The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate, 2017 Edition

So I’ve decided to add to my end-of-the-year workload by starting something new this year. I call it the Interesting List, and there are seven people — a number that is sacred to me as well as many of the world’s oldest religions — on it. Hence, The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate. SMIPRE kinda sounds like (American) Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, so I guess I’m into it.

Now, Inman does the Influencers list, Swanepoel does the Power 200 list (I help out on that list), and both are far more respected and important than this short list of mine for a bunch of reasons.

Inman Influencers are “industry professionals who shape, change, and influence the industry.” Swanepoel’s SP200 takes over 600 hours of work (I can attest to that personally) and is the definitive guide to the most powerful individuals in real estate.

The Notorious R.O.B. Interesting List is neither of those things, although there are obvious overlaps because influence and power are interesting. It is simply a list of people (and companies) I find interesting for a variety of reasons. They may or may not be influential, may or may not be powerful, and in fact, you may or may not have heard of them at all. But I find them interesting, and that’s enough.

To prepare this list, the Committee (that would be Sunny and me) spent almost 600 hours (less 596) of grueling debate and analysis, using a proprietary analysis technique with the working title, “What does Sunny think of my crazy suggestions?” Bottles of wine may or may not have been consumed in putting this list together.

Without further ado, then, Notorious ROB presents, The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate in 2017.


1. Glenn Kelman, Redfin

To me, the most important event of 2017 was Redfin going public. Not because I own any Redfin stock (I don’t), or I do work for them (I don’t), but because Redfin finally had to open up its kimono as a public company. What we learned is eye-opening.

Take a look at just the facts from Redfin’s S-1:

  • 20 million monthly uniques on its website and mobile app
  • $16.2 billion in Sales Volume in 2016 (Would have been #5 on RealTrends 500)
  • 26,868 Transaction Sides in 2016 (Would have been #10 on RealTrends 500)
  • $267 million in revenues, a 44% YOY growth
  • Gained market share in 81 or 84 markets
  • Grew listings from 20% of its business to 30% of the business
  • The average Redfin agent does 34 transactions a year and generated $350,000 in revenues (not Sales, not GCI, but revenues) for Redfin

Right away, I realized that Redfin had been flying way under the radar for years as it grew and grew. I think that was on purpose, as Redfin took advantage of the improving real estate environment combined with the industry’s obsession with all things Zillow to quietly grow to be the fifth largest brokerage by volume.

Their latest earnings report, for Q3 of 2017, continued to reveal eye-opening facts.

We’re talking 35% growth in revenues to $109.5 million, with 38.1% gross margin in its real estate business. Redfin calculates gross margin differently from other brokerages, since it has employee agents and so pays for all of the selling expenses, but it’s a decent stand-in for Company Dollar. As of this writing, I am unaware of any brokerage in the U.S. with Company Dollar over 30%; the national average is around 15%.

For years, when it came to Redfin, a lot of people grumbled that crazy investors were putting money into a discount brokerage that hadn’t made any money and was just burning through investor cash. Well, Redfin posted a profit of $10.6 million for Q3 before accounting treatments of convertible preferred stock. How you like them apples?

What’s even more astonishing is that $10.6 million net income on $110 million revenues is a 9.7% profit margin. The national average for brokerages is around 3% profit margin, which means that half do less than that. At that point, you’re better off selling the brokerage and sticking that money into 10-yr Treasury notes considering that 2.5% or so in yield is risk-free.

As a point of comparison, look at the NRT, Realogy’s in-house brokerage: NRT had EBITDA of $52 million on revenues of $1.3 billion, or a 4.1% profit margin. (And EBITDA is higher than Net Income, so the actual profit margin is lower than 4.1%.)

The key to Redfin’s success, of course, is its website and mobile app — without question the best in the brokerage space (including franchises like KW and Re/Max). It is, in fact, the third largest real estate portal after Zillow and In Q3/2017, Redfin’s average monthly uniques hit 24 million, an increase of 38% YOY.

Again, just for the sake of comparison, Zillow grew its traffic by 6% YOY and grew its traffic by 3.8% YOY. Even taking into account the far larger bases of Zillow and Realtor, that’s serious growth. The raw numbers tell a story as well: 9 million uniques for Zillow, 2 million for Realtor, and 7 million for Redfin. At this pace, Redfin will overtake as the second largest website by 2020.

And there’s one more reason to watch Redfin very very carefully going forward.

