Diane Cullinan Oberhelman: 40 Leaders Alumnus of the Year

A member of the first class of 40 Leaders Under Forty in 1994, Diane Cullinan Oberhelman has a lifelong passion for civic involvement, sitting on a range of economic development, healthcare and charitable boards. From being inducted into Junior Achievement’s Central Illinois Business Hall of Fame, to being named Distinguished Citizen of the Year by the Boy Scouts, to receiving the Central Illinois Volunteer of the Year Award, her leadership in the community is unparalleled.

Cullinan Properties, the business she founded in 1988, is a regional powerhouse, responsible for more than $1 billion of projects across the country, including many pivotal developments in the Peoria area. iBi is proud to name Diane Cullinan Oberhelman as the 2015 40 Leaders Under Forty Alumnus of the Year.

Describe the early years of your career. What inspired you to get into real estate and development?
Looking back, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and was attracted to people who were leaders and entrepreneurs. I enjoyed being with people who dreamed big and wanted to make a difference in the world. I gravitated to being fascinated with building projects and the positive impact of the jobs they created.

My parents and the many people they introduced to me showed me the value of hard work and interpersonal relations. I had many jobs in my youth, initially as a neighborhood yard clean-up person, then I went on to be a lifeguard and taught swimming lessons. I was a receptionist for a brokerage firm, which I failed at miserably. Next, I worked as a checkout clerk at Worth’s Department Store at Northwoods Mall, then a file clerk at my father's law firm. In college, I worked for the Southwest School of Banking, as well as my first business: selling umbrella hats in Dallas, Texas. They were all unique experiences that taught me so much! It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, a mid-level manager or an entry-level employee, you have to understand your business, your product and your customers, and always treat them with respect and dignity.

I started in the real estate business in the early ‘80s working for Jim Maloof Realtor. It was a wonderful experience because I met so many people and learned so much. Jim was a positive life force and hard worker who cared deeply about the region. Actually, he almost did not hire me due to my lack of experience! The office was so full that I was required to share a small desk behind the receptionist and back her up on calls.

What project are you most proud of?
Many people ask what project I am most proud of, and I always say my four children! They are fabulous, and I feel very blessed. I had four children in the early days of my career, and I wanted to attend every school activity and sporting event. Work intervened at times, and I learned to juggle many things while moving my career forward. That balancing act continues today, now that I am also blessed with four wonderful grandchildren. I am very lucky to have a loving husband, Doug Oberhelman, who does such a great job with exceptionally demanding job responsibilities worldwide and supports me and our family immensely!

Did you have any mentors in the early stages of your career?
I have had many, many mentors along the way—so many I couldn’t name them all. My earliest mentors and lifelong role models are my parents, Fred and Tilley Allen. Aside from business, they taught me to act with integrity and dignity in everything I do. They believed in me, whatever the challenges ahead. I learned from them key values such as decency, honesty, commitment, hard work, and the importance of family and giving back to the community, including the many charities my family supported through my mother's volunteer work and the pro bono work my father did for people who could not pay. They were always encouraging me to work in a team setting, explaining the importance of “we” versus “I.” Even today, we are very close, and I value that they don’t hold back their opinions!

Our family has a rich history in Peoria and the Midwest, and the stories of my grandparents and great-grandparents always resonated with me. For example, Duke and Eula Derges, my mother’s parents, owned the Squirt bottling company in Peoria and were very successful for many years. Then, when I was very young, the company went bankrupt due to my grandpa relying too much on a manager and not watching the store! It was very sad, and I learned a valuable lesson. After my grandmother’s untimely young death, my grandfather ended up living with us the rest of his life due to my parent’s generosity and value of family first.

Another role model was my grandmother on my father’s side of the family. She was married to the chief of police of Ripon, Wisconsin and became a widow at an early age. She was the first female farmer in that area and tried to negotiate with the farmers to allow her into the corn grain bins after the war, which was an absolute no! She proceeded to fill the family farmhouse with the corn to dry, then the following year, became the first to rotate crops and plant soybeans. They all thought she was crazy at the time, and now in the central Wisconsin area, they think she is a hero!

