An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Chris Schell ’96 built a dream business and, as a result, a dream life for others—not in some sort of nonprofit or service job but in construction. 

Schell Brothers, a high-end, semi-custom builder based in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, employs 276 people on a mission: happiness first. The $455 million company was recently honored as Pro Builder’s 2023 Builder of the Year, one of the industry’s top honors.

It’s a long way from Schell’s beginnings working for legendary Wall Street trader Marty Schwartz. Schell, then an ambitious MIT senior studying mechanical engineering, cold-called Swartz with a proposition: He’d write a computer program to automate Marty’s trading methodology and implement it if he hired him. That program later generated significant profits for both Marty and Schell. But as his finance career flourished, Schell grew dissatisfied.

“I wasn’t experiencing the fulfillment and happiness that I thought wealth would bring me,” he admits. “I started to have anxiety attacks. After a particularly bad one, I decided to make a massive change. I was going to move to Lewes, Delaware, where I spent summers as a kid, sell my trading business, and focus on maximizing my happiness as opposed to trying to maximize my wealth.”

I wanted my next endeavor to involve a product that people actually cared about and that could actually affect their happiness.

In 2003, Schell headed to the beach to refocus his energies. After spending several months soul searching and studying happiness, Schell decided to start a homebuilding business as somewhat of an experiment. He wanted to see what would happen if he made generating happiness for himself and others the ultimate purpose of the business. Schell figured if people pursue wealth as a means toward happiness, why not just make happiness the primary and only goal? “Back then, I didn’t know anything about homebuilding, but in some ways that was an advantage because I had no preconceived notions about what could be done and how it should be done,” says Schell. 

“I wanted my next endeavor to involve a product that people actually cared about and that could actually affect their happiness,” he says. “But I didn’t expect to make money. I just wanted to find happiness, and I assumed I’d subsidize the losses with my trading profits. A remarkable thing happened. A sincere commitment to putting happiness first had pretty amazing, unexpected results. The company is ‘successful’ by all definitions of the word.”

The company is known for excellent perks, and “perk” is the key word. There’s Schellville, a holiday theme park complete with roller skating, live music, a kids’ size Christmas Village with 24 homes and buildings, and sledding hills. Schell has an unlimited vacation policy, and employees can buy homes at direct cost, in addition to getting 50 percent of their childcare and childrens’ college tuition paid for. There are also group employee vacations and trips to music festivals, all paid for by Schell. Schell donates millions of dollars per year to the community and local charities, including support for the local hospital, building an indoor aquatic facility for a local high school, donating money for land preservation, and numerous “random acts of philanthropy” when local families or organizations need help.   

The company has steadily grown, with offices now in Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and, most recently, Boise, Idaho. It now offers more than 50 customizable, energy-efficient floor plans, from cozy two bedrooms to eight-bedroom showplaces with home movie theaters and multilevel courtyards. Each design is highly customizable, and Schell prides himself on doing whatever the customer desires—no matter what—thanks to his financial flexibility.

“Even if a customer has signed off on every finish, if they say they don’t like something, we’ll just replace it without thinking about it,” he says. “It might be an irresponsible way to spend money if we were a public company with shareholders. But because we sincerely put happiness first, we think it’s money well spent.”

Schell, the company’s CEO, realizes he’s lucky to have such leeway, but he’s also careful to impart the lessons of hard work to his three growing kids.

“I have a rule: They cannot work for the family business for five years after graduating college. I want them to see what the real world is like and to experience the challenges of making it on your own,” he says.

Chris Schell having a cooler of confetti dumped over his head by two people and a crowd behind him

Chris Schell is covered in confetti at a homeowner appreciation party.


Chakravarthy Chinnam

Tue, 03/19/2024 9:58pm

Dear Chris,

Your journey is a beacon of inspiration—a testament to the transformative power of purpose and the pursuit of happiness. Your legacy reminds us that true success lies not just in wealth, but in the smiles we create and the dreams we build. 🌟🏡🌟

Wish you all the best.