Intriguing Immigrants - Lena Sells


The Real Estate Specialist

Lena Sells may be the chief operating officer of The PIP Group, a real estate investment firm, but a while back she moved out of her top-floor office and into an open desk near the firm’s entrance. From there, she can easily spot the sign that is a reminder of her mantra: “Work like a captain and play like a pirate.” 

Sells’ life is evidence that she runs a tight ship: Her husband, Charles, started The PIP Group at the age of 23, and the couple is raising two toddlers and two teenagers from a previous marriage, and their crew also includes two dogs and a cat. But Sells is used to the chaos. 

As a child, she grew up in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries. Though she has good memories of her childhood, the Eastern European country found itself reeling as the Soviet Union was dissolving. But her parents were determined to give her a good life — and soon discovered she had a knack for languages. She spoke Romanian with her father and Russian with her mother, and learned Spanish from subtitles on TV. Her ear for languages led her to study linguistics. 

My God, the people in the States are so nice!

After college, Sells signed on with a Moldovan agency to find an internship in America, which is how she found a job as a customer service agent for a theme park company in Wisconsin Dells. Though it wasn’t smooth sailing at first: On one of her first days on the job, she took a wrong turn on the way to work and got lost. After finding her way back — and despite receiving stern warnings about the dangers of hitchhiking and talking to strangers — Sells had her first impression of life in America: “My God, the people in the States are so nice!” 

It also proved to her that she could stand on her own two feet in a foreign country. 

Eventually, Sells found herself on Hilton Head Island, working a variety of jobs: at an Argentinian-owned café, at a T-shirt shop, at The Salty Dog. Soon, she decided, she needed “a big-girl job.” And that led her to The PIP Group. 

When she started at the company, “I sat like a deer in headlights. I asked so many questions and soaked everything up,” she said. She worked hard and learned every aspect of the industry. 

“We are the folks that buy the worst homes, mostly in Savannah, the homes that need the most work, the homes that need structural repairs, homes with massive termite damage,” she said of the company, which then works with investors to “flip” — or restore — the homes. Often, the investor partners are able to utilize city grants that pay a portion of the loan so long as the grantee agrees to live on the property. Sells said helping her partners secure these grants can help empower the homeowners — and transform entire blocks of homes that formerly were made up of boarded-up, run-down homes. 

Sells has been instrumental in helping The PIP Group build not only its client base but its own portfolio of homes. It’s a far cry from how her career began, but she said it hasn’t changed her. 

“I started as a waiter speaking broken English, and now I run a company doing good for distressed communities,” she said. “Having money has never changed who I am.” 

What did help her grow as a person, she said, was something she could only find in the Lowcountry: “There really is a thing called ‘Southern hospitality,’ and it completely changed the person I was to the person I am now.”