The Coastal Sussex Interview: The Schell Brothers

by Dave on May 15, 2009

As seen in Coastal Sussex Weekly, April 23, 2009:

COASTAL SUSSEX WEEKLY: I was watching “Lost” the other night on TV, and in “Lost,” the Island is a magical sort of character. Many feel that our area, the beach area, is a magical character in their stories. Is it a magical character in yours?

CHRIS SCHELL: Yeah. Pres and I actually have this theory that this area sort of takes care of us.

PRESTON SCHELL: Yeah, we actually agree with what you said. Delaware is almost a maternal or paternal figure to our family and Chris and I. Even in this tough real estate market. I’ve put my faith somewhat in Delaware. Look, in the end, since our ancestry is so deep here, and because we feel like over time there’s been a connection between this area and our family, we feel like this area takes care of our family and our family takes care of this area. So there’s a relationship there and a connection there, yeah.

CSW: What was it like growing up spending summers in Lewes on the beach?

CS: It was unbelievable. The reason we’re here is because of the memories from when we were kids. We’d wake up and throw a pair of shorts on and run out, play with our cousins all day. It didn’t matter where you were, you’d eat lunch at whoever’s house was closest. We’d come back for dinner, maybe, and then run out at night and play flashlight tag.

PS: My recollection of childhood in Lewes, I mean, can you imagine living on the beach with 8 or 9 houses all owned by your cousins where you hang out all summer long with 40 of your cousins? Who else gets to do that?

I used to think, when we were 6 or 7 years old and we were up in New Jersey getting ready to head down to Lewes, we’d ask our friends, “Where do you go with your cousins every summer?” We just thought everyone went somewhere with their cousins every summer. And when we found out that they didn’t, that they stayed home and went to the country club like every day and hung out with their school friends, the thought to Chris and I was like, “Good God! That’s horrible!”

CS: I used to get such spring fever in school that I’d start drawing pictures of Lewes, anything I could remember. I’d draw pictures of our house, pictures of skimboarding, pictures of the beach and the sandbar.

CSW: Did you ever worry that you might forget something over the winter, forget what something was like?

PS: Yeah. The funniest thing is that the first time you put sunblock on your nose in the spring it would totally take you back to the feeling of being at the beach. We never really did a good job of keeping in touch with our cousins in the winter, but the second we saw everyone else again in the summertime, it was like we never left.

CSW: What’s it like now, with your kids in the same position you were in on Lewes Beach?

PS: I feel like it’s only different, because we don’t have all of those houses right there by the beach, right by each other. Plus, the idea nowadays of letting your kids roam around on their own all day long with no supervision and hope they come back at 7:30, that just doesn’t happen anymore.

CS: The kids definitely love it. The one thing that’s different is because we live here now and have a life here, before it was purely recreational, for not just us but our parents, too. It was natural to say, “We’ve got to get the family together and have these cookouts and do all these things together.” Now, a lot of us live here so we have lives here and because you actually live here, we don’t get together as much as we should.

CSW: Talk about the interim period between those fond memories as kids and where you are today. What kind of impact did being a Rehoboth Beach lifeguard have on you?

PS: For me, it was like a fraternity. It was people that you got to know really, really well. In general, I was amazed at how high a quality of people they all were. Everybody thinks lifeguards are a bunch of screw-ups, and maybe with some beach patrols that may be true, but with Rehoboth Beach Patrol when Chris and I were lifeguards, that wasn’t true at all. I mean, these were top-notch, high-quality, smart people, great athletes, and you get to know them well. People say, “You know, guys, you shouldn’t be hiring your friends,” but imagine a summer-long job interview. You know someone so well at the end that you know who the good hires would be and those who we liked but wouldn’t necessarily work with. The whole thing totally helped Chris and I a lot.

CS: It had a huge impact on our lives. Being a kid, nothing’s better than Lewes.  But when you get to be a teenager, running around on the sandbar everyday loses something. But lifeguarding in Rehoboth, sitting on that chair in the sun all day long with people you like in the middle of all the action, there was nothing better than that. I remember driving, one of my first days one season driving over the canal bridge, and literally just screaming at the top of my lungs, just yelping out because I was so psyched. The start of the summer, with all of that to look forward to.

