[caption id="attachment_227789" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Chris, left, and Preston Schell forged their own paths in Sussex County as homebuilders and developers, as well as significant fundraisers. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCHELL BROTHERS[/caption]
There’s the Schell brothers, and there’s the Schell Brothers — the home building company that has iconic billboards lining Route 1, offering testimonies of stress-free and effortless living near Delaware’s beaches.The Schell brothers, Chris and Preston, believe there’s some truth in that advertising, even though the identical twins aren’t involved in the titular company together. Preston Schell is the president of Ocean Atlantic, a land development company that has recently started to zero in on rental apartment projects and senior living facilities, while Chris is the CEO of the Schell Brothers and its related subsidiaries.At 48 years old, their names are among the most prominent in the state in the homebuilding industry and for their charitable giving throughout Sussex County, ranging from sponsoring student art contests to donating about $400,000 to build rapid homeless shelters with the Springboard Collaborative in Georgetown.Since its creation in 2003, Schell Brothers has built between 400 and 500 homes a year in Delaware’s southern county, helping to drive a huge migration of residents to the region. Ocean Atlantic has been involved in 65 to 85 projects since its inception in 1997.But in some sense, the brothers both have the same vision: recreating the feeling they had when they spent summers down at the beach.“Even though we’re from New Jersey and we moved to California, we told everyone we were from Delaware growing up,” Preston Schell said. “We were the Delaware twins. We don’t have any heartfelt affiliation for anywhere other than here.”The historyThe Schell brothers can trace their Delaware roots from their father, Joseph Schell, who worked as an investment banker. The family came from North Jersey — and later from the suburbs of San Francisco — to spend at least four weeks with extended family in Lewes every year. Growing up, the twins worked as lifeguards in the Rehoboth Beach Patrol and had part-time jobs doing landscaping for residents.Both treasure memories of those summers, to the point where it became a guiding light when they were both figuring out their futures. Preston followed his fathers’ footsteps and worked as a banker with Merrill Lynch in Chicago. Meanwhile, Chris worked with legendary trader Marty Schwartz in Florida, developing computer algorithms that maximized profits by analyzing market trends. Both went on to earn MBAs from Harvard Business School.While making significant amounts of money, they both found it emotionally hollow.“It wasn’t bringing me any happiness,” Chris Schell recalled. “So I moved back to the beach, and ended up doing a lot of soul searching, almost becoming a student in happiness. The stories are both kind of similar.”The Schell brothers’ quest for happiness had two different epiphanies. Preston's version of happiness was more independence and being in a place he loved. “It’s being able to go for a jog on the beach at 2 p.m. on the first warm day of the year, with no one to stop me,” he said. “Now it’s never missing my kids' athletic events for work.”As for Chris, he realized his happiness was doing something he enjoyed with the people he enjoyed, and making people happy. “I discovered the longest lasting happiness is helping create a home. If you do it right, that’s a good way to improve people’s lives,” he added.Those philosophies have trickled down to how the brothers run their respective companies. Chris has built a culture of happiness, filled with team-building events like cornhole and no tolerance for office politics. That goes for the customer's experience – he believes where companies often go wrong is putting profit over people.Preston, on the other hand, wants to be able to drive in his car and visit his projects, keeping them in Sussex County. He loves designing sites himself, only to pass the final version to designers to run through computer-aided design programs. His most fun is found there, compared to when the project is being built.Building blocksWhile mulling options, Preston settled on real estate since he thought it would be a career that would give him that flexibility he desired. But whether it’s in development or home building, changing career paths wasn’t without work.While Chris was renting an office in Sussex County, the landlord and prolific developer Ronald “Gene” Lankford paid visits and was agog of his multiple computer screens set up to track the market.“He thought Chris was so smart, and Chris told him, ‘There’s two of me, and he’s in real estate,’” Preston said. “Then Gene started leaving Chris envelopes with sticky notes that said, ‘Show Preston.’”With Lankford’s acumen, he went on to be a partner in Ocean Atlantic, first as a brokerage firm until the economic downturn. Preston credits his mentorship with making the firm successful in the early years, and giving him the tools to succeed. The rest was learning as he went, from buying a CAD program at Staples to design first projects to looking up construction terms in private.“Every time I ran into a roadblock and got over my head, I would call Gene, and he’d help me out,” he added. “I knew how to underwrite an investment and to research the assumptions and get answers. But it was [Gene’s] confidence in me that led me to do this.”Meanwhile, Chris leveraged his technology background to focus his fledgling company in computers for design and modeling.“Not being in construction before was an advantage and a disadvantage,” Chris said. “I didn’t have these preconceived notions about what was possible and what wasn’t. In a sense, our business model evolved from not knowing what other builders do, figuring it out ourselves and letting computers do the heavy lifting.”Today, Schell Brothers has branched out into interior design with Decor Direct, outside living space design with Creative Courtyardsas well as solar panel installation with Clean Energy USA. The road aheadThe past two decades haven't always been easy. Ocean Atlantic’s greatest struggle was during the Great Recession, although Preston said that downturn started in 2006 for him and lasted eight years. And while Ocean Atlantic was in a financial crunch for a while, he navigated the rough waters by proactively working with the banks to find solutions.