In the Q3 Earnings Conference Call, Kelman said that Redfin had hired two key executives, Judith Simon, VP of Operational Excellence, and Keith Broxterman, VP of Customer Operations. Judith in particular is interesting as her job is to “[standardize] our brokerage’s processes for more consistent service, applying the data-driven approach we use for software engineering to brokerage processes for activating a listing, responding to an inquiry or closing a sale.”

It turns out that Redfin found more than 22,000 tasks for closing a sale, ranging from “responding to property inspections, scheduling a visit from the lender’s appraiser or checking the sewer pipes.” Redfin then reorganized those 22,000-plus tasks into “a master list of 191” and created a standard process for closing a sale. That makes it easier to build software to automate tasks for all Redfin agents everywhere in the country. So going forward, it will be possible to get closer and closer to the ideal of consistent high quality service delivery to any customer working with any Redfin agent anywhere in the country.

As Glenn Kelman put it, “This effort is only the most recent example of the close collaboration between process-oriented engineers, software engineers and real estate agents, all working for one company. It is the deepest source of our competitive advantage for making buying or selling a home better and less expensive.”

When traditional real estate brokerages can’t have consistent service delivery across a single office, as each agent does things her own way with varying levels of quality, Redfin is going to deliver consistent service across its 84 (and growing) markets? That’s nothing short of a miracle in real estate.

Of course, Redfin is able to do all of these things because its agents are not independent contractors who can do whatever they want. One of the more sad yet amusing part of the real estate industry is that brokerage managers don’t manage; they recruit, then cajole, plead, and encourage. Agents routinely ignore the “managing” broker, and mandatory meetings are mandatory only in the sense that they’re not at all mandatory. KW could distill its processes down to 191, but it can’t make its agents use them. Realogy could invest $300 million in some new tech platform, but it has to spend years cajoling its agents, “Please, please, pretty please, use our technology.” Redfin doesn’t have “agent adoption” problems.

Simply by continuing to post eye-popping numbers, by continuing to grow, by leveraging technology, and by creating innovations that it can push down through its agent ranks, Redfin is now the most important brokerage in North America.

That makes Glenn Kelman, its longtime leader, the Most Interesting Man in Real Estate for 2017.

Official Bio

Prior to joining Redfin, he was a co-founder of Plumtree Software, a Sequoia-backed, publicly traded company that created the enterprise portal software market. In his seven years at Plumtree, Glenn at different times led engineering, marketing, product management and business development; he also was responsible for financing and general operations in Plumtree’s early days. Prior to starting Plumtree, Glenn worked as one of the first employees at Stanford Technology Group, a Sequoia-backed start-up acquired by IBM. Glenn was raised in Seattle and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.

2. Robert Reffkin & Ori Allon, Compass

In a real way, I think of Compass as the anti-Redfin. It breaks no new ground that I know of, has no dominant website, and yet, it is having a real impact on the industry. People can’t stop talking about them. Plus, one simply can’t overlook the fact that Compass raised $450 million from Japan’s SoftBank, putting its value north of $2.2 billion. That’s $200 million more than Redfin’s valuation (as of this writing) and almost 2/3rd of Realogy’s $3.5 billion.

Pretty amazing for a company that launched in 2013. Since Compass isn’t public, we don’t know a lot of details about how they’re doing. We do know that Compass is now the 14th largest brokerage by Volume on the RealTrends 500 list with $7.1 billion, but since they’re concentrated in luxury markets like New York, San Francisco, Aspen, and The Hamptons, they’re 98th by Sides. Still, amazing for a 4 year old company.

What makes Compass so special? Well, the company says that it is “building the first modern real estate platform, pairing the industry’s top talent with technology to make the search and sell experience intelligent and seamless.” What does that mean?

This Fast Company profile of Compass from 2015 says that Compass is pulling data from all over the place, merging them into a central database, on which it does algorithmic voodoo to “make sense of the market with a clarity that wasn’t possible before.” I’ll just take their word for it since I’m not qualified to pass judgment on sophisticated big data algorithms, even if Compass were to make them public for some crazy reason.

On this central database, Compass builds agent-specific apps “designed with a level of functionality and intuitiveness not typically found in proprietary software used by real estate agents.” Now, to be frank, doing better than what the typical real estate agent uses is not a tall bar to clear given the laughable state of usability and design in real estate software (login to your local MLS if you need an example) but still, Compass’s apps and website are clean and modern.

Given the technology background of Ori Allon, who started and successfully sold two companies to Google and Twitter, respectively, one has to assume that whatever Compass has, it’s rock-solid. It probably has some sick machine learning stuff that wades through exabytes of data to surface some insight or another that helps Compass agents and customers. We have no real way of knowing until Compass starts publishing papers and presenting at tech conferences.

