Chris Schell and his talented Schell Brothers building team partner with Ty Pennington and ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to give a very worthy Lewes family a new home
Chris Schell of Schell Brothers is not just an anomaly; he is essentially a paradox. Groomed early on for a career in finance, the brilliant graduate of MIT and Harvard launched his own trading company in 1997, following a stint with a wildly successful but equally notorious Wall Street icon. Not content to merely stockpile money like sand before an ice storm, Schell actually created a revolutionary software program with his Austrian-physicist business partner that enabled trading on the world markets without human intervention. The problem was that Schell felt something like an empty shell himself. Sure, his career was thriving — while still barely more than a boy — but he came to realize that he needed to succeed at something he was really passionate about, and Wall Street just wasn’t it.
“I started to feel more and more unfulfilled in my work after the software program was complete,” Chris said. “I realized that the challenge of writing the software was what got me excited, and once it was written, something was missing. We were making great money, but it had very little effect on my happiness. If we made a lot of money one day, my happiness level might be elevated for five or 10 minutes, and then it would drop right back to where it was before. I had decided the purpose of my life was happiness, so I had refocused my obsessive-compulsive drive toward this goal and was constantly analyzing how my happiness was affected by certain events and conditions. My experience making money trading yet still feeling unhappy made me realize how true the cliché is that money doesn’t bring happiness.”
So Schell literally gave his company to his partner for free and moved himself and his young family to the beaches of Delaware and founded Schell Brothers in 2003 on the premise that he now intended to pursue happiness as opposed to wealth.
“I was extremely interested in home building,” Chris shared. “I decided, what better product to bring someone happiness than with their home? So, Schell Brothers was formed.
“I finally found true success in my life with Schell Brothers, because I’ve never been happier,” he continued. “I have a great wife and kids; I live in the place I love; I work with a great group of people; and I run Schell Brothers more as a fraternity than a company. We don’t always make profit-maximizing decisions, but that is what makes our company unique. We’re truly focused on our own happiness and the happiness of our customers. I’ve never felt compelled to ‘cheapen up’ our homes in an effort to reduce costs and make higher profits, as this decision would run counter to our mission to bring happiness to our homeowners. Ironically, it’s that lack of focus on profitability that has enabled us to remain profitable during the downturn.”
Chris has put his money where his mouth was in other ways, too. Since it’s founding, he has deployed Schell Brothers’ substantial resources to projects such as the Lewes Canalfront Park program, the Consortium School in Lewes and the playground at Lewes’ Shields elementary, all of which his company did pro bono.
Then came the Dunnings.
Schell had known Ken Dunning for years and had always considered him a wonderful guy, both honest and hardworking. So hardworking, in fact, that Ken was known to juggle as many as three jobs at a time yet still get up at 3 a.m. to help his wife prepare for her day in the local soup kitchen she runs.
Ken Dunning needed a break, and Chris knew it. So, in 2010, Chris set aside a parcel of land on which Ken and his family could live for free, adding the promise that one day, there would be a brand-new house to accompany that land.
“We had the idea to market ourselves and the project to ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Chris said, “because we figured with ABC onboard, this could be done much
Following months of campaigning and petitioning for the project, Chris finally got the green light in late-July — deviating from the show’s standard operating procedure in that the show usually picks the homeowners independent of the builder. This time, however, they came as a package. The only problem was that the build was scheduled for the following month, and Chris didn’t even have plans on the drawing board.
“With an EMHE project,” Chris explained, “the builder is totally responsible for not only the plans but also sourcing all the jobs, all the materials beyond what ABC supplies and all the skilled labor. Suffice it to say, we had a lot of work to do.”
Indeed they did. Having to contend with a three-day suspension of operations thanks to Hurricane Irene, getting the job done required over 1,100 eight-hour shifts of manpower working around the clock.
The amazing result was a 3,200 sq. ft. traditional craftsman-style farmhouse in red with white trim that includes a separate 1,000 sq. ft. microhouse and a 2,800 sq. ft. soup kitchen, totaling 7,000 sq. ft. There is an additional 1,000 sq, ft. open-air pavilion and a discrete pole building for Ken’s work equipment.
But there’s more.
Some skeptics of the extreme-home-makeover concept claim that the elaborate, sometimes grandiose, nature of the finished product imposes an unsustainable financial burden on the homeowners, creating essentially a beautiful money pit that will ultimately capsize the family it was originally intended to help. So, in a move that show executives claim to be unprecedented in EHME’s history, Chris set up a $300,000 endowment that funds the operating costs of the Dunnings’ “Jusst Sooup” Ranch indefinitely and applies a voluntary deed restriction that guarantees the home will not be sold or used as collateral for at least 20 years, a condition that the Dunnings signed-off on without the slightest hesitation.
“Now that we have a place that’s free of a mortgage, free of a lot of other bills,” said Ken Dunning, “after 35 years on the job, I’m able to retire and help my wife full-time in the soup kitchen. Since this has happened, we’ve been getting a lot of calls from people that want to volunteer, so we’ll be looking forward, as soon as we open up, to take on new volunteers and help a whole lot more people.”
Predictably, the Dunnings have trouble finding words to express their gratitude to Schell Brothers for their role in giving them a new lease on life, though Ken’s wife, Dale, did offer an observation that compared Chris to a New York real estate tycoon who helped a New Jersey soup kitchen in a similar fashion.
“During what’s known as the ‘builder speech,’” Chris shared, “Dale said in front of Ty [Pennington] and the volunteers that she always hoped she’d ‘find her Donald Trump one day — and then Schell Brothers came along!’ at which point I pulled off my hardhat and replied, ‘Yeah, but I have better hair!’”
SCHELL BROTHERS, 302-226-1994
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