievably good agent," Nemerovski says. Only 7 percent exceed $3 million, an amount that typically would produce a gross salary of $60,000 a decent wage, certainly, but hardly Trump standards. Nemerovski speculates that the average area agent sells about $2 million.

For every listing, an agent must set a price that he thinks will net a reasonable profit for the seller, without overpricing. He must arrange for advertising, showings, and open houses. He must be constantly available to prospective buyers– even though the vast majority will never make an offer. "It's very easy to get a real estate license," Nemerovski says, "but it's amazing how hard it is to be self motivated. When someone's driving by your listing and they call on the phone, if you're not there, they're on to the next thing." To reach her mark of around $25 million in 1997, Nemerovski processed about 70 sales–each of which required negotiations, closings, sheaves of paperwork. Conlon, by contrast, says he wrangled about 200 transactions.

(Nemerovski, by the way, says she doesn't resent Conlon for usurping her first-place title. "For a few years, I was running my self ragged," she says. "I don't do that anymore"–in part, because she has two small children. "If I'm the number two or the number three person in the next five years, I'm fine with that.")

Conlon employs a staff of three people–including his little brother, Kieran, -24 -at whom he is often disposed to bark over his speakerphone. He goes to the office at about 9:15 a.m., eats at his desk (lunch and dinner), and generally goes home between 11 p.m. and midnight, seven days a week. "Some days, I have finished work at 10 or 11 at night, and I think I'm working late," says Eamonn McCauley, president of Surf Development Corporation, a client of Conlon's. "And I'll drive by his office on Clark Street and see his light on and his truck outside. Quite often, his is the only light on at Koenig & Strey."

"There has never been anybody in Chicago to put out those kind of numbers," says Chuck Goro, senior vice-president at Koenig. To that, one might add, there has never been anybody to do so in the inflated real estate markets of New York and San Francisco. Which is to say that, in just three years, Sean Conlon has become the condo king of North America–and, maybe, the world.

Conlon picked an auspicious time to take up the real estate racket; to wit, almost precisely the moment that Chicago was becoming the hottest residential real estate market in the country: In the middle years of the decade, interest rates plunged, opening a vein of capital for builders and homebuyers. And sales exploded. "We've been in a boom for the last ten years, but (1997 was) one of the highest in sales ever," says James Ascot, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors. "It's a record."

According to Schaumburg-based consultants Tracey Cross & Associates, developers sold 2,705 newly built condos and townhouses in Chicago during the first three quarters of 1997, 50 percent more than were sold during the same period in 1996, and about seven times as many as in 1991. "And the third quarter was the highest volume ever done in the city," Tracy Cross says. (During the same period, the company found, sales of new condos and townhouses in the suburbs slipped 2.5 percent.) The upturn began in 1993 with the Ontario Street Lofts conversion in River North, Cross explains, "an area that had been dormant for more than ten years." Similar loft conversions–especially west and south of the Loop–continue to drive the boom, he says, and may be fueling activity in other kinds of housing just by making the market appear so hot. Overall, the city issued 23,800 building permits in 1997, compared with 21,604 in 1996 and 18,394 the year before–leading to backlogs in the city building department that have delayed approvals up to three months and prompted the city to streamline its permit process.

"We're in the strongest urban market in the country–by a long shot," says Cross. The San Francisco area comes in second. Who's buying these places? "We have a lot of people from the financial markets," Conlon says. "And inheritances. The boomers are finally handing over their money."

"I think a lot of it has to do with the DINKs–the dual-income-no-kids people," says Janice Corley, a senior vice-president with Coldwell Banker Stanmeyer Realty in Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. "They're two professional married people; they know what they want and they want it now. The real key, I think, to most people who work and make a decent living is convenience; they don't want to move to the suburbs any more."

That's partly because suburban sprawl has hit a wall, Cross says. During the last ten years, the hottest areas for new construction spread farther and farther from the City. But the dominant center of employment–the area just west of O'Hare Airport–stayed put. Suddenly, Cross says, "the city became closer to that area than some of the emerging markets (are). The city is closer to O'Hare than Gurnee or Grayslake or Joliet or Naperville.

Now, says Corley, "I see people paying more for teardowns in my neighborhood (Ravenswood) than I paid for my single-family house five years ago. Eight years ago I would get up and jog, and I would see senior citizens; today, it's all youngsters and yuppies."

The intensity has fostered concern among city planners and architects–notably, that the rush to meet the demand has caused some developers to cut corners and squeeze dense developments onto tiny lots. An often-cited example: Ron Shipka's Landmark Village on Diversey Parkway at Wolcott Avenue, a "gated community" with blank brick walls facing outward and narrow lanes between dense lines of row houses. Another, 2243 North Greenview Avenue, an awkward assemblage of townhouses with tiny windows, was squeezed onto a tiny, triangular lot on a busy stretch of Clybourn Avenue.

Many of the newly built luxury townhouses have their detractors on aesthetic grounds as well. Absent the rolling acreage that suburban developers can use to appeal to the vanity of the wealthy, the new city builders are often going overboard with height and mass and ornamentation– concrete finished off to look like limestone, ostentatious amounts of copper trim and gutters–which sometimes result in three-flats that seem to think they're monuments. "The proportions on these are all off," says architect Laurence Booth, scanning page after page of new projects in a Chicago real estate newspaper. He points out that the main-floor windows are often dwarfed by those on the top floor–a relationship that should be reversed under accepted principles of architecture.

In September, the city's Department of Planning and Development proposed new zoning rules for the ubiquitous townhouses. Among the proposals: requiring that garages open onto alleys, when they are available, not city streets, both for aesthetic reasons and for allowing maximum on-street parking; reducing thc number of townhouses permitted on a 50-foot-wide double lot from six to four or five, to create space for cars and parkway landscaping; requiring that more space be left between buildings; encouraging builders to provide for windows, yards, and decorative architecture on all sides of the buildings that face the street. At press time, the townhouse ordinance was under review by the City Council Zoning committee, and stood a good chance of passing. "We have received support from developers, community groups, and aldermen," says Christopher R. Hill, commissioner of planning and development.

Of course, no boom lasts forever. "There are some undercurrents that indicate it might not be as resilient as it might be," Cross says–for example, 40 percent of the units sold in third-quarter 1997 were in just four projects. As Conlon puts it, "Even stupid people look smart in a bull market."

"My father 's a dreamer," Conlon says back in the Range Rover, where he spends much of his day, shuttling between showings and meetings with developers. "Since I was about four or five years old, he would show me American magazines with pictures of jets and planes, and the really successful people in America. I used to say, 'Daddy, I'm going to go to America and be a millionaire.'"

The journey began simply, if comfortably. Sean Conlon was born in 1969 to John and Margo Conlon in Birmingham, England, where his father had emigrated and worked as a bus driver. Sean had two sisters and was the second of three sons– not always an enviable role in Irish culture, which lavishes attention on the firstborn. When he was four, his parents took the family back to their hometown of Rathangan in County Kildare, about 40 miles west of Dublin.

John Conlon has long been an entrepreneur, running businesses of varying success: well drilling and contracting among them ("We joke that he's the CEO of the Conlon Company," Sean says, "and that the Irish division's not doing too well"). Margo came from a poor family in western Ireland, went to college, and became a teacher; today, she runs her own kindergarten. Conlon blames his mother's interest in Gaelic for the accent mark on his first name–called a fada, actually, in that ancient tongue. "She kind of motivated me to be really successful because she always gave me the impression that people thought they were better than us," he says.

Conlon studied for a year at the College of Marketing and Design in Dublin, then, at 19, decided to strike out for his fortune in London. "I wanted not to be the stereotypical Irish guy who was going to work in the building trades," he says. But in London, for the first time, he got the business end of that anti-Irish classism. "Once they heard your accent, they treated you differently–it was amazing," he recalls. He landed first as an assistant to the foreign exchange traders at Shearson Lehman Hutton, then as a credit analyst with the Middle East Bank, while loading mail trains at night for extra money. But he wasn't satisfied. "I was standing on the train platform one day, getting ready to go in to work," Conlon recalls, "and I said, This is going to be the rest of my life–going in to work nine to five every day and being mediocre." He was 20.

"I went home, packed my knapsack [went] off to Ireland, spent a week with my parents, and came to America."

To Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood, specifically, where a distant cousin named Mike Donovan owned several apartment buildings. Conlon went to work for Donovan as a janitor: cleaning, cutting grass, and painting apartments. There, in September 1990, he met his future wife.

"Sean was a week or two off the boat," says Marcie Meis, who is an attorney and a clerk to a state appellate judge. "I had just graduated from law school, and was looking for an apartment. Mike [Donovan] thought that Sean might like me, so he arranged that Sean would be the one giving me the lease. He was wearing white painter's overalls, and he was covered in dust." Meis took the apartment– and agreed to go out with Conlon. They got married in February 1993.

Although Conlon was making $5 an hour, he was preparing for conquest in business. "He would always talk about these dreams, and these amazing things he was going to do," Meis recalls. "I was the only one who believed him."