Getting back to my father, he is a staunch Democrat, even being born in the birthplace of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin. He was in the vast minority and due to sticking to his convictions, was and is a true leader!

My great-grandparents include founders of a city in Missouri and even one who was on the Peoria City Council in the early 1900s. Outside of the family, when I was in third grade, my father encouraged me to think of Winston Churchill and his challenges, which were similar to mine. I often reflect on this quote: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

What led you to found your own company?
I was 28 when I started Cullinan Properties, and like so many, I had a vision that our team could raise the bar in the real estate development and services area. We had a vision for how to serve clients and create a winning team—we did not know that failure was even an option. I was inexperienced in so many areas, but I was driven to succeed by a strong will and more importantly, surrounding myself with incredibly smart, driven individuals. Through the experience, knowledge, hard work and encouragement of those around me, Cullinan Properties has managed to move forward successfully for nearly 30 years, and I know we’ll be going strong for another 30 and well beyond!

What was it like to receive the 40 Leaders Under Forty Award in 1994?
Being recognized as a 40 Leader Under Forty was tremendously gratifying. Cullinan Properties was only a few years old at the time, and our long-term success was not assured. Receiving this important community award was a boost that encouraged our team to continue on the path; it told us that we were doing the right things in building and growing a company that could contribute to the well-being of the communities we serve.

My overriding recollection was on three fronts. Number one: the quality of people in my class. Among those honorees were Peoria County Board member and business owner Mary Ardapple, Judge Steve Kouri, Easter Seals CEO Steve Thompson and Peoria Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen—all individuals who have gone on to make tremendous contributions to central Illinois. I remain honored to be in their company. Secondly, it was a very classy event from day one. iBi always makes it one of the top events in the region. Jan Wright and her team have made it an honor to be a part of the 40 Leaders Under Forty! The third recollection was that for me, it was a team recognition versus an individual one, due to the complexity of our work and the depth and breadth of our projects. I recall feeling uncomfortable being called out as an individual.

As a cancer survivor, you have overcome one of the greatest challenges anyone could face. How did you do this while maintaining a career, family and active leadership in the community?
My first thought was of my children. They were only nine, 11, 14 and 15 at the time, and I was devastated to think about how having a sick mother with a deadly disease was going to affect them. I was by myself when I received the news, and I remember sitting in the parking lot at the Susan G. Komen Center for what seemed forever. It was a slow drive home while doing a lot of proactive “self-talk” about the fact that I was going to be very, very positive with my family and coworkers, and I was going to fight this with the most aggressive treatment possible. My children, parents, friends and team members at Cullinan Properties truly gave me the inner strength and courage to fight and survive this dreadful disease in every possible way. The crisis my family went through impacts almost everything I do on a day-to-day basis. It certainly changes your perspective and how you approach priorities. I would never wish that I’d had cancer—or wish it upon anyone. However, I do know many of the changes that have affected me have been positive changes. I am less afraid of day-to-day challenges and believe I am here for a reason, as I have more things to accomplish on many fronts.

Cancer is more difficult on the family members and loved ones that are close to you than the cancer patients themselves. I watched with complete sorrow how it affected family, loved ones and coworkers—more than it did me. I was heartbroken and remember trying everything possible to make them feel positive. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, I ask others to reach out to the family and loved ones because they may need support most of all.

The communication to a family going through this disease—or any illness or trauma, for that matter—is so very critical. Understandably, people are afraid to say the “wrong thing,” so they may say nothing or avoid the patient or family altogether. My recommendation is to reach out even when unsure. This experience led to a book by a dear friend, Dr. Joy Miller, and Monica Vest Wheeler, with a small part from me titled “Cancer: Here’s how you can help me cope and survive.” We hope it made a difference for those who read it. Making a difference and empowering others through those experiences is what it’s all about.

