Brian O'Neill doesn't have a college degree. He never even got a high school diploma. But who needs either of those when you have enough land to provide about $4 billion worth of apartments and condos?

The story of how O'Neill went from a high school dropout working three jobs to a real estate mogul is as unique as the man himself. Instead of relying on an Ivy League MBA, the fast-moving, plain-talking founder and chairman of O'Neill Properties Group in King of Prussia, Pa., amassed his real estate fortune by blending a potent mix of street smarts, doggedness, and salesmanship.

O'Neill carved out his niche by buying, remediating, and building office buildings on environmentally contaminated brownfields that used to house old mills and factories—sites that no one else would touch. He eventually amassed roughly 3 million square feet of office space.

Then multifamily caught his eye.

So now, O'Neill is selling some of his office assets and buying and building multifamily sites, where he sees the opportunity to increase both his creativity and profits. “I literally took my entire organization and did a 180-degree turn [into multifamily],” he says.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Brian O'Neill has spent more than 20 years turning blighted brownfields into office sites. But now is he moving into multifamily.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Brian O'Neill has spent more than 20 years turning blighted brownfields into office sites. But now is he moving into multifamily.

Many of O'Neill's longtime associates think he made the right decision. “Brian is a visionary,” says Charlie Fitzgerald, senior vice president and commercial real estate banking regional market manager for Bank of America, which has worked with O'Neill since 1997. “He is an expert on market dynamics, which gives him the ability to recognize trends, take action, and adjust course if necessary.”

Manufacturing Land As you walk through the scenic surroundings of Riverview Landing apartments in Valley Forge, it's hard to imagine there was once a paper plant there. The factory, which had been on the property since the 1950s, left quite a footprint. “It had abandoned, dilapidated buildings and environmental contamination that had to be cleaned up,” says Leonard Poncia, senior vice president and development principal for O'Neill Properties.

That included volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in the soil and water. To fix this, the company needed to excavate the site and move the soil to an approved off-site landfill. “When you used to come here, all you would see were a bunch of beat-up, old, rundown environmentally contaminated paper plants and Lubin Studios [a silent movie studio that O'Neill restored and turned into artists' lofts],” O'Neill says. “It took 12 months, 1,000 people, and millions and millions of dollars to get it to look like it does now.”

O'Neill takes tremendous pride in his ability to turn around blighted sites like Riverview Landing. “A typical apartment guy says, ‘Give me a zoned piece of ground and I'll go build on it,'” O'Neill says. “But we're the manufacturers of ground, in addition to being the manufacturers of buildings.”

But the ability to manufacture developable land did not draw O'Neill to brownfields. He went to this difficult ground because they were the only sites he could find. “When I started my business, I had no money,” he says. “The only people willing to sell to someone with no money were people who had brownfield sites.”