New Company Diary: American Dreamer

If you’ve dreamed of your own company or sales team, follow Sean Conlon’s entrepreneurial exploits here, each month, for the next year.

August 1, 2000

"My life has been a Horatio Alger story," says Sean Conlon of his stratospheric rise in the real estate world.

Conlon, 31, arrived in Chicago from his native Ireland in 1990. He joined Koenig & Strey in 1993 and almost immediately became one of the top salespeople in the city. He sold $60 million worth of real estate in 1997, $110 million in 1998, and $150 million in 1999, which works out to about 400 transactions last year.

Last January, Conlon and his partners, Frank Parkinson and Tim O'Neil, funded and started their own company. "I'd done my thing and done it better than anyone else in Chicago," he says. "I wanted a new challenge."

The company is called Sussex & Reilly (named for Parkinson’s and Conlon’s mothers, respectively) and is already off to a rousing start. Conlon's great strength has always been new construction, and the company's distinctive green-and-white signs are ubiquitous in the city’s neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park and Lakeview, where significant building is occurring.

Over the next year, Conlon will keep a monthly diary here, at www.magazine.realtor, about the trials and challenges of starting your own company. "The big companies think real estate is going one way--toward consolidation and larger and larger offices," he says. "I think it will always be a boutique business and a neighborhood business. I want to see who’s right." In fact, Conlon intends to grow Sussex & Reilly into a national network of neighborhood offices. Here's his progress journal . . .

August 2000, diary entry

A significant anniversary . . . Walking 'the walk' with salespeople . . . No time for stars . . . A new branch, a humbling lesson . . . 'Time is a commodity I am very aware of but don't fully understand'

July was our six-month anniversary. We're six months into our business plan and right on schedule. We did $200 million out of one office and with just 20 salespeople in that period, and we hope to do another $200 million by the end of the year. We won't get there, however, without a real sales push this fall. So what I've mainly been doing in the last month is guiding and pushing and motivating the salespeople. It's a new role for me, and one that I'm still getting used to. In the past, I was free to focus on my own deals. Now I have to look at the big picture--how we're doing this week, this month. I'm used to sprinting. This is more of a constant push every day.

I've also been conducting performance reviews and had a lot of one-on-one conversations with the salespeople. They call it "the walk" because we go out the front door and walk around the block twice while I tell them what they need to do. We can't encourage complacency. The one thing I've noticed that all successful salespeople have in common is a willingness to work hard. It's the people I see here at 10 at night who make $200,000–$300,000 a year.

Of course, not everyone is right for this place. We're a hybrid, a cross between a high-tech Internet company and a traditional, top-shelf brokerage. As such, we don't need stars as much as we need team players. Instead of commissions, all our salespeople get a salary based on what they sold last year plus a performance bonus if they exceed that total. This year, almost everyone will earn in excess of six figures.

It's perfect. The salespeople get a check every month, but there's no cap. The more they sell, the more they earn. They also get benefits, such as health insurance. And the compensation system leaves us free to adjust the commissions we charge customers. We currently charge 1 percent less than the average Chicago commission, and we’re considering going even lower. The cooperating brokers still get their normal percentage. We take less. The point is to make up the difference with volume.

A lot of people are watching us to see whether this model can work. My partners and I think it can. In fact, I think Sussex & Reilly can be the Coldwell Banker of the 21st century. But that will work only if people come together as a team. The other thing that's been quite time- consuming in the past month is finalizing plans for our first branch office and talking about a second branch. The first branch is located in Lincoln Park, about a mile away, and will open this fall. We are doing the build-out now and are about halfway through the hiring process. The second branch, I hope, will be in Saugatuck, a resort community in Michigan. But we have a lot of work still to do there.

The whole thing has been both gratifying and frustrating. In the past, if something wasn't working, I would fix it myself. But I can't install a computer network or a phone system on my own. This month, for instance, our DSL line went down three times in two weeks, once for an entire day. It was hell. The people at the phone company said they'd get around to it when they could.

Time is a commodity I am very aware of but don't fully understand. I want the Lincoln Park office open; I want Michigan open; I want to be in the suburbs. In the new economy, the first company to the post wins everything. There’s no second or third place. But I can only do what I can do.

Final note: I leave tomorrow for a vacation--10 days in Greece. I'm meeting three friends. We'll swim, ride motorbikes, look at ruins, and drink a little or a lot of Bacardi. When I get back, I'll be ready for the fall season.

Robert Sharoff is an architectural writer for The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Magazine. With photographer William Zbaren, he has produced books highlighting the architecture of Detroit and St. Louis. He is a former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.

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