American Success Story

September 12, 2017

From janitor to real estate mogul to TV show host, Sean Conlon (SNL ’16) details his journey to success

There is a compilation post on Instagram containing pictures of Sean Conlon (SNL ’16). Headshot_USEOne photo is of him in Ireland, a week before he immigrated to the United States in 1990, staring at the camera with a look of confidence and determination. Another shows him outside of a Chicago apartment building wearing paint-splattered pants and a Bears shirt, standing on top of a dumpster pushing down trash. The last picture is a publicity shot taken at the 2017 Winter Television Critics Awards, where he spoke to a crowd of hundreds about CNBC’s hit show “The Deed: Chicago,” which he hosts.

Raised in the small village of Rathangan in County Kildare, Ireland, Conlon grew up reading as much as he could. “The local library eventually had a chat with my mother. They said, ‘He’s reading too many books and he’s writing to the National Library asking for more books,’” Conlon laughs. “Most of my inspiration came from books.”

In his late teens, Conlon studied at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but financial necessities forced him out after a year. He moved to London and worked for Lehman Brothers, which was one of the largest global banks at the time. “That all sounds very easy, but I probably applied to 50 places before I got a job at Lehman, and it was a very low-level, back-office job,” Conlon remembers. When he was 20 years old, he decided to immigrate to the United States.

“In a lot of the world, we truly believe America is a frame of mind, not a place, and you can achieve extraordinary things even if you’re ordinary,” he says. After Conlon arrived in Chicago, he worked as a janitor in an Andersonville apartment building. And while he says he was exhilarated by so much possibility, he struggled. “I was incredibly lonely. I was thousands of miles away from my family and everything that I ever knew, and I was doing a job that I didn’t like,” he says. “The only thing that kept me going was my drive, that someday I could be something and change my parents’ lives and do things for them that they never got to do.”

That drive pushed Conlon to enroll in evening classes to acquire his real estate license. For a while, he worked all day as a janitor and sold real estate at night, working an estimated 100 hours a week. “I sold homes because I wasn’t initially qualified to do anything else, and I thought, ‘Well, if I work harder than anyone else, there’s no limit on what I can be as a real estate broker.’ And it was true.”

In 1993, Conlon joined a prominent real estate firm in Chicago, and in a remarkably short amount of time, he became one of the top real estate brokers in North America. In the early 2000s, he opened his highly successful company, Conlon & Co., a real estate merchant bank. “There’s no question that the company is a product of my philosophy, which is there’s no magic, it’s just really hard work,” Conlon says. “You have to be able to get knocked down and get back up.”

After one of his mentors, Chicago Alderman Ed Burke (LAS ’65, JD ’68), encouraged him to enroll at DePaul to get his bachelor’s degree, Conlon began taking classes at SNL in the early 2010s. He admits that it took a while to get used to learning again and to grasp academic writing. But with the guidance of Susanne Dumbleton, professor emeritus and former dean of SNL, and Don Opitz (CSH ’91), associate dean and associate professor, he thrived. “The learning that I was doing there was applicable to the real world,” he says. “What I liked in the end was that so many things were practical applications.” Conlon is very proud of earning his degree in 2016 and credits his sister, Fiona Conlon, for helping him through the program. “She pushed and drove me. Fiona kept me totally focused on DePaul. I wouldn’t have finished the program without her.”

Almost immediately after graduating from DePaul, Conlon started filming CNBC’s television show “The Deed: Chicago.” As the host of the Chicago episodes, Conlon helps people who get into distressing real estate deals by lending them his own money and helping them fix the deal. “It’s not like those complete makeover shows. There’s a dark, tough side to it,” he explains. “These are real people who get into a real problem and I go and help them. I’m more about the people than the real estate. You can apply all the logic to location, but when you’re doing a property rehab or flip, it’s the people.” “The Deed: Chicago” premiered in March.

Despite his tremendous accomplishments and success, and all by age 47, Conlon says he has not yet achieved his ultimate dream: to run his wildlife foundation with Fiona, and aid animal welfare throughout the world. “I’m going to go save dogs,” he says. “Someday, when I get through all of this stuff and get to my next level, that’s what I’ll do. That’s the plan.”