2017-06-14 / Real Estate

After finance career, Schell found ‘happiness’


Chris Schell Chris Schell As it works to establish a foothold in the Richmond market, a Delaware-based homebuilder is attempting to redefine a traditionally blue-collar, bottom-line-driven industry.

Taking a page from the playbook made famous by Google, Schell Brothers has established a corporate culture that prioritizes the happiness of its customers and employees.

“We are almost intentionally rebellious against ‘normal’ American corporate culture, beliefs and methods,” said Chris Schell, who started the company in 2003 with his twin brother, Preston. “We believe that American corporations are too focused on profit and growth. We pride ourselves on being different than the average company.”

“Happiness” isn’t just Schell’s workplace mantra; it’s the company’s primary business objective. At a time when many homebuilders are selling a lifestyle – resort-style amenity packages, walking trails, etc. – Schell Brothers introduced itself to potential Richmond-area home buyers with a series of advertisements that featured a collage of the company’s smiling employees. In those initial ads, there were zero images of new houses. Its website has a section devoted to “fun stuff” – archived video and photos from various employee events, including beach and boat outings, concerts, awards presentations and holiday parties. The company also gives employees the freedom to decide how much vacation they want to take each year.

“There’s a common misconception that our culture is about partying and having fun,” Schell said. “Although we do have more social events than the typical company and we do have a lot of fun together, our culture goes way beyond that. It’s honestly tough to put into words and it’s almost one of those things that you need to experience in order to fully ‘get it.’”

The son of a successful investment banker, Chris Schell grew up believing that success meant going to college and finding a job that paid a lot of money.

He was accepted into one of America’s most prestigious universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and eventually decided to put his math skills to use as a securities trader.

After earning his degree, Schell went to work for Marty Schwartz, famous for a math-based trading system that consistently produced positive returns even in tepid markets.

Schell developed a computer algorithm that maximized profits by analyzing market trends – processing enormous amounts of data by the second – and alerting traders when to buy or sell. A few years later, Schell and his brother were both accepted into the Harvard Business School. During his time there, he and a fellow student developed software that completely automated the process of buying and selling securities. “We were making money with very little effort on our part,” Schell recalled. “I kind of reached the point that I thought my whole life was about [money]. I had assumed there would be some type of fulfillment, a ‘Eureka!’ moment that made it all worth it. What I discovered the hard way is that it wasn’t happening.

“I wasn’t feeling any more fulfilled than I had been before. I started to think maybe I had a chemical imbalance. I went to the doctor and got a bunch of tests. I thought I was one of those people who needed to be on depression medicine or whatever. Then I started having anxiety attacks.”

After a particularly bad anxiety attack, Schell decided he was done with trading. He had a wife and a young child at the time, and the thought of starting over in a new profession was slightly terrifying, but he knew there had to be more to life than making money.

Schell began filling his free time with books. He read one by Dale Carnegie and completed a Tony Robbins self-help program. He also started a “happiness journal,” chronicling day-to-day activities that made him either happy or unhappy.

Eventually, he figured out that what gave him the longest-lasting sense of fulfillment was making others happy. He decided to start a new company devoted to maximizing happiness.

Schell knew nothing about building houses, but was intrigued by the concept, when he and his brother teamed up to launch their aptly named new venture in the resort area of Sussex County, Delaware, in 2003.

Schell, who admitted he had no expectations of making money as a homebuilder, described his lack of experience as “both a blessing and a curse.”

While he had to learn the ins and outs of a demanding new industry the hard way, he also got into the business with no preconceived notions of how things were supposed to work. For instance, Schell wrote software to automate the processing of customer selections, allowing Schell Brothers to offer a wider array of structural options than a typical production homebuilder.

“We don’t do a typical job interview,” Schell said. “When I interview somebody, I just sit down and hang out with them for an hour or two, talk about whatever – which throws some people for a loop. They’re like, ‘You didn’t ask me all the tough questions.’

“One of the things I’ve learned is, most people have a tendency to be naturally happy or naturally unhappy. We’re trying to get a read on that because it’s much easier to hire naturally happy people than to try and train them to be happy.”

It’s a concept that has also been profitable. Schell said the company has made money every year – even in the middle of the nationwide recession that started in 2007-08.

Now Schell Brothers is expanding for the first time into a new market. It has hired 11 employees for its Richmond office and is building in three upscale Chesterfield communities: The Sanctuary, Magnolia Green and The Highlands.

Danna Markland, outgoing president of the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce, noted that the culture of companies such as Schell Brothers creates “buy-in that enables employees to be successful.

“I think more and more businesses are recognizing that,” Markland added.

During his keynote address at the local chamber’s May luncheon, Schell insisted he and his brother don’t view happiness as a business strategy, per se.

“You can’t say, ‘Look what Schell Brothers did. I want to make more money. We’re all about happiness now,’” he said. “It doesn’t really work that way. You have to really believe in it and you have to have a culture that fosters it. You can’t just turn it on like a light switch.

“Our employees work hard because they want to, not because they’re trying to get promoted or trying not to get fired,” Schell added. “I really think that’s why it works.” 

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly listed one of the communities, The Sanctuary, where Schell Brothers is currently building new homes. 

Return to top