The Extra-Large Life of Brian O’Neill

In a $4 billion (or so) tale of tough love, romance and aspiration, Philadelphia’s brashest real estate developer has gone from sleeping in his car to yachting his way around the world.

The Dalai Lama is the greatest,” says developer Brian O’Neill, baring his very white teeth in a grin. Last year O’Neill took the exiled spiritual leader on his private jet to Newport, Rhode Island, where the Dalai Lama had a speaking engagement and O’Neill is developing a country club, condominiums and houses. “We were on the plane together for two hours,” O’Neill continues. “I called him ‘Dolly.’

“I found out later that you’re supposed to call him ‘Your Serene Highness,’” O’Neill says, “but he’s completely down-to-earth. He was wearing his robes, in freezing Newport weather. I asked him if I could get him anything, and he said he’d like some tea, but all we had was caffeinated tea. He said, ‘Good, I could use a jolt.’

“So I asked him, ‘Dolly, what’s the secret of life?’ He said, ‘Treat everyone like a butterfly — gently,’” O’Neill continues. “‘If you hold it tight, you can crush it, but if you let it go, it will fly back to you.’”

This sounded right to O’Neill, but he didn’t build a multibillion-dollar real estate portfolio using this method, and becoming a let-go-er of butterflies is going to take a little time. Take this afternoon: The party celebrating the opening of his marble-floored Bala Cynwyd condominium the Corinthian is six hours away, and O’Neill is walking through, trumpeting, in his brusque deep voice, the virtues of the place, with its French windows and “perfectly symmetrical design,” and the Warhol and Keith Haring in the sales office (“which are both mine — and I want them back!”). Intermittently he unleashes measured fits of mini-rage at various screwups, all the while being trailed by one of his 14 summer interns, this one from Episcopal Academy. (O’Neill calls him “dawg.”)

After pointing out to his even-tempered project manager that a powder room’s stainless steel toilet-paper holder “looks like a goddamn bus station,” O’Neill gets up in the grill of a hapless construction guy standing near a thermostat that’s disfiguring a hallway — “Are these people blind?” — and even though this guy might not even be the thermostat guy, he runs over and immediately starts dismantling the thing. “If we can’t get the thermostats fixed, how the hell are people going to spend 900 grand?” O’Neill blasts, but 10 seconds later he’s in a great mood because he’s walked into a model unit decorated entirely in chic Ralph Lauren furniture, and he starts praising everyone around him.

Anyway, nobody seems too upset at the short-lived wig-flipping, since if you’ve worked with O’Neill — who at 46 is of medium height, has swept-back longish brown hair, and could power all of Tibet with the unexpurgated testosterone that steams out of every cell in his body — you’ve heard this before. O’Neill just wants it to be perfect, and even though one of the painters just apologized for getting paint on O’Neill’s Zegna pants leg, O’Neill isn’t mad at that, because at least the guy is doing his fucking job. “No problem, my man,” says O’Neill, and then stops to chat in a kindly and respectful fashion with an elderly man who runs his cleaning team.

“He screams at people,” a Main Line banker observes about O’Neill, “but then he buys them a house or something.”

In the age of developer-as-rock-star, no one in Philly can outperform Brian O’Neill, who started converting former factories in West Conshohocken into office space in the 1980s, has recently put up large residential complexes in Valley Forge and at the Millennium in Conshy, and owns a country club just outside Newport, where he’s buying up every square inch of waterfront on the market. All told, he estimates his real estate holdings at $4 billion. The number raises some eyebrows, but there’s no doubt he’s made a fortune.

“It’s the Irish in Brian,” says the banker about O’Neill. “He’s very likable, he gets things done. But you have to put it in perspective — you have to remember, he’s Irish. I wouldn’t say he exaggerates or lies — it’s hyperbole. That’s Brian.”

If there’s a key to understanding Brian O’Neill, it’s to understand that everything about him is exaggerated, from the way he lives (he collects antiques, expensive boats and JFK memorabilia) to the way he hypes his properties (he hired Kool & the Gang to play the groundbreaking of the Millennium). And then there is his past, an over-the-top saga that includes never finishing high school and clashing with his formidable Irish father.

Did it all happen precisely the way O’Neill tells it? Not quite, perhaps — but who cares? For O’Neill, sheer force of personality, the innate ability to mythologize himself, is a cornerstone of his success. If it’s all a little larger than life, well, maybe the guy’s just doing his fucking job.

