Origin Stories: Shane Connell On Evolving A Fourth-Generation Business
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Shane Connell came up in the family business, a New Jersey-based company knocking on 100 years in operation across a variety of industries, from its roots in rice trading to mining equipment to real estate development and acquisition. Evolution has always been in The Connell Co.'s DNA, and as part of the fourth generation of Connells running the company — he is executive vice president and co-head of Connell Real Estate & Development Co. with his brother, Duane — Connell is shaping the next iteration of its real estate strategy.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Connell: The Connell Co. was founded in 1926 and I’m a part of the fourth generation to oversee its operations. In the 1980s, the company entered the real estate business with the development of its first building — a 428K SF speculative office building situated on 44 acres in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. Through 11 total acquisitions of adjacent properties, the company has been able to accumulate 185 acres of contiguous land that is now called The Park. When I joined the family business, The Park was called Connell Corporate Park and was a traditional suburban office park with four office buildings totaling 1.2M SF. My generation is now stewarding the reimagining of The Park into a collegiate-style mixed-use campus that offers a work/life balanced workspace solution with hospitality-driven services available to the campus’ mixture of office, hotel, retail, residential, restaurants, entertainment concepts and indoor and outdoor amenity spaces.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Connell: My first job in CRE was working on the operations side of the company’s real estate portfolio. When I joined the team, the company exclusively used third-party contractors to maintain, run and service the office park. I’ve always been interested in the service side of real estate and believe that a keen focus on service, operations and maintenance are all keys to successfully owning and operating buildings for long-term ownership and providing better customer service. CRE assets can maximize their value if you have the right in-house team that represents the company’s philosophy and values, emulates its focus on customer satisfaction and remains vested in keeping the property safe, clean and up-to-date. Working in and understanding the operations side of CRE is critical to developing efficient and desirable properties, and that experience was invaluable to my growth in the industry.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Connell: I have no formal education in CRE. I earned an MBA and my educational background is focused in business and finance. A finance background is helpful for analyzing if you can economically buy, run or own real estate, but it's only one important element of many needed to be successful in CRE. Separately, I have a passion for art and paint in my spare time, and find the elements needed to create interesting art are helpful when creating the design direction and aesthetic of real estate properties. Appreciating the emotions that a great piece of art might express can also be helpful when creating great and interesting spaces, informing the perception of how the spaces might be seen, used and shared by people.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Connell: For me, it would have been helpful to better understand construction methods and costs. It’s easy to look at something, appreciate its beauty and want to create something that will be relevant and attractive for generations. But, designing a project so that it can be built on schedule and on budget are areas where I need to rely on our in-house and third-party professionals to manage. Fortunately, we have assembled a great team that helps us avoid over-designing beyond a reasonable budget.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?
Connell: I was working at Connell Finance Co., The Connell Co.’s finance arm. Connell Finance invests in large-ticket leveraged lease financing of real estate, locomotives, barges and rail cars. It was a great business and career, but it wasn’t until I switched to our real estate business that I became passionate in what I was doing.
Bisnow: Did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here?
Connell: Yes, working in finance was a great background for CRE. It is helpful for analyzing new acquisition and development opportunities, as well as cost-effectively budgeting CRE operations.
Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?
Connell: Yes, earlier in my career we had difficulty in assembling the right team to help us design and manage our projects. We quickly learned that not having the right team to help guide the development process can cause issues that impact cost, construction and schedule. As a result of our experiences, we’ve corrected the types of professional teams we use and how we structure our owner oversight teams and roles. As painful as some of these earlier experiences were, it was a valuable education and the lessons learned have made us a much better developer. We now have the tools and formula to successfully deal with all our development projects.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Connell: My early exposure to CRE was growing up near NYC and visiting all the great places and projects that were being built across the five boroughs. I always appreciated the interaction between public and private uses and how these mixed-use spaces helped create interesting and definable neighborhoods that were shared and enjoyed by the entire city. It left a lasting impression on me, and I’m now trying to reframe the same urban uses, energy and interests in the New Jersey suburbs. Our repositioning strategy for The Park’s transformation into an urban-influenced mixed-use campus requires us to efficiently and effectively design spaces and experiences that are tailored to suburban communities’ needs. The same urban lifestyle features and conveniences are now desired in the suburbs, and re-creating these elevated urban-type buildings, amenities, restaurants, and parks and trails are necessary for suburban uses to be viable and relevant.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Connell: Joining a family business lends itself to having the patriarch of the family be your mentor. Growing up around my grandfather, Grover Cleveland Connell, and wanting to follow his example of success and integrity is very important to me — and I always strive to grow and manage the company in his image. His basic philosophy for CRE is still the philosophy we follow today: “Do not overleverage your real estate assets, pick the right location and build the best quality building.”
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Connell: Your professional team’s opinions are oftentimes more important than your own. They are experts in their field and their opinion is being raised because it adds value to what you are doing. Early in my career, I did more talking than listening, and I have tried very hard to adjust to more listening than talking.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Connell: To have patience and flexibility. Commercial real estate markets can be volatile and cyclical. The cycle should determine when you buy, sell or build. To have a long career in CRE and to ride out cycles, you must have low leverage, staying power and patience.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Connell: I would have started implementing the changes to The Park earlier. Ever since The Connell Co. began developing The Park in the early 1980s, we’ve maintained 90%-95% occupancy. When you have a property with 1.5M SF that has consistently outperformed the market, you can become complacent. However, cultural and technological changes, as well as macro and micro trends in office usage, all continuously impact office space designs and user needs. The days of going to an office and sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day are over.
At The Park, we’re in the process of implementing a newly imagined workplace solution to the traditional multi-tenanted office complex, taking cues from universities and West Coast-based tech firms and their respective corporate campuses. We’re confident The Park will differentiate itself in the market and transform how people work and live, but it would have been better to have started this transformation earlier and been further along. Though the pandemic is further altering the way people work, the heightened focus on the outdoors, health and wellness, and advanced technologies serves as an affirmation that our planned changes help position us to successfully meet evolving demands.