Describe some of your current projects at Cullinan Properties.
CPL has made a tremendous contribution to central Illinois and other communities we have developed in because of our excellent team members. I get far too much credit for our successes; my teammates do the heavy lifting to make so much possible nationwide. We are all extremely busy each day, and so many unscheduled items come up that require attention! Everyone needs to be flexible and anticipate the schedule is always changing.

In Peoria, The Shoppes at Grand Prairie and neighboring developments are going strong as the preeminent outdoor lifestyle mall between Chicago and St. Louis. The Shoppes is still growing and expanding, as the recent opening of the new Hy-Vee indicates. The spinoff development and multiplier effect for jobs is tremendous—from the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex to multiple hotels to residential units both north and south of War Memorial Drive—the result of the combined regional vision of many leaders. We have been involved, along with other great developers, in changing the face of East Peoria with the Levee District. I’m proud of our other Peoria-area projects as well: Weaver Ridge Golf Course, One Technology Plaza, Harbor Pointe, Morton Commerce Park and so many other regional projects.

Many central Illinoisans may not know that CPL is very active outside the Peoria area. CPL has owned and developed the largest Veterans Administration outpatient clinic in Austin, Texas; a mixed-use development, The Streets of St. Charles in Metro St. Louis; Burleson Commons in Dallas-Fort Worth; and East Court Village in Pekin. Earlier this summer, we purchased a 264-acre parcel near the intersection of I-80 and I-55 in Joliet, and we expect an exceptional project on that site.

As you can tell, Cullinan Properties is not slowing down. There is more work to do, and I love my work. Every day is different, and there’s never a dull moment! I am inspired to work with the team and our various committees each day.

Looking back at your vision for Peoria when you received the 40 Leaders Under 40 award, how does today’s reality mesh with that image?
I’ve learned many things over the years, but one certainty is that you can’t predict the future. I never would have anticipated that CPL would sell its service companies and focus on development and acquisition of real estate, or that we would have completed nearly $1 billion in real estate projects. Nor could I have foreseen expanding into major markets throughout the Midwest and Texas. And no one could have predicted the wild swings in the economy, especially the economic crash of 2008. We’ve learned that it is vital to diversify and prepare for the turbulent times while being prepared to take advantage when the economy is strong.

People in any business have to be flexible. Change is the only certainty. Your vision has to be malleable enough to change with the times, and take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Perhaps my biggest disappointment was not having some communities take advantage of great deals brought before them.

What advice do you have for today’s young professionals seeking to make a difference in Greater Peoria?
One of my mantras in business is that “no” means “maybe” and “maybe” means “yes.” If you are persistent, you’ll achieve so much. Believe in yourself and all that you stand for. Have faith in your abilities. Pick up the phone and try to meet face to face. I use email less all the time. Be willing to learn and adapt, as change is inevitable. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone; take a risk. Stay on course, but be prepared to adapt to the changing environment. Follow your path in life with passion. Balance your goals with family. That is the foundation of everything you do.

Lastly, give back. “The more you give, the more you get back.” I encourage young professionals to get involved early and often, and encourage your friends and coworkers to join you in serving the community. One individual can make a difference and throughout history, always has! Many great leaders were not popular at the time they led. One of my favorite phrases is: “Be who you are because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

What is your vision for Peoria in the next… five, 10, 20 years?
Central Illinois is a phenomenal region! People who come from outside the area are amazed at all Peoria has to offer, amenities that, too often, native Peorians take for granted or ignore. We have to celebrate our successes and work together to build more of them. 

I’d encourage government and business leaders to develop common goals and work toward them. City and county boundaries are artificial barriers that should not stand in the way of progress. A large job-creating industry in one community will help neighboring communities as well. So I would greatly encourage a regional plan that encompasses the 30-county area that so many of our companies serve to pull together to market ourselves worldwide and have a more holistic approach to development and economic growth.

Finally, I’d like to see more people get involved in civic and community organizations. Everyone has a contribution to make. Each of us should commit to making central Illinois a more vibrant community for generations to come. iBi

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