‘Tis the season for year-end lists, best-of lists, lists for Santa, lists for New Year Resolutions, lists of lists, yay! I recently spent a weekend locked in a conference room working on an actually important list — the Swanepoel Power 200 — that was fun, exhilarating, and hard work. But as we get to the end of the year, and I start ramping up for my annual review of predictions, and 2016 Predictions, I thought it would be fun to present the Notorious R.O.B. List of the Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate.
Unlike say the Inman 100 Most Influential list, or the Swanepoel Power list, the only requirement to be on my list is to be interesting to me. I don’t have algorithms or panels of judges, or actual criteria of any usefulness whatsoever beyond, “Hey, I think that guy/gal is interesting for whatever reason.” I may go on to describe just why I think said person is interesting, but your milage may vary.
Without further ado, I’d like to present the Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate, according to me and me alone.
7. Kevin Tomlinson
We start with the man who has got to be the most interesting person in real estate on an individual, personal, level. At least for 2015. I’ve known Kevin for a few years, as he was one of the original RE.NET people, and he was super interesting as a person long before 2015. He’s funny, acerbic, argumentative, way in-your-face, fabulous at times, controversial at other times, a media hound in some ways, and a very successful REALTOR on top of it all.
But has there been anyone else in real estate with quite the year that Kevin has had?
First, he blows the Miami MLS scandal wide open (see below for more). Then he gets involved in an extortion scheme that sounds like it would come right out of an afternoon soap opera, complete with secret recordings and a sting operation involving hot blondes, huge sums of cash, and drop-off meetings. Then somehow, he ends up arrested by cops who beat him up either (a) because he grabbed for a gun from one of the officers (the police version), or (b) because eight Miami police officers engaged in open police brutality (Kevin’s version).
From The Real Deal Miami:
Months later, Tomlinson met with Hertzberg to make the complaint disappear, the Miami Herald first reported. Tomlinson reportedly said the complaint would vanish if both of them paid him $250,000. If they refused, he threatened to take the complaint public. The Jills then went to the police, who then told Hertzberg to invite Tomlinson back with a $400,000 check. He reportedly asked for $800,000, but it was too late for Tomlinson.
Officers took him into custody at his Meridian Lofts penthouse on Miami Beach. During the arrest, which he reportedly resisted, Tomlinson reached for one of the officer’s guns and grabbed its handle, according to the Miami Beach Police Department. He was charged with two felony counts of extortion, resisting arrest and depriving an officer of means of protection.
Upon being released on bail, Kevin has made the rounds talking about the situation, most notably with Brad Inman of Inman News, who wrote up his saga in a report and recorded a podcast with Kevin.
Of course, I have no idea who to believe, and I’m not all that sure I care all that much, except to say that if Kevin didn’t grab for a cop’s gun, then he should sue the daylights out of the corrupt Miami Police Department. If he did… well, he’s an idiot and probably should head to jail just for that stupid stunt. As for the extortion-or-not thing, well, the courts will figure that out. But this recording, made by the police, and released to the media doesn’t look good for Kevin:
However the drama turns out, I have to say that Kevin Tomlinson is one of the seven most interesting people in real estate for 2015.
6. Eric Wu, CEO, Opendoor.com
Eric Wu fascinates me. Mostly because his company, Opendoor.com, fascinates me. They came out in 2014 with the proposition that homeowners looking to sell can just go on a website, enter their address, get an offer, and close in three days in cash. Holy schmoly, that would be a game-changer, right?
I wrote about Opendoor.com back in 2014, saying in part:
Rabois looks at the same situation and asked Why the transaction must be complex, emotional, expensive, and infrequent. Could that be changed?
His answer appears to be that yes, that could be changed, IF there were some company with enormous financial resources sitting between the home seller and the home buyer. Market makers exist in the stock market and in the commodities markets. Why not real estate?
That’s a Big Idea. And the type of people who have put money into Opendoor are “ballers” who can make that Big Idea reality.
It just so happens that today, major Wall Street institutions are putting billions of dollars into buying residential real estate. Companies like Black Rock, Blackstone Group, Colony Capital, KKR, and others are serious players with serious money who have been doing this. Opendoor could make that so much easier for those companies.