I only lifeguarded two summers because I was so focused on the ‘building my resume’ thing.  So I did an internship one summer at the University of Delaware Marine Biology Center. I stayed up in Boston one summer, which was a horrible decision. Now that I look back upon it, I wish that I hadn’t done that. I competed for Rehoboth for about 10 years so I was always involved on the sprint team, but I was only a lifeguard for two summers, so if I have any regret, it’s not being a lifeguard every summer because I thought that building my resume at the time was what I should do.

PS: If you look at some of the more successful people in the area, you’d be surprised at how many of them are former Rehoboth Beach lifeguards. It keeps you here.

CS: The memories really do keep you here. Our memories as kids and our memories on Rehoboth Beach Patrol are so strong and they’re such good memories that we don’t want to leave. And also we have a lot of friends because of it. This is definitely where we belong.

My wife and I moved to Severna Park after business school and we thought that was going to be a good idea, you know, the schools are better and all that stuff, and we thought we’d be able to meet friends. Literally, after two weeks, we realized how horrible a decision it was.

Here we are, in the middle of suburbia, we don’t know anybody, we really have no way of meeting people. The biggest thing we have to look forward to is the next thing we do to we house when we go to Home Depot on Saturday. So there’s no place I could live and be as happy as I am here.

CSW: And you guys grew up and have lived in a variety of locales. Right?

PS: I’ve lived in New York City, Chicago, Chris & I lived in South Florida, Deerfield Beach, but it was always about figuring out a way to get back here. Now, initially, it was being lucky enough to be able to retire here, maybe retire early. Then, I began to think, as an investment banker in Chicago, that just doesn’t make sense. If you love that place and you know it makes you happy, move there now and figure out something you can do there. I basically chose my job (as an investment banker), but the lifestyle and the location were chosen for me. They said I was going to Chicago and you’re going to work 80 to 90 hours a week.
So I said I’m going to switch this up, I’m going to choose the location I want to live and choose the lifestyle I want to have, and then I’ll choose the profession and the job that affords me those first two things.

I want to live in southern Delaware at the beach, and the first sunny Tuesday in April, I want to go for a run on the beach. At noon. And I don’t want anyone to tell me I can’t. Plus, I get to spend a lot of time with my kids and we found a profession that we love.

CS: For me, I had set out to accomplish something in my finance career, which was to completely automate this short-term trading fund, which was a challenge. I worked on it for four or five years, got it automated, was making good money, and then I realized I had done it. And I realized I was just going to sit here for the rest of my life, manage a hedge fund, be wealthy, but not have any interactions with people, not feel like I’m creating value and just be emotionally unfulfilled. So I had a coming to Jesus moment where I basically said either I do this for the rest of my life or  I make a change and make it now.

When I was living in Severna Park, they were building a house behind me, and I found myself really intrigued by it. So when I had this moment about wanting to change careers, I said that’s what I should do. I should build houses. And I remember my mom being really freaked out by it and saying “Why did you go to MIT and Harvard if you’re just going to hammer nails?” But it was a great decision, and even in this market, I’ve been extremely happy with my decisions.

CSW: So you were living in Severna Park and looking at this house and saying, “I want to do that, and I can do that at the beach?”

CS: Actually, I’m not even sure when I moved here that I was sure I’d really made that connection yet.

PS: Didn’t it also come about because I was going to start a construction company?

CS: Sort of. But when you were going to start a construction company, I was already thinking about it. So those thoughts evolved separately.

PS: What ended up happening was our development company got too big for the local contractors. When we were the sales group and the developer, so we’re the ones who made the commitment to the homebuyers. So, if we said they’d be able to move into their home July 1st, we had little control over that construction, and no control over the quality of the customer service.

So we started a contractor so we could deliver on our commitments to our buyers. We didn’t even care if there was any money in it. So the first project Chris worked on was the Tides.

CS: I was originally supposed to be second-in-command to a guy we hired from Toll Brothers. And at the time, Preston didn’t have a lot of faith that the whole thing was going to work. We were originally given a shot at one building at the Tides.

It became apparent that this other guy couldn’t do it, not that I could. So I had to step in and make things happen. We got to the end of that project and we had some issues and we weren’t going to deliver on time and we had meetings every morning with our whole company. I still have the notes from the first meeting where I said “Guys, if we don’t get this done, this company’s over. This is our reputation.” We got it done and there was a standing ovation at the homeowner’s turnover meeting. How often does something like that happen?

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