But if Ori is the technology half of Compass, it is the influence of Robert Reffkin, the super-suave, urbane and charismatic former Goldman Sachs investment banker who handles the business side that is having a major impact on the industry.

Compass has rocked the industry is with its recruiting practices. It has openly gone after top agents, and has paid large signing bonuses as part of its recruitment, sometimes equity in the company, not to mention sweetheart deals. Prospective agents get personal phone calls from Reffkin, which plays to their (enormous) egos, and then get wined and dined precisely as Wall Street investment banks have done for years to recruit top talent from their competitors.

Traditional brokerages have been forced to compete for their top talent in a new way as a result. It rattled at least one so badly that it sued Compass late last year; we’ll see where that goes.

So I find Compass fascinating. Where I find them less interesting is that they’re still a split-based traditional brokerage with independent contractors — most of whom are superstar agents with outsized egos and plenty of opportunities to jump ship. For example, thanks to a lawsuit, we know about Jason Walker, a top agent in New York who went from Elliman to Compass to CORE back to Elliman in 14 months.

Plus, the compensation packages may or may not be all that competitive. Obviously, we don’t know what Compass offers to every agent. We do know what Compass offered Walker, because it came out in a lawsuit.

According to The Real Deal story, Walker’s terms with Compass included:

…a 75 percent commission split on deals he sourced; payment for lost commissions as a result of leaving Elliman; the option to purchase six figures’ worth of Compass stock; a $50,000 marketing budget, and a $5,000 trip to Canyon Ranch.

Plus, Walker was supposed to get 10% of the commissions from agents he recruited to the firm — which echoes KW’s profit-sharing/down-line model.

What struck me is the 75/25 split that a mega-producer like Walker got from Compass. That’s not all that impressive in today’s brokerage market. 100% commission brokerages like RealtyOne and HomeSmart are kicking ass all over the country. Traditional brokerages are offering insane sweetheart deals to their top producers that sometimes go “negative split” once you figure in all of the marketing budgets, free office space, admin support and so on. Even the NRT took a big hit to its margins this year to try to be competitive (read the Realogy earnings report for details).

I suppose Compass’s technology, support and other services justifies the 25% that the agent (at least Walker) is paying Compass on every deal. I don’t know and can’t say since I’m not a Compass agent. And maybe the agent tech is mind-blowing and revolutionary. Maybe. But when its strategic plan highlights “futuristic” lighted yard signs… which HomeSmart has been deploying since last year… color me a wee bit skeptical.

Nonetheless, Ori and Robert are incredibly interesting men in real estate due to the explosive growth, success in fundraising, and their backgrounds prior to real estate. I can’t think of another brokerage that combines a highly accomplished technologist like Allon together with a polished Wall Street executive like Reffkin.

Official Bio

Prior to Compass Ori was the Director of Engineering at Twitter’s NYC office, after selling his prior company, Julpan, to Twitter in 2011. Previously, Google acquired his patented thesis work called Orion. During his time at Google, Ori led a search quality team that integrated the Orion technology and algorithms with the Google search engine. Ori earned his PhD in computer science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Prior to Compass Robert worked at Goldman Sachs as Chief of Staff to the President & COO following five years working in the firm’s private equity arm. Prior to Goldman Sachs, he worked at Lazard and McKinsey & Company. In 2005, he was appointed as a White House Fellow to serve as special assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury. Robert is also the Founder of New York Needs You. He received a B.A. and M.B.A. from Columbia University. Outside of work, he recently completed 50 marathons, one in each state, to raise $1 million for nonprofits.

3. Bob Goldberg, NAR

After a process that was filled with… ah… mystery, NAR finally chose Bob Goldberg as its CEO, surprising exactly nobody. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve already read through the minor kerfuffle in the pages of this here blog.

To be honest, to be the head staff guy at a nonprofit trade organization is about as interesting as the details of how to establish timing rules for capital gains taxes. (*YAWN) Proof? Quick, name two other trade organization CEOs.

But Bob Goldberg is one of the most interesting people in real estate for 2017 because of what he promised and what he represents for the largest and the most politically powerful trade organization in the country: National Association of REALTORS.

Since taking over in August, Goldberg has made a number of promises to improve NAR. Here’s a list from his speech that Inman News covered:

  • Build a new strategic think tank
  • Establish a new strategic business and technology group
  • Launch a world-class tech conference
  • Pursue new financial and legislative solutions
  • Dedicate additional NAR staff to changing demographics
  • Investigate a homeowner’s coalition membership organization
  • