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Dan Sullivan '96
Dan Sullivan '96  Photo © Nathan Mandell

Alumni Profile: Dan Sullivan '96

'I sold them on my dream'

Dan Sullivan '96 looks past the crime to create a better community

By Chris Serb

As recently as 2003, the Jarvis Avenue commercial district in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood wasn't an inviting place. Just east of the Red Line "L" station, the litter-strewn area was frequented by gangs and drug dealers. Neighbors rarely considered whether the seedy storefronts and downscale businesses would ever rebound; they just hoped to reach the "L" without getting mugged.

Where others saw obstacles, Rogers Park native Dan Sullivan '96 saw opportunity. His great-grandfather built two buildings at the corner of Jarvis and Greenview in the early 1900s, which Sullivan's grandmother owned and managed for decades. In 2003, after his grandmother's death, Sullivan purchased the buildings as part of his dream to remake the area into a dining and shopping district dubbed "Jarvis Square." Soon, he purchased a third commercial building next door and accepted the responsibility to lease out several more storefronts in another building across the way.

"I knew that I had to re-brand Jarvis," Sullivan says, because the street still meant trouble to many people.

Sullivan didn't let his lack of real estate experience — he previously worked in brand management and consulting — deter his dream. He rehabbed his 22 residential units while seeking a commercial manager to lease out his storefronts. But the retail options disappointed him.

"There were management companies that could've brought [retail chains] in fast," Sullivan says. "But that wasn't what I wanted. It had to be done right, so I decided to do it myself."

Sullivan spent hundreds of hours meeting with more than 50 prospective tenants. "I looked past the gangbangers and painted a picture of what this could be," he said. "I didn't have any experience, but I sold a story about me and my grandma and my great-grandfather. I sold them on my dream."

Some prospective tenants balked at the risk, and Sullivan rejected others that didn't fit his vision. Ultimately, he attracted eight new businesses, including an Irish pub, a theater company, a dog groomer, an Italian restaurant, a wine shop and even an off-site classroom for Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.

"I gave them extremely flexible terms on their leases," Sullivan said. "I wasn't just their landlord; I saw them as partners."

The results are impressive: handsome storefronts, well-kept interiors and moderate prices have produced a steady stream of customers.

"I thought there might initially be some problems, but in the long run I felt this area would thrive," said Ted Ries, who opened Poitin Stil, an Irish pub at 1502 W. Jarvis, in September 2005. "The other businesses draw potential customers to the bar."

But Sullivan failed to attract a key anchor tenant in any urban renewal project: an upscale coffee shop. After rejections from national chains and failed negotiations with smaller players, he decided to enter the coffee business himself. In May 2006 he opened Charmers Café at 1500 W. Jarvis and Dagel and Beli in an adjoining storefront.

"I didn't know anything about selling coffee! And I made so many mistakes," Sullivan says, adding that those initial operations problems have been solved. Now, his two businesses collectively handle over 250 transactions a day.

Charmers and 'the Dagel' became profitable before their two-year anniversary, he says, crediting the loyalty of neighbors who wanted him to succeed. "The people who came in here [at first] were just glad that somebody was doing something positive, so they forgave us if we got their order wrong," Sullivan said.

Sullivan attributes much of his success to his Kellogg education. "My finance classes enabled me to structure a deal that allowed this all to be possible; without those classes I wouldn't have even known where to start," he says. "Kellogg taught me how to think through my options and put together a financially solid business plan."

For his efforts at Jarvis Square, Sullivan won the Rogers Park Community Council's "Citizen of the Year" in 2006.
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