For Brandon Chasen, a Baltimore-area serial entrepreneur, the third time wasn't a charm. But the fourth time certainly has been.
Chasen had already started businesses in fitness franchising and flipping houses when a side hustle landed him in legal trouble. During that difficult year, though, the house-flipping venture morphed into a new company, known as Chasen Construction and Development. Wisely, the CEO maintained a small leadership team of longtime friends, helping the company--which executes its own site development, construction, and property management--notch $4.8 million in 2018 revenue. That's an increase of 3,671 percent from 2016, placing the 11-employee firm in the top spot on this year's Inc. 5000 Series: D.C. Metro list.
Chasen had been an athletic teenager, and a few years after college, in 2012, he and some of his high-school lacrosse buddies pooled their money to open a Baltimore-area CrossFit gym. Still, the group kept looking for further ventures, so after opening four other CrossFits, they tried their hand at flipping foreclosed single-family houses. It worked. They paid their initial bank loan back before long, and three properties grew within three years into a portfolio of 35 rental properties around Baltimore.
Along the way, Chasen had successfully filed petitions to have property taxes lowered on some of the properties. He realized that while states couldn't reassess every property frequently, technology already existed to help compare nearby homes and spot likely discrepancies. So, as a side venture, he brought on a marketing firm that sent out mailers for a service called the "Maryland Property Review Board" that would appeal on behalf of a homeowner for $99. (Appealing directly to a state is typically free.)
Seven hundred people signed up in a few weeks. "I was like, 'This could be a billion-dollar idea right here!'" Chasen says. The state of Maryland was less enthusiastic: In June of 2016, the state attorney general's office announced that his upstart firm appeared to be posing as a state agency to lure customers, and would need to refund customers and pay a civil penalty of around $100,000. Chasen shut down the operation.
Meanwhile, his remodeling business was excelling. He and his buddies started to upsize their projects, taking on three-family townhouses, and gutting and rebuilding 10- to 30-family buildings. They changed the company's name from Pinnacle Design Renovations to Chasen Construction and Development, and by 2020 had 14 projects brought to market or under construction, for a total of 300 rental units in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In 2019, the company had $13.7 million in gross income.
The firm's small team is very close-knit--the entire staff are Chasen's high school friends and their friends and family members. A couple are from his former lacrosse team; one is Moise Fokou, the chief operating officer and a former NFL linebacker. A more recent hire was project manager Mike DelGrande, Chasen's high school lacrosse coach, who had also been the school's athletic director. (The executives and investors, formerly his students, all call him "Coach.")
Chasen credits the team's closeness with the company's ability to grow and make significant decisions fast. "We've had this long history of trust and shared experiences," he says. "We work hard, play hard, and can be honest with each other about the strength of a new idea."
Chasen admits that the construction industry is one that requires mental toughness; potentially disastrous construction delays are a daily challenge. And the real estate industry--especially owning and renting properties--is a notoriously cyclical one. But the CEO says his company is well prepared: "Our lending relationships and our access to capital is really the piece that can keep us moving through those tough times if something does happen in the market."
Baltimore isn't an easy place to launch or grow a housing business in any economic conditions, says Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute focusing on housing and neighborhoods. Fortunately, one of the areas Chasen focuses on, the Baltimore waterfront, appears to be growing. "We have had a slow ascent of some neighborhoods while the city as a whole is continuing to see decreased population levels and investment," Theodos says.
Chasen is most proud of revitalizing historic areas of Baltimore--and adding boutique amenities to housing projects. The firm has taken dilapidated buildings in Fells Point, and put in luxury touches as well as mixed-use features. Some properties it has built or renovated include co-working offices, a coffee shop, and a speakeasy-style event space. "We're committed to drastically transforming the neighborhoods we are in," Chasen says.