“It got to the point where I started to think I could lose everything. And it wasn’t easy getting through it,” Preston said. “But then I realized, at the end of the day, if I have my family, I’ll be OK. I won’t be begging in the streets. It got to the point where I just accepted that.”Schell Brothers made its way through the recession by continuing its work, refining its brand and skills in the down market. The homebuilder entered the recession as the No. 14 builder in the county. It ended as No. 2, and it has yet to have an unprofitable year, according to Chris.But unlike his twin, Chris believes his greatest challenge may be the current groundswell against booming development in Sussex. In particular, Schell Brothers’ 306-lot Coral Lakes project has been used as a symbol of overdevelopment.“It’s the first time that I feel my company, and to a lesser extent myself, have been publicly attacked,” Chris said. “It’s hard because you don’t want to be too defensive and feed into it. I do think one of the reasons is development boomed like crazy post-lockdown. No one expected it.”Sussex County has been growing exponentially, with the U.S. Census estimated it grew 4.3% between 2020 and 2021. In particular, retirees are driving the interest, as the Delaware Population Consortium predicts that the population 65 years and older will grow 43% in Sussex County between 2020 and 2040.Looking to the future, the Schell brothers believe the county will continue to grow in the next 20 years, but there will be significant infrastructure challenges that will need to be addressed as the years pass.“It’s funny, if you take an airplane over our county, it looks completely undeveloped,” Preston said. “I do think the growth from collective developers will eventually slow down.”“Infrastructure has to keep pace with growth,” Chris added. “It’s beyond my knowledge scope, but I’ve been told there’s different issues behind that here, one of them being that our roads are maintained by the state compared to counties.”“I don’t think we’ll ever be like Ocean City or Myrtle Beach, and I don’t want us to,” Chris continued. “Our building codes have specific limits on building size, and that’s a good thing.”“The short answer is we don’t know exactly what it will look like. But it will still be an attractive place to live,” Preston said.Whatever lies ahead, the brothers have no plans of expanding further in Delaware outside their existing Whitehall and Monarch subdivision projects in Middletown. Schell Brothers has since opened in Nashville and Richmond, Va., but other than that, Sussex County remains the place they want to stay.
[caption id="attachment_227784" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] The Schell brothers launched Schellville, a winter extravaganza to celebrate both brothers' love of the holiday season. Preparation have started as of early November. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SCHELL BROTHERS[/caption]
‘Family Business’One of the common misconceptions the brothers say they face is that their businesses are inseparable. Ocean Atlantic has 20 people, while Schell Brothers has about 260 employees, and both operate separately.There are times when Ocean Atlantic will sell finished lots to Schell Brothers, and when Preston lends Chris advice on permitting, and vice versa. There was a time they shared office space, but the distance now is by design.“The biggest fights we’ve ever been in has been about work, and it’s because we don’t have any sense of business decorum with each other,” Preston joked. “Some of these have been email dialogues with employees on the email. My God, can you imagine if we worked even closer together?”But one thing the brothers are adamant about doing together is charitable giving. The list of donations is long: Lewes Canalfront Park, STEM and STEAM programs at local schools, Georgetown Elementary Playground renovations, Boys & Girls Club of Delaware, Freeman Arts Pavilion, the Lewes Public Library, Beebe Medical Foundation, among others. Miscellaneous sponsorships to 16 other organizations - from the volunteer fire companies, Food Bank of Delaware, Lewes Historical Society and more - add up to roughly $30,000 per year. Preston himself started the Sussex County Land Trust to help preserve 6,000 acres of land in the county, including what’s now the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.“It’s always been a question of whether we could or couldn’t afford to be giving back as much,” Chris said. “I don’t think it was ever a point where we decided to start, it was just that we should.”To cap off the spirit of giving, the Schell brothers launched its own Christmas village, Schellville, last year. Free to the public, it’s a Christman children’s amusement park, and this year will feature live music, a sledding hill and little houses that look like they came from a Hallmark movie.Looking even further, their father Joseph Schell is also a leader in fundraising. He bought the land for the Sandhill Fields sports complex and later donated it, and he also led the charge to found and build Sussex Academy. Schell Brothers donated $500,000 and built a pool for the school. Both brothers are donating either funds or facilities for the growing Sandhill Fields.
In the last year, Schell Brothers and Ocean Atlantic have donated $4.5 million to various causes, including Schellville.
“My father is always the instigator,” Preston said. “But his side of the family has been in Sussex a really long time. I always feel like our ancestors are looking over my shoulder, making sure we don’t do something that they’re not proud of.”“Chris and I, we sincerely feel deep down we love southern Delaware, and we want to be a family that makes this place better,” he added.
Flash Sale! Subscribe to Delaware Business Times and save 50%.