Conlon’s American Dream
By Abdon M. Pallasch
December / January 2008
Just 17 years ago at age 20, Sean Conlon arrived in this country and stayed in the basement of a cousin who put him to work as a custodian of some rental properties the cousin owned. Now at 38, he is a rising star in the real estate/development business in Chicago.
“I love watching jets,” Sean Conlon says, following a white line down the blue Chicago sky on a cool October afternoon. “I always imagine they’re going somewhere exotic, but it’s probably just…Cleveland.”
Few would have thought the poor boy from a big family in Rathangan would ever have landed at this destination, atop the six-story roof of his own building just west of the Loop, surveying the city skyline, with cranes building it ever higher, some of those projects his.
Few but Conlon himself, who always said he was going to be a millionaire someday. Going to Kildare town with his dad to enter the bank and deal with checks that had bounced – Conlon resolved that would never happen to him.
But it wasn’t easy. Just 17 years ago at age 20, he arrived in this country and stayed in the basement of a cousin who put him to work as a custodian of some rental properties the cousin owned.
“He felt I’d make a great janitor,” Conlon said. “I thought I could be something more.”
Now, at age 38, he’s jetting off to California to attend Oprah’s fundraiser for Barack Obama or off to Dublin to appear on The Late Late Show with Pat Kenny.
“Ya looked great on the tele tonight,” the Irish customs officer delaying him at the airport told him after the show in September.
Conlon came to the United States in 1990 from London, where he spent a year after dropping out of college in Dublin. He shared a flat with 14 other young Irish men, some of whom worked, others of whom drank too much.
They would tease him when he put on a suit to go to interview for bank jobs. He’d come home to find them lying about the house having lost another job from not showing up to work and telling their family back home in Ireland, “Yeah, it’s racism. No jobs for the Irish here.”
That galled Conlon, he told attendees at a symposium on the success of the Irish in America at Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center. Yes there was anti-Irish sentiment in England but it could be overcome with hard work. Conlon got hired at a Middle Eastern-owned bank but just could not get his head around finance. One night after his rowdy roommates had scattered broken car mirrors up to the front door of the flat and sent Conlon to answer the door when the police came, the irate patrolman gave Conlon some sound advice.
“He said, ‘You don’t belong here with this crowd. I’m going to be back here again next week. Don’t be here,’” Conlon recalled. He took the advice.
Conlon came to Chicago and kept up his cousin’s flats by day and studied real estate by night.
He got in on the ground floor of a trend that swept Chicago’s gentrifying lakefront neighborhoods – tearing down small homes and replacing them with three-story condominiums. He was a pioneer and hero for developers – but the Grim Reaper to traditionalists who didn’t want to see their neighborhoods change.
“I got to know every inch of Lakeview,” he says. “I knew every lot size, every lot’s zoning. I had done my homework. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Every night and weekend, he would try to talk people into selling their homes, so he could tear them down and build condos. His closeness with Irish immigrant carpenters and other tradesmen was key.
“One time, I jumped over a fence and fell into a big snowdrift,” Conlon recalled. “The woman who owned the place wasn’t too happy to see me but I did eventually talk her into selling me her house.”
He hooked up with Koenig & Strey and was selling millions of dollars of real estate a year. He got married and divorced – working too many hours to attend to a marriage.
By 2000, he started his own real estate firm, Sussex & Reilly, with six people. It grew to 300 people with $500 million in sales.
“He was a man on a mission,” said Jim Kinney, president of competitor Rubloff Residential Properties. “If I knew [how he did it] I would only be hiring superstars.”
A natural-born salesman with a reassuring smile, Conlon “treats the guy at Starbucks with an equal amount of respect as he treats his banker,” says his business partner, Tim Sullivan. “Nobody has the social skills of Sean. He’s got an unbelievable ability to engage people. He’s great at building long-term relationships. Even if the deal doesn’t go through, he’ll still send ’em a bottle of wine or something.”
Conlon bought Near North National Title after former owner Michael Segal went to prison. He started Conlon & Co, his holding company. Among its concerns are Connaught Real Estate Finance, a $100 million fund that lends money to developers.
He opened a Ralph Lauren on Armitage. He and a partner are building vacation homes in Michigan. He’s working on a resort in Colorado.
One of his most successful ventures is Conlon & Co. Ireland, an office in Dublin that advises European investors where to put their money in American projects. With the Euro-to-dollar ratio as good as it has ever been for Europeans, a lot of them are looking to invest here, he says.
Much of his job in this struggling real estate market involves holding the hands of his nervous investors and project partners assuring them that everything will pick up again and to stay the course. He has mastered the art.
“If people didn’t panic and took the long view, everything would be fine,” he says. “I’m buying a lot of stuff. By the end of next year, we’ll be out of this.”
Conlon’s cavernous modern office in a rehabbed warehouse features exposed brick and wooden support beams. He sits behind a desk that 50 Titanic passengers could have floated on to safety. On it sits, among other stacks of paper, a picture of a fairly intact Irish castle that needs a bit of work. Is he thinking of buying it?
He’s thinking of trading up from his place in Carlow alright.
If only his father could have lived to see his success.
“He instilled in me that you can be anything you want in America,” Conlon recalled. He proved his father the busdriver right. Some of his five siblings have come to join him, including brother Kieran who helps run the company.
“I think my story has captured people’s imagination because I’m an average person who did something pretty amazing because I believed I could,” Conlon said. “And honestly, I believe somebody getting off the plane today has the same opportunity. If you want it bad enough, you’ll make it happen. Hard work will get it done.”