THERE WAS A TIME when politicians dreamed our big dreams, but these days, the job of imagining things and asking “Why not?” has fallen largely to real estate developers. In Philadelphia right now, they are our visionaries — Bart Blatstein remaking Northern Liberties, David Grasso reconfiguring Center City office towers into condos — and none of them dreams bigger than O’Neill. By definition, developers have to believe their own bullshit, thereby making it come true. You have to be slightly insane to look at junked-up acres in Conshohocken and see office towers and hundreds of sleek, profitable apartments — or brilliant. Or both. “I can see things before they exist,” O’Neill says, back in his office, with its beautiful antiques and dozens of 19th-century paintings of ships and ocean scenes. Right now, his crystal ball is showing him that bus-fuel-choked City Avenue can be remade into a walkable retail and residential area. Then there’s O’Neill’s newest project, Rock Hill, a Bala Cynwyd condominium to be built inside a former quarry. “On Rock Hill Road, everyone saw rocks. I saw 525 young people living on the Main Line across from Manayunk,” he says. And this Bala Cynwyd development, currently going through zoning hearings in Lower Merion, could be the most brilliant of all O’Neill projects ever: getting people to live in a big — and very luxurious — Main Line ditch.

The first time O’Neill put the Vision Thing to use was in Conshohocken in the 1980s. O’Neill knew his way around the old industrial town because his father owned a restaurant there, and he saw its potential for retail, commercial and residential development early on. He began to acquire “brownfield” sites around the region: factories and land that had been used for industrial purposes and needed to be cleaned up (and in some cases detoxed); in return for the environmental trade-off, he got good deals. His first mega-deal in Conshohocken, in 1987, was buying the old Lee Tire plant and converting it into office space, which preceded — and helped prompt — the wave of office towers in Conshy and its emergence as a corporate boomtown.

Of course, the ability to see things is only valuable if you can get others to see the same things, and this, too, appears to be an O’Neill gift. It takes stones bigger than the ones that were mined out of the old Rock Hill quarry to do the grand-scale deals O’Neill loves — to get banks and funds and insurance companies and investors to put up money, to talk up zoning boards and residents’ groups. And this is the kind of thing O’Neill is uniquely, Irishly suited for. His manners are blunt, but impeccable, and he’s rather courtly, in an in-your-face way; if he’s not yelling, he’s smiling. “He’s a personality that is so persuasive, and when he gets finished talking to you, not only do you believe him and what he can do, but you want to help him,” says lawyer Joe Manko.

After his success in Conshohocken, O’Neill quickly started operating in superstar mode, which wasn’t the norm in Philly in the early ’90s, and still isn’t, really. “Real estate development is show business,” says a consultant who’s worked with O’Neill, “and if Brian had never bought the Lee Tire plant and promoted it, I don’t know if it would have been as successful. The guy utilizes the press, for God’s sake, he likes the adulation.” Indeed, among the visible Grassos and Blatsteins of this world, O’Neill out-rock-stars them all with his boats, plane, and Dalai Lama fabulousness.

But he does it best on his own terms. Early on, in the mid-1980s, O’Neill worked with a partner: his younger brother, Mike O’Neill. “The first building we did, we couldn’t get a mortgage, so we bought the guard lunch every day, got him to let us in, and started fixing it up and leasing it — then we got the mortgage,” remembers Mike O’Neill.

“We were a perfect team,” Brian remembers. “It was a perfect marriage except for one thing: We’re two brothers.” Not surprisingly, the partnership didn’t work out. Mike O’Neill is the anti-Brian, even physically, tall and quiet where Brian is more along the lines of a prize bull. (“I’ve never met a guy built like Brian that has the energy he has,” says his friend and business partner Ira Lubert, who with O’Neill bought NutriSystem and flipped it out of bankruptcy in the 1980s.)

“Michael’s the type to watch costs,” says their father, Frank. “Brian’s the type who’ll walk up to the Empire State Building, say ‘I’ll buy it,’ then find out that it doesn’t have any plumbing.” “I owned 65 percent and Mike owned 35 percent. That was a problem,” sums up Brian. O’Neill adds that he and his brother “sit around and laugh” at rumors they’re pissed off at each other.

When the two split up in 1991, Mike O’Neill spun off with what would become his $1.5 billion Preferred Real Estate Investments group. Brian worked on NutriSystem and other deals briefly before returning to real estate. “He’s our toughest competitor,” says Mike O’Neill, who adds that brokers sometimes try to play the two brothers off each other: “We’ve been careful not to let that happen,” Mike says. “If we’re competing over a building, if I get it, I give to his charity, and if he gets it, he gives to my charity.” Back on his own, O’Neill realized that it basically only works for him to be alpha over all others (except his wife, Miriam, who quietly rules at home, he says). That way, he can grab deals that might seem to be teetering on the line between lunacy and foresight. And because he sometimes calls meetings at his house at 6 a.m. and has a pair of handcuffs in his conference room — “I had those on the other day in a meeting with six bankers” — it’s best that way.

