“I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world and I can tell you there’s no place like the U.S., where you can reinvent yourself. The young people in the U.S. have an entrepreneurial spirit and greatness that is incredibly exciting.”
I had the pleasure to interview Sean Conlon, one of the top real estate moguls in the country and star of the CNBC series “The Deed: Chicago.” Through sheer determination and an innate disposition for hard work, Conlon is the embodiment of what it means to achieve the American dream. An Irish immigrant, Conlon came to the states in 1990 with an insatiable appetite for business. Though his beginnings working in the U.S. were humble, it wasn’t long before the future real estate mogul took his first step towards success. Recognized as one of the top real estate experts in the country, Conlon is regularly interviewed to discuss the market and trends within the real estate industry. He was featured in Crain’s “40 under 40,” was awarded Irish America’s Business 100 profile four years running, and was honored to be guest speaker at The Wharton School of Business on entrepreneurship and leadership as well as Cornell and DePaul Universities.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a small village in Ireland. We were a family of 7 living in a small house in a village where everyone was poor, so we really didn’t know we were poor. At a young age, I had an insatiable appetite for reading about business with a particular focus on American success stories such as Rockefeller, Getty and Carnegie. I was so interested in reading their stories that the local library complained to my mother that I was reading too much.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
My father was not well and his latest business was in trouble, like all his previous businesses. I dropped out of college and moved to London to start working. After some persistence I got an entry level job working the back office at Lehman Brothers and loaded mail trains at night to supplement by income. My father had instilled in me at a very young age that you could be anything in America. Written in the newspaper one day was the British SAS motto, “He who dares, wins.” Standing on the train platform that autumn afternoon in London, I realized if I didn’t make a move I would never amount to anything. it was at that moment that I knew my next move was going to be to America. With $500 in my pocket, I took the plunge.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
My father told me the streets where paved gold in America but when I arrived they were covered in 3 feet of snow. It was daunting to land in America without money or a career. I was scared to death but exhilarated by the perspective opportunities I saw all around me. I started as an assistant janitor but I knew I was on a level playing field with no ceiling and was keen to move up the ladder.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My American cousin Mike and his family found us while doing their genealogy search. File that under horror stories! You normally want to find you’re related to a duke, not just some Irish kid who shows up at your door. Mike got me a job as an assistant janitor. At the beginning I worked as an assistant janitor during the day painting, tarring roofs and shoveling snow for 3 years. I got my real estate license and would work my day job until 6:00pm, wash the paint off me and go to the office and cold call every night. In hindsight it’s quite humorous because countless people received a cold call at 10:00pm from a guy who sounded like a lucky charms advertisement.
So how are things going today?
I can say with great pride, I’m a true product of the American dream. I have been fortunate enough to create great wealth for many of my clients and achieved success myself that couldn’t happen anywhere else but America. Conlon Real Estate has done over $5 billion in sales in the last 7 years and Conlon Capital has originated close to $1 billion in real estate loans.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m very active with my Conlon Wildlife Foundation, through which I’ve provided support and donations to centers as far flung as Ecuador, Namibia and Kerala, India. I’m also helping people right now through The Deed: Chicago on CNBC where I advise, invest and generally council people who have the ability and desire to flip real estate, but through various missteps or unfortunate circumstances need a mentor.
You have firsthand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
- Let’s never forget this country was built on immigrant dreams and that’s what makes it so special. Treat everyone as you’d want to be treated if you were in their shoes
- Understanding we need real immigration laws.
- Don’t treat immigrants like they’re coming to steal, 99.9% are coming to contribute. America is as much a frame of mind as it is a place.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1) Work harder than anyone you know. I had found my passion and it was exhilarating. I worked 100+ hours a week and at one point was considered one of the, if not the top broker in the US.
2) Read. History is the window to the future and so many people have written down their stories. They will provide some dos and don’ts that you may learn from. A story that is not relevant to the real estate business but is awe inspiring is the story of the Wright brothers. You have 2 brothers who are working in a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. At night they would cycle out to a field because they believed they could learn to fly. And guess what, they did. Can you image the look of the neighbors each night to see the 2 lunatic Wright brothers cycling out to the field again to try to fly? I had the good fortune to fly on a Concorde jet once. At that moment I was stuck by the fact that 2 young men who worked at a bicycle shop in American were responsible for the experience I was having at that moment.
3) Travel when you can. Mark Twain once said; “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness.” Travel gives a unique perspective to life. I traveled to Egypt in 1997 against the wishes of the company I worked for at the time. I went to Egypt and arrived the day after a significant terrorist attack. My sister and I pretty much had the country to ourselves. We traveled along the Nile River to see the pyramids of Giza and temples of Luxor. I was once told that there are so many great civilizations in the world that have come and gone and nothing is permanent. Many of the men that built those great monuments are forgotten so you should try and live in the present and see what you can.
4) Never give up. There is always a solution to any problem and you’ll find it if you keep trying. “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”-Thomas A. Edison
5) Take risks. If you win, you will be happy. If you lose, you will be wise.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world and I can tell you there’s no place like the U.S., where you can reinvent yourself.
- We truly are still exercising our First Amendment rights and that’s something to celebrate
- The young people in the U.S. have an entrepreneurial spirit and greatness that is incredibly exciting
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
Ray Dalio, having read his book I find his common-sense refreshing. Also, Thomas Barrack Jr., founder of Colony Capital. He’s been in the media lately for his political affiliations. I once read an interview with him that I found incredibly inspiring. And again, his common sense was refreshing. And as the say common sense isn’t so common.
Originally published at medium.com