Coastal Sussex is both a happier and prettier place because of twins Chris and Preston Schell.
They’re the forces behind the Schell Brothers construction company and the Ocean Atlantic Companies, plus Clean Energy USA (Delaware’s largest solar firm), Creative Courtyards, Echelon Custom Homes, Echelon Interiors and Home Innovations.
The 43-year-olds (Preston is 3 minutes older) grew up in North Jersey and moved to California when they were 10, but they always summered in Lewes with their extended family. “It was my special happy place,” Chris says. It’s also where he ended up after he felt panicked and anxious.
From his hedge fund and a startup with a Harvard Business School classmate that automated futures trading, he made money, but it didn’t buy happiness. “Once I became financially successful, I thought I would be happy. But that experience did not happen. That caused me to panic more.” So he gave his part of the firm to his partner and decamped to the beach, where he read a lot and searched his soul.
The solution was the 2002 creation of Schell Brothers. “We put happiness first, above profit. It’s one big massive experiment in happiness,” Chris says. At every monthly meeting the 185 Schellies tell “happy stories” of spreading the joy. “One of the longest-lasting and most fulfilling types of happiness is helping other people and making them happy—the customers, the community, ourselves.”
He insists that part involves physical interaction, exemplifying with building a Georgetown playground for special-needs children. It also involves a lot of money: 15 percent of company profit.
“I am genuinely happy,” he says, referring both to his work and personal life, including “a loving wife and three great kids that bring me security as well.” He notes companies have tried but failed to copy the philosophy. “It’s not a means to a profit,” he says. “You have to believe it, not fake it.”
Preston is equally committed, but emphasizing other elements that improve quality of life, such as open space, well-made homes and good infrastructure.
He put his wallet where his heart is when he co-founded the Sussex Land Trust in 2001 with Craig Hudson. He dedicated 0.5 percent of his sales—more than $1 million over the years—to preserve land and other resources. The downturn a decade ago and projects where he had a minority stake led him to drop the commitment, but he promises to bring it back.
He volunteered with the Nature Conservancy’s Delaware chapter for a decade and just ended a stint as chair. He proudly notes how much open land he leaves in his projects—sometimes “north of 30 percent.” He wishes others would follow on such landscaping and on the quality of construction as well. “We spend money on details [because] we know we’ll meet our customers at the grocery store.
He also has wishes for officials about crowded roads (“We have an inadequate tax base that cannot cope with growth. I’ve long been a proponent of impact fees, but they’re not enough. The collective whole needs to pay for it, not just new development.”) and for newcomers on realizing they’re now part of a new community (“We sell 80 percent of our homes to out-of-towners, and they immediately don’t want anyone else. Every time we sell to another outsider, we create another person in opposition.”).
Preston and his family lived like newcomers themselves over the last school year by moving into their ski home in Park City, Utah. “It was a good way for the kids to learn,” he says.