Whether all of O’Neill’s projects truly add up to $4 billion doesn’t really matter: He is worth a lot, and he just sold the first phases of the Millennium and Riverview in Valley Forge for, respectively, $87.5 million and $79 million to JP Morgan. O’Neill, more than 70 percent sold out at the Corinthian, doesn’t even sound concerned about the current real estate market: “Two-thousand-five was the best year ever, and if we’re down two percent, that’s 98 percent of the best year ever.”

OF COURSE, O’NEILL HAS a bootstraps, drama-strewn, tough-love childhood story that sets up his eventual large-scale life. And as much as he rebelled against his strong-willed parents, especially his father, Frank O’Neill, he’s in many ways exactly like Frank O’Neill.

The story begins a couple of miles from the Corinthian, up on the third floor of a big old house in Merion, where O’Neill was the second of six brothers. As early as age 10, the boys all worked at the Tavern restaurant in Merion and West Conshy’s Inn of the Four Falls, both of which Frank owned. In between working and general hijinks, the O’Neills would throw the kids in the car and take trips: “My husband has a great passion for architecture and art. He really nourished that in the boys,” says Brian’s mother, Peggy O’Neill, a corporate sales trainer (mostly for Brian’s staff, these days). “We used to go downtown and take them to Washington and New York — my husband knows the stories of the major buildings in the world, he’d tell the stories of the architects, the people who commissioned the buildings. The kids were nurtured on that.”

This was a recurring theme: a huge work ethic, greatness, and the great things in life. “I told them, you can go first-class, or you can go beer in the backyard,” says Frank O’Neill, who had the boys reading biographies of Churchill and FDR as teenagers. While the O’Neills weren’t particularly mired in beer-in-the-backyard dudgeon — they rented vacation houses every summer, and sent the boys to Catholic school — the grinding hours of restaurant life didn’t look as desirable to Brian as the lives of great men, or even of his family’s Main Line counterparts. If there’s one place that can make you feel poor, it’s the Main Line, and if you want to feel even worse, there’s Palm Beach, where the O’Neills spent summers in the late 1960s. There, they could rent gorgeous houses for nothing off-season, but it was a frustrating glimpse of what the glamorous winter months would be like. Surrounded by great estates, Brian, age 11, one day asked his mother to drive him down winding Ocean Boulevard to a set of massive gates, where he said, “I’m going to buy this one day, and I’ll live in the main house — I’ll be married then — and you and Dad can live in the guesthouse.”

“My parents didn’t have enough money,” says O’Neill today, while eating lunch on gold-rimmed china in his conference room. “I saw them humiliated, so I made money a priority early on in life.” He was also motivated to be independent, because Frank and Peggy’s parenting was way more rigorous than that of your average Main Line parents in the ’70s: The kids had to have jobs, and if they didn’t take care of their clothes and cars (which they didn’t), they had to buy their own.

In the mid-1970s, the family started renting in Hyannisport on Cape Cod every summer, where they had raucous Sunday-night dinners for 25, everyone socialized with everyone, and Brian was friendly with John F. Kennedy Jr. “Brian was meeting a lot of girls in those days. He was a bit of a heartbreaker,” says his friend Bill Noonan, and he and O’Neill knew Kara Kennedy, daughter of Ted Kennedy, well enough to visit her in Washington, D.C. And the Kennedys must have seemed to be living in an unbelievably captivating Irish-Catholic alternate world.

But back home on the Main Line, things weren’t going quite as well. O’Neill was ejected from Malvern Prep, and then a bust-up of biblical proportions took place: “I told Brian I loved him, but he had to buckle down,” says Frank O’Neill, “that it was going to be my way or the highway — and that night, he left. And Brian never lived in the house again.” Brian says he wasn’t, and isn’t, angry: “You know what? It wasn’t really painful. His desire for me to leave and my desire to leave came at the same time.” He characterizes the split as a “moment in my strive for total freedom. Incidentally, it’s the same route my father took. He never finished high school either.” The details are a little fuzzy about when this all happened — O’Neill was either 14 (according to him) or 15 (his father says) when he moved out — but it’s hard to believe that this eruption at home didn’t motivate him to prove himself to his father. Brian rented the third floor of a house in Overbrook, sometimes went to Lower Merion High School, disappearing before the end of his senior year, and held several jobs — he even still worked at Inn of the Four Falls.