Who knows if Opendoor will ultimately be successful or not. History is littered with the corpses of companies that had an idea but failed for one reason or another.
But the really interesting point here is the power of that radical question. One wonders why no one in the real estate industry asked that question. Why must the transaction be so difficult? Why does it have to be complex? Why accept the status quo as the Only Way Things Can Be?
The Rabois in that quote is Keith Rabois, the founder and Executive Chairman of Opendoor.com. But I’m putting Eric Wu in my list because he’s the CEO, and he is the guy responsible for making Opendoor a paradigm-shifting, industry-destroying, economy-changing juggernaut it could be… or not.
To date, Opendoor has been… shall we say… fallen far short of any juggernaut-like behavior. My understanding, which anyone could correct if I’m wrong, is that Opendoor has done a couple of hundred transactions in one market (Phoenix, AZ area) all year. Local brokers and agents are not exactly quaking in their boots, and there’s precious little disruption of any kind going on, really. In fact, they compensate buyer agents, and charge the homeowner for it, and appear to have gone out of their way not to disrupt anything whatsoever.
Their pricing model makes it seem that while the homeowner might get some convenience out of using Opendoor, there ain’t a lot of cost savings:
So consumers basically trade off the possibility of upside (maybe the listing agent priced it too low? maybe there’s a bidding war?) in exchange for the convenience of just getting it done. I could see how that’s really appealing, but then again, I feel a giant yawn coming on.
I still think Eric Wu (and frankly, his company) is interesting because (a) he’s Asian, in an industry that is whiter than NASCAR, (b) he’s obviously a super-smart guy, and (c) maybe Opendoor is still just trying things out, figuring things out, and may become Super-Disruption-Juggernaut in the years ahead. Having the responsibility to figure that out has got to be interesting, at the very least.
5. Stefan Swanepoel, CEO, RealSure
If you’ve spent any time with Stefan, outside of attending one of his speeches, or seminars, you’ll know that he is without question one of the most interesting men in real estate. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Stefan on Trends and on SP200 for a couple of years, and even more fortunate to have had dinner with the guy a few times.
First, you have to know, Stefan doesn’t eat. I mean it. He doesn’t do breakfast, or lunch. And he eats the same thing for dinner every day: steak frites. That would be steak and fries for you non-francophones. You know how you play that game sometimes with your friends that goes, “If you had to pick just one thing to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?” After much (drunken) agonizing and hilarity, you usually end up with something like, “Oh man, there’s no way I could do that.” Well, he’s doing it.
Second, he’s a deep thinker for things way outside of the real estate industry. I bet you didn’t know he could have been President of his native South Africa at one time, but chose to stay safe (and sane!) here in the States.
So yeah, Stefan’s an interesting guy just on that alone, but 2015 has been a momentous year for him and for his company, RealSure. The Trends Report keeps going, of course, but in 2015, Stefan worked closely with NAR to release the D.A.N.G.E.R. Report. While some criticize it for having all the problems and none of the solutions, since the point of the Report was not to offer solutions but to identify problems, that seems like an unfair critique. (I may have been one of those who thought NAR should have done an A.N.S.W.E.R. Report to go with it….) There’s little question that the D.A.N.G.E.R. Report keeps coming up more and more in conversations in the industry, and that it will be a guidepost for years to come.
He also created the T3 Summit, a couple of years ago. But in 2015, it feels like T3 Summit has supplanted Inman Connect as the new Event of the Year for the glitterati in real estate. The rich, powerful, and the influential rubbing elbows at the Las Vegas Four Seasons this year was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We’ll see what the 2016 event looks like, but yeah….
And of course, Stefan expanded his offering with T3 Experts and T3 Fellows, partnering with Jack Miller. That allows his organization to go beyond the Big Broker and MLS/Association consulting work Stefan’s been doing, and start reaching smaller brokerages and even agents. We’ll see where that goes, but initial news appears to be good.
So all in all, a momentous 2015 for Mr. Steak-and-Fries, who is one of the most interesting people in real estate.
4. David Charron, CEO, MRIS
Speaking of juggernauts-that-may-be, I am putting David Charron, CEO of the multi-state regional MLS MRIS, onto my list. I happen to know for a fact that David is super-interesting as a person as well, since he’s the man who got me into this MLS space in the first place, giving me my first serious assignment in the consulting world back in 2010. If you ever have the opportunity to spend time with David at an industry event, you’ll quickly catch on to the man’s humor, storytelling expertise, and love of Pappy Van Winkle.