Conlon ventured into real estate sales in 1993, working evenings with a small Rogers Park agency, Leader Realty and Management. He went fulltime that summer. Mostly, he sold tiny studios–$30,000 here, $50,000 there– and got conned into sitting at open houses for other agents. "They'd say, 'Conlon, this is your big break–you'll get a lot of buyers,'" he recalls. "And those guys would be out on the lake, skiing."

Then came the epiphany.

"At Southport and Henderson, I saw a guy who was putting up a sign, FOR SALE BY OWNER," Conlon recalls. "An ugly, ugly little frame building"–but a hot, hot location. Conlon got the listing, and calls came pouring in–all from developers who wanted to tear the building down to put up condos. "I approached my company and said we should really consider going after this [new-construction] market really aggressively, and they said, 'New construction doesn't sell; don't waste your time.'" Inside of a few months, Conlon was at Koenig & Strey.

"The first time I met Sean Conlon, he actually thanked me for having enough faith in him to think that he might be good enough to work here," says Chuck Goro, Conlon's boss at Koenig. "Then he told me that it was his intention to be one of the best in the business." In his first year on the job, Conlon chalked up almost $10 million in sales.

Since then, he has invested in several North Side buildings, including a $1.2-million former funeral home in DePaul (he lives on the third floor in an apartment that he likens to a Bavarian hunting lodge, with a rooftop deck where he has a garden and enjoys a skyline view). Besides the Range Rover, which he recently traded in on a Lexus sport utility vehicle, he has bought a 1968 Jaguar convertible.

The success came with a price. "It's very hard to have a commonality with someone who works over 100 hours a week" says Meis, who divorced Conlon amicably in 1996. And this past November, Conlon's stomach troubles finally forced him to seek treatment. "I got a bag load of stuff," he says. "The nice thing is, my doctor doesn't make you stop drinking."

"It worries me terribly because he has heart disease in his family," Meis says. "And also I've seen how it's affected his personality, because it takes him half an hour to relax and just become the person that I know, to have an undistracted conversation. And his damn beeper keeps going off, and he's got so many things on his mind. The only time I have ever seen him really relaxed was in Ireland–he would just fly-fish all day long."

He has scant time for friends. "But I have my family," Conlon says. "My brother's out here. I'm 28, and if I keep it up, I think I'll have more time to do things eventually." He does at least travel: Last summer, he and Kieran spent nine first-class days touring Madrid, Germany, and the Mediterranean island of Ibiza–although Conlon, an acknowledged "control freak," confesses, "I was on the phone all the time for the first two or three days with a pain in my stomach worrying about it."

"I think he has an enormous need," Meis says. "For him, it's the chase, it's the game, and he's gotten to a level where I think he would be unhappy if he didn't have that anymore." Corley adds, "There's like a fear motivation. It's so easy to remember where you were, and to never want to go back there. Then it becomes a challenge of power, because it's not about the money anymore with Sean. He says it's not about recognition, and I totally disagree: He will actually be the number one agent in North America within the next year, if he's not already, and that is incredible."

When Conlon was 14 years old, he recalls, his father told him he would like to own a Mercedes-Benz again before he dies. "His business had gone bad, and he lost a lot of stuff," Sean explains. And so, in 1995, Conlon bought one, and had it delivered to his father's house. The next year, Conlon brought his father to Chicago for a visit, and drove him around in the Jaguar. "He met everybody and he saw me do deals, and that's what he wanted to see," Conlon recalls. "He was really proud of me."

The real estate game is very different from the way it used to be, most brokers agree. "The approach years ago in a real estate office -and it's still that way in some companies–[was that] an agent would sit and wait for that lead to walk in the door," says Janice Corley. "Now they're very proactive, and they're educated. They come in and say, 'I've got to make $100,000 this year because that was my lifestyle.'"

Conlon is a good example of this aggressive style. "Everybody keeps [asking], 'What's your secret?' and 'You should do a motivational video,'" Conlon says. "That to me is ridiculous. I have two very simple rules: I treat people the way I would like to be treated if I went in to buy a house. And I work harder than anybody I know. That's it. I work really hard. And I think if you do that in America, you can't go wrong."

So you, too, could do what Conlon has done?

"Well, no," Nemerovski says.

There's more to it than raw hours. The key, agents say, is getting the listings–that is, getting the exclusive right to represent the owner who is selling a property. On a large new project, for example, here's how that process works. The developer typically invites several real estate agencies to bid for the right. To win, an agency must show convincingly that it can establish the highest possible prices for the condo units without overpricing them (because if a seller has to reduce prices later, buyers could get the idea there is something wrong with the building). The agency also has to indicate how much money and how many personnel it will put on the project: advertising, running a sales center, producing brochures, and the like. The developer and the potential agent might also negotiate on the commission.