He rose to managing a car dealership in Delaware County, then sold cars for Victor Potamkin, and sometimes lived in a car. “It was okay, as long as the heat worked,” O’Neill says of his sleeping-en-auto days. But after some months, it wasn’t okay to continue living in the car, because naturally, there’s an epic O’Neill love story, which started in the mid-1970s. “I saw my wife do a dance routine” — what 16-year-old O’Neill was doing at a dance performance is hard to imagine, but whatever, it’s part of the tale — “and stalked her till she dated me,” he says. “I wanted to marry her the day I met her. So I decided I had to be successful.”

He started by bantering his way into a sales gig at a corporate real estate company; one of his clients liked him so much that he cut him in on a deal, and then another. Inevitably, O’Neill made his own deal, purchasing the old Robert Morris hotel at 17th and Arch. When the pipes burst, he came home and grabbed his brothers to help clean it up, and eventually turned it into an office building.

It was around the same time that Brian and Miriam — he was then 25 — got married. “We moved into a 650-square-foot apartment, and we looked around and said, ‘Look at all this room!’” remembers O’Neill. Even today, he insists, “I’m perfectly happy sleeping on a couch,” and you sort of believe him, despite the fact he now has five houses spread from Hyannis to Newport to Avalon. As his friend Ira Lubert says, “Brian collects mansions.”

“I LOVE NEWPORT for a million reasons,” says O’Neill of the Waspy Rhode Island town where he’s investing hundreds of millions of dollars, keeps a yacht, and owns a mansion in the Astor-Vanderbilt-Reversal of Fortune district. “It’s a community where everyone is accepted: In Newport, the painter, the flower person, the carpenter, the CEO and the hedge-fund operator are all at your party. It’s a boating town: When there’s a yacht race and a black-tie party afterward, and you don’t bring your crew, people think you’re an asshole.

“That’s the mentality of Newport, and that’s the mentality of Conshohocken,” he says. “That’s why I feel comfortable there.” Surely this is the first and only time anyone has ever found similarities between Newport and Conshy, but O’Neill really believes this, and he operates with perfect aplomb in either place. “Brian reads for several hours when he first gets up in the morning at 4:30 a.m.,” says Lubert. “He’s unbelievably knowledgeable about antiques, about art, about airplanes.” O’Neill — like his father Frank — also has a huge passion for history. Being O’Neill, this led him to host presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton, as well as former Soviet Union president Gorbachev, at Carnegie Abbey, the club he owns in Newport, and to spend four days bonding with the Russian leader last spring.

And here he is, circa 2006, working on that Dalai Lama butterfly advice. O’Neill is much less volatile than he was, say, 10 years ago, says one person who has worked closely with him, but at least two recent high-level hires at O’Neill Properties didn’t last long: Kirk Wycoff, brought in by O’Neill as COO in 2004, left after a year to form Continental Bank; attorney Jonathan Spergel left environmental firm Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox to become general counsel at O’Neill in September 2001, and was back at Manko as a partner by early 2003, surprising no one. “The over-under on that was about 11 months,” says someone close to the situation. “Brian absolutely can be combative at times,” says Spergel, who still does legal work for O’Neill. “It’s very challenging to work for him because of how smart — and demanding — he is. He demands expertise, and when you don’t have it, it can be very — challenging,” he adds wryly.

Many of O’Neill’s employees have been with him for a decade or more. “I’m busy these days, so I’m trying to let people do their jobs,” he jokes. And so when he’s tough on longtime employees, the ones who are used to it stay, because — really — O’Neill could, and would, fix the fucking thermostats himself if he had the time. O’Neill now says that money isn’t a priority for him anymore — security, and providing it for others, is more satisfying. He just bought his parents a house in Hyannisport, and he cuts his best friend, a painting contractor named Nick Falcone, in on deals.

Anyway, this summer O’Neill spent more time close to home, because even though he likes to be in Newport and Hyannisport, his 14-year-old daughter just wants to go to Avalon, where all her friends are. O’Neill says he doesn’t spoil his five kids monetarily — “My only rule is don’t drive drunk, I’ll be there, I get a frickin’ army there” — but he just couldn’t say no to her about Avalon.

Even though O’Neill wouldn’t change his childhood, he’s trying to be a very different kind of father from his own. “I spend all weekend driving them around like every other parent in the United States, I make every game, I go to every mass.” He catches himself exaggerating. “Almost every game.” And unlike that day 35 years ago in Palm Beach when he sat in the car outside the estate, he wants his kids always to feel like they’re inside the gates.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama wouldn’t put it this exact way, but there’s something very karmic in O’Neill’s parenting mantra: “Every day I tell my kids, ‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the world,’ ‘You’re going to rule the world one day,’” he says. “Shit like that goes a long way. I try to spread happiness. Good shit happens to happy people.”