But in 2015, MRIS announced that it intends to marry TrendMLS, the large neighbor to the north, creating the largest MLS in the country. That move by itself makes David one of the most interesting people in real estate, since everybody and his cousin have been talking, talking, and talking about consolidation in the 850+ MLS space, but precious few have done jack-diddly-squat about it. David has. But this isn’t just a simple merger. There’s a lot more to what David, Tom Phillips (CEO of Trend), and their Boards have cooking.
MRIS and Trend released a paper on the subject, entitled MRIS and TREND — A Shared Commitment and Vision. The subtitle to the paper is MLS Evolved, and it states, in part:
This consolidation will go beyond a simple joining of forces. It will create an entirely new organization that welcomes other MLSs, associations and brokers from the outset. The goal is to transform the model of MLS, recapture the faith of constituents, and pioneer innovative and meaningful solutions for the brokerage firms.
Part of said “meaningful solutions for the brokerage firms” is something that sounds an awful lot like Project Upstream:
The Broker is the Primary Customer
The brokerage owns its listing inventory, grants permission to the MLS to serve the agents, is legally responsible for its listings and agents, and is the foundation for the real estate business model in America. This makes the broker the primary customer who must have control over and access to their listing content including directing its distribution.
We do know that MRIS was one of the organizations that bid on the Upstream contract, until NAR stepped in with $12 million in funding, so this is likely just carrying that concept forward into the MLS itself. But that would be all kinds of interesting, no?
3. Bob Moline, President & CEO Brokerage Division, HomeServices of America
For at least a decade, the real estate industry as a whole has been in reactive mode. Usually, it was reacting to Zillow, but it often reacted to other companies and other things as well. Zillow did X? Holy cow, what are we gonna do? was sort of the default. Which is why I’ve said for some time that every conversation in real estate either starts or ends with Zillow.
The one exception to that general rule may be Project Upstream. I’ve written about it many times in these pages, and there is simply no denying that Upstream is, if anything, interesting. It also represents the first time in years where the industry has done something, taken action, that others now have to react to. Zillow, Realtor.com, Homes, vendors, MLS, agents… no one can simply ignore Upstream. They have to prepare, respond, react in some way, shape, or form.
The conventional wisdom, the widespread understanding, is that Bob Moline, the President of HomeServices of America (the second largest real estate company in the U.S., after Realogy), and the CEO of the Brokerage Division, is the real power behind Upstream. Word is that he has been the passionate champion, the main driver, behind Upstream, and without his advocacy, it would have died in gestation many times over. You almost never hear from Bob Moline publicly, and people like Craig Cheatham, CEO of The Realty Alliance (in which HomeServices of America is the 800-lb gorilla), or Victor Lund, the consultant on the project, are the spokespeople. But again, everyone you ever speak to connected to Upstream says Bob is the mastermind and the true power.
And of course, Bob Moline isn’t only the real power behind Upstream, he is also the real power behind Broker Public Portal, the completely-unrelated-to-Upstream project that nonetheless shares most of its powerful proponents with Project Upstream. So how unrelated the two are is entirely for you, the reader, to judge.
Finally, HomeServices of America kicked all kinds of ass in terms of actual business performance. They’re not a public company in their own right, but what little they do report looks like HSA had a killer year in 2015. Power. Money. And now, let’s add a tiny bit of Fame, as Bob Moline is one of the seven most interesting people in real estate in 2015.
It must be said that any resemblance to Peter Griffin is entirely coincidental, as Seth MacFarlane doesn’t even know who Bob Moline is.
2. Amy Bohutinsky, COO, Zillow Group
There are, of course, a number of interesting people at The Zillow Group. Spencer Rascoff, for example, may be our next HUD Secretary, and has kids who are chess champions. Greg Schwartz is a super interesting guy, really funny, really sharp, really smart. Errol Samuelson is all kinds of interesting too. But I have to go with Amy Bohutinsky of Zillow Group (who most Zillowites call AmyBo) for inclusion into one of the seven most interesting people in real estate. I’d have given her the #1 spot, actually, except for the… well… you’ll see…
I’ve met Amy a few times, and had the pleasure of talking real estate and marketing with her a couple of times. She is, as you’d expect, frikkin’ brilliant. You don’t really get to be a C-level executive at a public company in the technology sector without being that. Quite a few Zillow folks say that in a company filled with genius-level people, she’s often the smartest person in the room. But she’s also remarkably down to earth, and quite approachable, if you find yourself in her vicinity.