Conlon has proved a master at such negotiations, according to developers and other agents. Here are some other clues to his success:

Point one: He spends a great deal of time researching the market–going to open houses, driving around, talking to competitors–and he has developed an uncannily accurate sense of the price a property will command even before it's been built. "It's easy to sell something cheap," says Eamonn McCauley, whose family-owned Surf Development Corporation picked Conlon to sell that 27-story high-rise at 1122 North Dearborn. "What's hard is to maximize a developer's profit without getting greedy. Sean's able to push the envelope just far enough where it sells without having to drop the price. He brought up the prices of the one- and two-bedrooms in this building; he said, 'They're too low.'" In early December, when Surf had done little more than dig a hole and pour a foundation, Conlon was already under contract on 60 percent of the building's $30 million worth of apartments. "It's an avalanche," McCauley said at the time.

Point two: Conlon has built a large network of small developers, diversifying his prospects. Particularly endearing to them is his penchant for spreading the wealth by helping contractors, masons, plumbers, even landscape workers become developers themselves–sometimes even arranging their financing. "Other people wait for developers to come to them," Nemerovski says. "He's helped them to buy land and be a developer. He just says to the plumber, 'You can do this.'" Take Tommy Joe Staunton, a carpenter and concrete contractor with a far richer brogue than Conlon's. Before they met, Staunton had built a few small projects–"just a single-family [house] here and there, maybe a two-flat," he says. "Now it's gone three units, four, all the way up to ten units," the latter being a luxury building at 729 West Belmont Avenue. "I wouldn't have made the connections I did without his 'in.'"

Point three: Associates say he sticks to high-quality buildings. "There's lots of [agents] who will sell anything," McCauley says. "He doesn't get involved with developers who do a bad job where there will be lawsuits and repercussions and complaints." Or, as Staunton recalls of a job site conversation between Conlon and a builder, "people were talking about a problem they were having, and Sean said, 'Let me translate in a more charming way: Don't build a shit building.'"

What of the concern that someone so busy might not have time to give a new client the personal attention he needs? "I get that all the time," Conlon says. "The numbers speak for themselves. They used to say, 'He's too young,' or 'He's foreign.' What–you don't fly American Airlines because they've gotten too big? They're big because they're the best."

A colleague, Louise Nix, adds, "He's almost like a name brand. If you're that big, there's a reason."

Finally, the Irish heritage doesn't hurt–not when you're dealing with people named Staunton and McCauley. "Absolutely," says Tommy Joe Staunton. "I got my break with an Irish guy. There's a tight group of builders here." Then again, Conlon points out, among his first and most enduring relationships has been one with an Armenian developer, Gordon Yordanoff.

"It makes me mad when people say that it's his Irish charm and his accent," Meis says. "Maybe that got his foot in the door, but he works harder than anyone I've ever known." Or, as McCauley puts it, "I have enough interesting personalities to entertain me all day long on the construction site. This is a tough business, and when it comes to someone working for me in sales, I want someone who does his homework."

It's a Monday evening in Sean Conlon's office, two days before he is to embark on a vacation in Egypt with his sister Fiona. We have planned to go tonight to the opening of Fado, a new Irish pub at Clark and Grand. Conlon's got nine contract signings before he leaves–and Louise Nix is trying to squeeze in a buyer from Indianapolis. "I've got to get Christmas cards out, and decide who's going to get gifts," Conlon frets.

Someone asks him whether he's set his sales goals for 1998. "Basically, I've doubled my business every year since I started," he says, "which would mean I'd have to do at least $110 million.

"Could I do it? Yeah, I could do it. I'd have to go out and work twice as hard." And he smiles. "I'll think about it when I'm in Egypt."

For all the time Conlon spends here, the office feels like temporary quarters. He's earned a window berth overlooking Lincoln Park, but its counters are mauve Formica, and there is no door; outside, there are generic cubicles for days. Among the few personal effects is the last page from A River Runs Through It, torn from the book and taped to the wall over Conlon's desk (the story celebrated both family and fly-fishing); next to it, a picture post card of his hometown–nothing is framed. On top of a cabinet, next to an empty Champagne bottle and the drawings of several buildings, there is a model sailboat. "When I'm 50, I'm going to buy a boat like this and sail the Mediterranean," he says. "Nobody believes me. I'm going to call it Tir Na Nog–the Land of Eternal Youth. In Irish mythology, it was over the western ocean, and you know where that is–it's America.

"Oh," Conlon adds. "I'm probably not going to make Fado tonight."