P. James Donnelly

Class of 2024

  • Founder and Chairman Castle Group

The American dream isn’t a moment in time, it’s an experience.

James Donnelly was born in 1961 in Bell’s Corners, a small town outside of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. His father worked as a teacher and supplemented his income by pumping gas at night. “My father graduated high school and had one year of college, which in those days was enough to become an entry level teacher,” Donnelly says, “but he believed in education and continued his schooling part time. It took him 20 years, but he finally earned his Ph.D.”

The middle of three children, Donnelly lived with his family in a modest 900-square-foot, one-bathroom house. When they moved in, one of the options in the new home, which cost $16,000, was to include sod and a paved driveway. The Donnelly’s opted out of both. “We were the only ones in the neighborhood like that,” Donnelly says. “I know my parents were doing the best with what they had, but it left a mark on me.”

Since his father was away from home working for much of the day, Donnelly’s mother was the mainstay of the family. “When my mother was in the 10th grade, her family needed her to leave school and work in the local mill to help them financially. She always regretted not completing her education and it left a scar that she still talks about. However, her pride and joy were her children. She was a loving mother who always had my back,” Donnelly says.

From the time they could walk, the Donnelly children had regular chores. “My father never hired anyone to do repairs on our home, Donnelly says. “When we needed a new roof, my brother and I were there helping him hammer in the shingles. We were 10 and 12 then. To please my mother, who worried we would fall, he tied a rope around a big stake in the middle of the roof and tied us to the other end of it. I came to understand, looking back on those work-ethics moments, that success isn’t only hard work, but if you don’t work hard, you probably aren’t going to be successful.”

When Donnelly was 13, his father told him that he would pay for his room and board, but Donnelly would have to pay for everything else. “I accepted that,” he says. “I learned about a nearby condominium complex that needed someone to mow the lawns. I won the contract, which at the end of the summer paid me $2,000. I started mowing on Monday and finished on Friday, which gave me the weekends off. Then it would all start over on Monday. It was then that I set a goal for myself: I would be a millionaire by the time I was 30.”

To reach his goal, Donnelly knew he would have to go to college. A self-described “bad kid,” he often skipped school and put little effort into his studies. In Canada, there are 13 grades and by the time he reached the 12th grade, he was close to being kicked out of school. “I knew I had to knuckle down,” he says. “I brought up my marks and actually won an award for best all- round student, which included athletics, academics, and community service.”

Donnelly knew he wanted to be an accountant. When he was younger, he noticed that one of their neighbors, Mr. Miller, always drove a new car. “My parents didn’t know what he did for a living, so I went over to his house one day and asked him. He told me he was a chartered accountant. I decided that day that I would be a CA and work for one of the largest accounting firms.”

In high school, Donnelly became the youngest McDonald’s manager in Canada. During the summer, he worked as a crane operator in Alberta’s oil fields. These jobs paid for his car and eventually for his degree at nearby Carleton University. “I never got the whole college experience of living on campus,” he says. “I lived at home, commuted to school, and worked full time after my classes.”

Donnelly has never regretted the strictness of his upbringing. “My parents gave me all the tools I would need to be successful,” he says. “They taught me the value of humility, hard work, self-reliance, and giving back to your community. Those values have always served me well. I believe that when you stay true to your values, you make the right choices.”

In 1984, Donnelly completed his Bachelor of Commerce degree and went to work for Arthur Andersen as a CA. He had reached his career goal, but in less than two years he knew he’d made a mistake. “I was making good money, but I hated what I was doing. I certainly could not see myself being an accountant for the rest of my life.”

Donnelly reconnected with an old schoolmate, Ross McBride, who asked him to partner with him to sell tax-advantaged real estate limited partnerships. “Everyone thought I was crazy, including my parents, to leave my job to go into real estate sales. Even I couldn’t believe that after my first year I made $300,000. The next year, I made $1 million. I was 27, so I reached my millionaire goal three years early.”

Donnelly and McBride founded Intellivest Group in 1987. The company did well until the tax laws were changed the following year. Donnelly had to quickly pivot, or he would lose everything. He and McBride flew to Florida, where they heard they could make some good real estate deals. They bought an apartment building and quickly converted it to condominiums, which they then sold to Canadian investors. This enterprise was successful until the Canadian dollar decreased in value in 1991. At that point, the business switched to property management under the name of Castle Group.

In 1999, when his partner wanted to pull out, Donnelly sold the properties on Florida’s west coast and became the sole owner of what was left of Castle Group headquartered in Fort Lauderdale. For the next 21 years, he grew the company one account at a time with his brother Rob and childhood friend Craig Vaughan. Today, Castle Group is the largest privately owned residential property management company in Florida. In 2020, Donnelly sold Castle Group, but remains with the company as chairman. A serial entrepreneur, Donnelly also founded and owns interests in JCR Partners, Crown Residential, VendorSmart™, and Donnelly Capital.

“I am grateful to this country and all I have been able to achieve here, he says. “I am living the American dream, which to me isn’t a moment in time, it is an experience. This country allows you to do and be anything you are capable of dreaming.”

A passionate community leader, Donnelly serves on the boards of Nova Southeastern University, Broward Workshop, LeMieux Center for Public Policy at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and is past chair of the Community Foundation of Broward.

Donnelly met his wife Cathy when they were just 12 years old. They have three sons, Jordan, Chase, and Brock. Together, they support many non-profit organizations, including the Community Foundation of Broward, United Way of Broward, Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County, and Business for the Arts, and are benefactors of the Broward County Arts Foundation.

In 2014, they founded the James Donnelly Property Management degree program at Nova Southeastern University. It is one of only eight bachelor programs in property management in the country. “My life’s purpose is supporting our next generation,” Donnelly says. “I want to help pave the way for today’s young people to change their circumstances through education and hard work, just as I did.”

Donnelly has a philosophy of life, which he has condensed into four words: stretch, smile, live, and give. He explains, “Stretch means to expand your knowledge—get a little uncomfortable in learning something new. Smile means projecting happiness into the word. I’m actually an introvert, but no one believes that about me because I’m always smiling and showing interest in others. Live means to be in the moment. You can’t change the past and you don’t know what the future holds, so live fully in the moment. Give means to be generous with your time, treasure, and talent. I say these words to myself every day before I head out into the world. It’s had a powerful impact on my life.”

Humbled and excited about his Horatio Alger Award, Donnelly says, “It brings some closure to a loop I started when I was 13 years old. That’s when I started earning my own way and I never stopped. This award is the pinnacle of my career and a recognition of my journey. To stand alongside my fellow Members is such an honor.”