The Secret of the Dawn McKenna Group

– Tribute to Moms –

By Larry Atseff

Oprah Winfrey is fond of saying, “I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you haven’t been prepared when the opportunity comes along, you wouldn’t have been lucky.” That sums up her phenomenal success. There’s a local parallel. Meet Dawn McKenna, founder of the Dawn McKenna Group, of Burr Ridge, which is destined this year to again claim the title as the number one residential real estate team in Illinois. We recently sat down with Dawn in an on-line interview to learn how a mom of four has balanced managing a household and growing a group of 25 people into a real estate powerhouse, from Florida to the North Shore, to downtown Chicago to the western suburbs in less than 8 years. According to Dawn, when she was growing up, her father, a teacher, and her mother, a homemaker repeatedly told her that hard work, and outworking the others will be the keys to success. Also, they told her, with her personality and energy, and smarts, she will succeed. “By the time I was 8, I believed I could do anything.

My mom also taught me about preparation. She had a flair for design; our little Cape Cod had factory windows and hardwood floors instead of carpeting…she was ahead of her time. Anyway, she liked to go to real estate open houses and took me a long, looking for ideas. Before we went out, she always made sure we were nicely dressed because we had to ‘look the part’. She also took me to department stores to look at the latest in furniture and design.” Dawn recalls, “All of this stuck with me later on as I worked from home as a freelance interior designer raising three boys and a daughter.” At Mother McAuley Catholic High School, she got good grades and got into the routine of working hard. One day, she visited the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, watching the fast pace in the “wheat pit”. She loved the excitement and said to herself ‘I would like to try this.’ While there were no women on the trading floor, she asked around and said she wanted to learn. Told again that there are no women, she persisted until they gave her a chance.

William, Andrew, Fiona, Dawn, Jack and Steve McKenna

The job as a broker’s assistant helped pay her way through college. She admitted it wasn’t easy keeping all those numbers in her head, but she learned how to handle it. In her senior year at the University of Illinois, Champaign, when her roommates who were business majors were getting ready to go to a job fair, she said she was going to join you. They said, “You’re a liberal-arts major, you don’t have a chance.” She showed up, resume in hand, and stopped at every major corporation booth at the fair. On that resume was that Board of Trade experience. She came out with an offer from Northern Trust to work in their high net worth trust department. Preparation! Her trading floor experience had helped. It paid off, and she spent three years at Northern Trust. Once her second child was born, she left the Northern Trust to raise a family and stay at home, freelancing as an interior designer. She wasn’t making money, but she found that combining an eye for design with a natural, honest way of getting people to trust her is also the best way to sell. So, in addition to smarts and energy, she found that her genuine interest in helping people comes through. Dawn calls it “authenticity”.

(To see it for yourself,watch her 40-minute Zoom interview at

One day she told her husband, “I found a couch I want, but it is $20,000.” His reply: “We can’t afford that.” Since she was also starting to take an interest in real estate, she said, if “I sell a one million-dollar house, at 2.5%, I will make the $25,000.” So she studied hard and got that real estate license. And, along comes the next opportunity. It wasn’t long before one of the ladies she was doing interior design for was getting ready to sell her home, and she said to Dawn, “I want you to sell it. I trust you.” The rest is history. She walked into Coldwell Banker with her 4 kids in tow and said she wanted to sell a house so she can buy a couch. Dawn was off and running in real estate with the sale of her friend’s $4.8 million home. She became Coldwell Banker’s Rookie of the year in 2003. As she has gained more experience and more success, she has come away with three constant goals. “First and foremost, has been my family and I am most proud of that.

My boyfriend in high school has become my husband for 30 years. I have a girl and 3 wild boys, but they’re great. In real estate, the money’s great, but my marriage and my family are intact and nothing is more important to us. They say you’re only as happy as your least happy kid, and it’s true. People respect all of that.” “Second, the overall objective of the Dawn McKenna Group is to help people, from nest to nest; from renting starter apartments, to their first home, to the next home to meet their needs, to a vacation home, to a home where they can enjoy their retirement”. She has a team that goes around to colleges offering expertise in first rentals because they are later going to be looking for that first home, and so on. Today, her team manages over 500 rentals at different price levels. Along the way, she has also learned how valuable honesty can be. She says, “I have talked people out of deals and homes because I just didn’t feel it was right for them.

“All of this stuck with me later on as I worked from home as a freelance interior designer raising three boys and a daughter.”

I consider myself a ‘match maker’, and I want to bring the right family together with the right home.” “I treat you like you are coming to my home. I want you to feel welcome, take your shoes off, enjoy good food and drink and music and enjoy our time together.” “My third goal is to recognize my limits and to surround myself with people who can do things better than I can do them, and focus on what I do best. My husband saw that potential and helped me with this goal, and it has helped me scale up the business.” It all has worked like a charm. At Coldwell Banker, for example, Dawn found two brokers who were very experienced in handling the very important routines that go with buying and selling homes but were not as interested in selling, which is Dawn’s strength. Anne Wiemeler and Lillian Nawas have been with Dawn for almost 20 years, and there have been years when just the three of them were doing $150 to $175 million a year. Other instances where opportunity has met preparation: Vacationing in Naples, FL, Dawn early on saw the trend of outmigration from Illinois, which led to her opening a Dawn McKenna Group office in Naples, Florida. Enough clients asked about the North Shore, so she opened Dawn McKenna Group offices in Winnetka and Lake Forest. It all has blossomed.

Now, some people want to move out of the city, some people want to move into the city, others are flocking to the warmth of southwest Florida, while people wanting the North Shore have now learned of Dawn and her team and their expertise in dealing with high end real estate. To manage it all, she has carefully added people, who care, as she does, and in 2016 she formed the Dawn McKenna Group. It works so well that Dawn is justly proud of the fact the group is on track to do $800 million this year. So is it luck? Not really. Just like her Mom and Dad said, outwork the others, use your smarts, your natural honesty, and authenticity to win people over. Then, as her husband said, scale it up with others who complement what you do, and who have a similar caring attitude. And that’s how preparation has successfully met opportunity for Dawn McKenna and her team.

*Photos provided by Dawn McKenna


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