TOP PERFORMER: Rags to Riches

Realtor Magazine
Jun 01, 2000
Robert Sharoff

My life is a Horatio Alger story," says Sean Conlon, director of sales and marketing at Sussex & Reilly in Chicago, of his stratospheric rise in the real estate world.

Conlon, who is 31, arrived in Chicago from his native Ireland in 1990. After a year or two spent working as a janitor and a house painter, he started selling real estate--mainly condos--on the city's North Side.

He joined Koenig & Strey in 1993 and over the next few years became something of a legend in Chicago real estate circles both for his rampaging work schedule--he estimates that he works 100 hours a week—and for his ever escalating sales volume.

He sold $60 million worth of real estate in 1997, $110 million in 1998, and $150 million (which works out to more than 400 transactions) last year. The key, he says, is "pure toil--hard work."

Conlon made his name selling new construction at a time when the downtown Chicago market was just starting to take off. Over the past decade, the city experienced a housing explosion, with more than 12,000 new units being built.

But Conlon is far more than a listing agent. "My thing is scouting land," he says. "We knock on doors, we do mailings, we constantly stay in touch with people who live in older houses that are beyond repair or renovation. And when they get ready to move, they call us."

The most promising neighborhoods, he says, are those immediately adjoining the current hot areas: "The goal is to get there before Starbucks. If you see a Starbucks, you know you've missed the boat. The neighborhood is already done."

The next step is lining up a builder. "I create my own builders," he says. "Probably 70 percent of my builders were not builders when I met them."

Many, he says, were tradespeople or businesspeople with a yen to get into the development game. "I find them a piece of land, hook them up with a bank, and get them an attorney and an architect," he says.

And when the project is finished, Conlon sells the units.

Late last year, Conlon embarked on a new project--starting his own firm. "I had done my thing and done it better than anyone else in Chicago," he says. "I wanted a new challenge."

The result is Sussex & Reilly, a full-service residential brokerage he formed with two other young real estate turks, Frank Parkinson and Tim O'Neil, that opened its doors in January. (It's named after Parkinson's and Conlon's mothers. Sussex is Mrs. Parkinson's maiden name, and Reilly is Mrs. Conlon's maiden name.)

The firm has 15 sales associates--including the seven-member sales team Conlon brought with him from Koenig & Strey--and is on schedule to do $400 million in its first year.

"The big companies think real estate is going one way--toward consolidation and larger and larger offices," says Conlon. "I think it'll always be a boutique business and a neighborhood business. I want to see who's going to be right."