By: Brandi Smith
The hazy blue sky stretches over the blocks of downtown Houston that surround the Cullen Center complex, eventually fading into the horizon. It’s a view one can only get 40 stories and nearly 550 feet up, though to dig into its history, you have to go back more than 100 years and nearly a mile into the ground.
Hugh Roy Cullen moved to Houston in 1911 with the goal of breaking into the emerging oil industry. He earned the nickname “King of the Wildcatters,” discovering several major oil fields, including some that still produce today. Those were the foundation for Hugh Roy’s fledgling company, Quintana Petroleum, which ended up making him one of the richest men in America.
Not long after losing his oldest son in an oil field accident, Hugh Roy and his wife Lillie made their first significant donation, funding construction of the Roy Gustav Cullen Building on the new University of Houston campus. That was only the beginning of the Cullens’ philanthropy, which led to the formation of the Cullen Foundation.
Hugh Roy started the family legacy, based on business savvy and hard work – a legacy that thrives in today’s generation of Cullens. After the sale of Quintana Petroleum, family members – including his grandson Roy Henry Cullen – started Legacy Trust, a wealth management company.
“A lot of the investments that Legacy Trust does are in the real estate business,” said Meredith Cullen, Roy’s youngest son. “Seeing my dad and [Legacy Trust president & CEO], Ned Naumes, work together – that’s how I gained an interest.”
It was enough of an interest for Meredith to jump into Houston’s booming real estate market, launching the Cullen Realty Group with partner, Jason Shaw, nearly two years ago. Meredith, a former U.S. Marine himself, says he saw something special in the retired Marine sergeant.
“Any Marine who can lead a platoon into combat can surely handle real estate,” Meredith said.
Shaw served in the Marines for nine years, deploying three times. The first two trips overseas included security work in Yemen and humanitarian efforts in East Timor. But his third deployment would be the Houston-area native’s last.
In November 2004, Shaw and his squad were part of Operation Phantom Fury, a Marine-led effort against the Iraqi insurgency in the city of Fallujah.
“We were going house-to-house and building-to-building clearing the city,” remembers Shaw.
When his men came under fire in one home, they chased the shooters into another building. Shaw went first, but when one of his men swooped in to open a door, bullets started flying again.
“As he ran past me, two grenades were rolled down the hallway,” Shaw says. “I swiveled to the right and one grenade went off. As I was crawling out the door, the other grenade went off.”
The explosions left Shaw with substantial injuries, including a broken arm, broken leg, broken toes and four holes in his right arm.
“You generally enlist for four years, but I spent an entire year in rehab and then ended up getting a medical retirement,” says Shaw.
Retired and back in Texas, he pursued the passion he’d ignited before his final deployment: real estate. As Shaw explains it, “every day is a new adventure.”
He’d already owned his own home, flipped an apartment building and taken real estate courses, so his next challenge lay in a rental home he purchased with his father.
“It was like a father-son project, but instead of a ‘54 Ford, it was a 1954 two-bedroom house in Channelview,” Shaw reflects, chuckling. “We sweated all summer, tearing out sheetrock. But it worked out really well.”
Up to that point, Shaw says he’d considered himself a professional investor, but a job offer from a broker prompted him to get his brokerage license in 2008, when he dove right in to commercial real estate.
“That’s something that sets me apart,” says Shaw. “I had already owned multiple houses. I was already informed about investment concepts and got the license secondarily. So I understand where my commercial clients are coming from, what questions they have and pitfalls they need to avoid.”
Since Shaw had returned from Iraq, he’d been involved in several veterans groups, including trips out to Cullen Ranch.
“[Meredith] was gracious enough to invite groups of veterans to come out to the ranch and go hunting,” Shaw says. “So I got to see the ranch and go hunting before I met him.”
But it was on one of those trips in late 2009 that the two connected for the first time, when a broker came out on the hunt as well.
“[Meredith]’s talking to the broker about real estate and I pop off because I can’t keep my mouth shut about anything,” Shaw jokes. “We got to talking and then we met again at another veteran event. That’s when he said, ‘You’re probably happy where you are, but if you’re looking to make a change …’”
“I meet Jason and I just said, ‘I want another Marine because I know Marines can get things done,’” says Cullen.
In what they describe as a “happy coincidence,” just as Meredith was looking for a new member of his team in 2013, the RE/MAX agent for whom Shaw worked sold her office. The two have been partners of Cullen Realty Group ever since.
“We’re a very young company,” Cullen admits, but the firm is already building a reputation.
“We are working now on some excellent commercial reserves for The Johnson Development company,” says Shaw. “And we co-brokered a great deal in the energy corridor at Park Ten and I-10 last year working for Shawn Gross and the Gross Fund.“
Cullen attributes that success to his and Shaw’s military background: “Once a Marine, always a Marine. I think that’s what separates us from everybody else.”
Cullen says his goal is to build a full team of Marines, hiring three or four agents and brokers by the end of the year.
“It’s something Jason and I can give back to Houston,” says Cullen. “These men and women who served overseas, – we want to give them jobs, give them opportunities so they can be self-sustaining and proud of what they’ve done.”
The partners say there’s also a benefit for their clients, who will get the perks of military discipline.
“Marines adapt and overcome,” he says. “Mission first. You tell us a mission and we’re going to figure it out. We’re tenacious. We know how to adapt: to our client and/or to the market.”
Shaw echoes that: “Someone from military is particularly suited to real estate because they’re used to figuring out how to accomplish a mission. [We] seek out the knowledge, tactics and procedures to go about being successful.”
More than 100 years after his great-grandfather made his fortune by drilling thousands of feet into the ground, Meredith Cullen gets to see Houston from a different vantage point: nearly 550 up in a downtown skyscraper. But the legacy of hard work fostered by the Cullen family lives on.
Says Cullen: “I guarantee nobody’s going to out-work a couple of Marines.”