What makes her so interesting is that she is unquestionably the most powerful woman in two industries that are not exactly known for powerful women. Neither real estate nor technology are grrrll-power industries, you know? But there’s little doubt that she’s pretty much killed it in her role as CMO. Zillow’s traffic growth has been astronomical, and a big part of that was due to the consumer advertising that AmyBo oversaw. A couple of those commercials are absolute tear-jerkers that you can’t help react to, even as you recognize that your emotions are in fact being manipulated. Here’s my favorite example:
That commercial, commercial, has over a million views on YouTube. It’s a freakin’ commercial!
And she’s doing this as a mother of two little kids — Frankie, 7, and Emilia, 4 — whose photos often grace her Facebook profile updates.
Since that apparently wasn’t keeping her busy enough, AmyBo in 2015 took on the role of Chief Operating Officer, when Kathleen Phillips was promoted to Chief Financial Officer. In that role, she oversees the 2,200+ employees of Zillow Group as well as all consumer-related efforts.
There are major challenges up ahead for Zillow, of course. The stock price got hammered recently, and Realtor.com is revived and renewed with a new spring in the step of Move folks I’ve seen at events. Things like Upstream and BPP and whatever-else are going to be popping up in 2016. But I’m putting AmyBo on the list of the seven most interesting people in real estate, partly because I’m interested to see how she will handle those challenges.
1. The Jills, REALTORS
If you don’t think The Jills, the power team in Miami, are the most interesting people in real estate, then you haven’t been following the drama in South Beach. The Jills are Jill Hertzberg and Jill Eber, two power REALTORS with Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate, a NRT company. Here’s their promotional video:
They specialize in ultra-luxury properties in and around Miami, to some of the wealthiest people in the world. As of this writing, their listings include a $67,000,000 mansion, a $37,000,000 modernist behemoth, and others. They’re fabulous! They’re successful! They’re beautiful! They’re glamorous! Up close and personal with Robin Leach, as Biggie might say.
But that’s not why they’re the most interesting people in real estate in 2015. Sadly, they’re interesting because of scandal, of drama, of what their existence and alleged behavior says about US, the real estate industry.
Kevin Tomlinson, our #7 Most Interesting Person in Real Estate, began the story when he filed an Ethics Complaint with the Miami Asssociation of REALTORS (“MAR”). I posted the story about the alleged extortion scheme above. What’s more interesting to me is what The Jills are alleged to have done that made them targets for (alleged) extortion.
The Jills supposedly engaged in widespread, intentional, and long-running scheme of data manipulation in the MLS. Here’s a video about a “hypothetical” that doesn’t appear hypothetical at all:
The Jills have claimed that the “data manipulations” were honest mistakes, and I suppose MAR is investigating it (maybe? more below), and we shall find out (?). Those question marks are what make The Jills so interesting.
First of all, the Ethics Complaint was filed in April. The wrong alleged is really difficult to construe as “honest mistakes”: we’re talking about changing fields in a MLS record, quite likely the Area Number and the Folio Number (which connects to public tax records). If the video above is “hypothetically” accurate, the address is entered with spaces in between, so they don’t appear in any searches. The Area and Folio numbers are changed. That’s really hard to believe was done purely by mistake, over a multi-year period, affecting some $350 million worth of property and 27,000 days on market. Kevin Tomlinson himself said on the Inman interview that we’re talking about at least 51 listings that were manipulated.
So… here we are in December. The whole extortion brouhaha didn’t get going until a few months after Tomlinson’s April complaint. The Jills, as far as I know, are still REALTOR members in good standing in MAR. So much so that there’s an actual Change.org petition going around asking MAR to discipline them. Why hasn’t MAR done anything? Are they still investigating? What are they investigating?
