By Al Barbarino
It was 1995 – another Sunday morning.
For a young Brian O’Neill Jr. that meant another cruise around the Philadelphia suburbs with his dad, making frequent stops at open houses and dilapidated properties that his father would later convert into office space.
“We would keep driving around the neighborhood and pretty much every open house sign he saw we would have to go in,” O’Neil, 25, recalled with a hefty chuckle. “I just remember going to all these old industrial, abandoned sites. I loved it. It was me hanging out with my dad.”
Though he may not have realized it at the time, those first memories of real estate were an informal inauguration – a foreshadowing – into the career he would pick up some two decades later as a project manager with his father’s real estate development company, O’Neill Properties Group. But not before a few twists and turns.
Despite his childhood fascination with the mazelike feel to some of his father’s works in progress, high school summer internships with O’Neill Properties and continued efforts by O’Neill Sr. to lure his son into the family business, real estate took a backseat when Brian graduated from Georgetown University in 2008.
“I developed an interest in working as an investigator for the federal government,” he said, adding that he sent out numerous applications for employment with federal law enforcement prior to graduation. “That of course was during the time of budget freezes and no hiring in the public sector. So I said, ‘all right,’ I’ll come work at the company and see what happens.”
The company had maintained the same focus his father established long ago – taking old, blighted, abandoned industrial properties, cleaning them up environmentally and redeveloping them. It was something Brian had experienced firsthand. So when he decided to give real estate a go in September 2008, his pops promptly assigned him to oversee an 8 million-square-foot redevelopment project in Sayreville, New Jersey, known as The Point, as senior project manager. It was no small order.
“At that point I had no idea what it was. I had never been to Sayreville,” O’Neill said. “Coming into it everything was overwhelming. I think whatever info I thought I knew coming into the business I quickly realized I knew nothing.”
The company had no environmental approvals on it at the time. There was radiological and groundwater contamination and soil cleanup was necessary. Through trial and error (perhaps genes played a role as well), Brian got up to speed quickly and O’Neill Properties closed on the property just days after the Lehman Brothers collapse in October 2008. The following two years were dedicated to site cleanup, he said.
“For a property that sat there for 20-some years doing nothing before we came along and bought it, we’ve really come a long way,” O’Neill said. “For someone my age to be able to do what I do is very exciting and it exposes me to things I would never have the opportunity to be exposed to in any other field. We touch every aspect in terms of other businesses – from engine, legal work, marketing and leasing, to environmental remediation.”
The Point is currently one of the largest mixed-use developments currently under construction in the United States. Ultimately, “It will center around a 3 million-square-foot fortress mall and entertainment district with luxury retail, waterfront and recreation destinations, 2,000 residential units, 650,000 square feet of office space, high-end hotels and luxury marinas,” according to a company statement. The focus going into 2012 will be on developing the site vertically, O’Neill said.
The hard work is paying off, as O’Neill was recently named one of Forbes “30 Under 30” in real estate – a list he felt “privileged to be a part of.” His father seemed proud upon hearing the news; but he didn’t overdo it, O’Neill said.
“You know what that and $3 gets you?” his father asked, leaving little time for response. “A cup of coffee. Now get back to work.”