51 listings, with intentional mis-spellings (spaces between letters), and intentional changes to Area and Folio numbers. Either they exist in the system, or they do not. If they do not, then Tomlinson is a liar, and MAR should have published a statement months ago clearing The Jills of any wrongdoing. If they do exist, then The Jills are likely fraudsters and should have been disciplined months ago, and should today be facing possible civil lawsuits from their former clients. This isn’t a difficult “investigation” here. What the hell is taking so long?
In the past, I’ve written about the weirdness and the weakness of the Association’s so-called disciplinary procedures. If the case of The Jills isn’t the poster child for how crappy the internal mechanisms of the MLS and Association world are, then I can’t think of what is.
Second, the whole extortion scheme came into play because, (allegedly) Tomlinson went to The Jills and asked for money to “make the complaint disappear”. I’m sorry, but make the complaint disappear? How? If The Jills did in fact manipulate MLS data, against the Code of Ethics, against the best interests of their clients, and probably against the law, how is that Kevin Tomlinson’s problem? It’s not like The Jills screwed with the MLS just to screw Tomlinson out of his commission or something. Isn’t MLS data manipulation a problem for the entire MLS, for all 40,000-plus REALTORS in the Miami Association of REALTORS, and all of the buyers, sellers, appraisers, and the like in the Miami area? Once Tomlinson has notified MAR of the violation, how is it up to him whether to keep the complaint alive or to drop it? This isn’t a civil case here, where Tomlinson was harmed, so he’s willing to settle out of court. This is a “crime” against the entire MLS, the entire market, and there never should have been even the idea that Tomlinson could be paid off to make the whole thing go away. If there was going to be a payoff, it needed to have been the entire MLS staff and the Professional Standards Committee of MAR, not one guy.
Third, while we’re at it, this data manipulation has been supposedly going on for years. Every MLS in the country has a Compliance Department. Large MLS’s, like MAR, with 40,000-plus members have more than one person doing Compliance. We have heard for years upon years how the MLS is the platinum standard of data accuracy, due to the layers of checking, data compliance, data security, etc. etc. Why was it necessary for Kevin Tomlinson to bring this up in the first place? Shouldn’t someone at MAR have noticed that 51 listings have had critical fields changed mid-stream and looked into it long before some random member went on a Nancy Drew adventure? So interesting.
Fourth, as I mentioned, there is a Change.org petition going around Miami asking MAR to discipline The Jills. Said petition has, as of this writing, 576 supporters. Last I looked, the Miami Association of REALTORS has 40,000-plus members. So despite all the press, all the drama, all the chatter, 1.44% of the members of MAR care enough to support such a petition. A few explanations are possible. (A) Huge percentages of members don’t think The Jills did anything wrong, and only 576 out of 40,000 do; or (B) only 1.44% of the members of MAR think that data accuracy is meaningful, and as long as they can do a search, pull comps, and get coop & compensation, they don’t care about anything else; or (C) only 1.44% of MAR members have even heard about this drama, because they pay zero attention to anything going on in the industry; or (D) everyone knows, everyone cares, but just not enough to go click on a couple of buttons on a website — they care, from a distance, and as long as such caring doesn’t mean they have to actually do anything.
All four of these things are super-interesting, because all four speak to the idea of the industry regulating itself. If the MLS and the Association are this bad at dealing with their bad apples, then perhaps the entire concept of the industry regulating itself is a joke, and we ought to invite the government in to do it for us. I would, except that the government might be even worse, as this video suggests:
I heard on the Inman podcast that the investigation has been suspended because Kevin Tomlinson’s criminal proceedings. I guess the idea is that he’s not reliable as a witness if he turns out to be a felon convicted for extortion. But I’m not sure I understand why. As I said, either the data records show tampering or they do not. If the level of manipulation is what was alleged, there is no possibility of “honest mistake” here. MAR wouldn’t need a witness other than the data records showing (a) who logged in, (b) when, and (c) what changes they made.
And yet, the drama drags on. The idea that the real estate industry can govern itself, and the idea that the Code of Ethics is the backbone of the Association of REALTORS, all the chest-pounding pride in the whole “We Are REALTORS!” thing, and even the idea that MLS Data is as pure as the driven snow falling on mountain springs all grow just a bit fainter and a bit more ironic with each and every passing day.
For that, The Jills are simply the most interesting people in real estate in 2015.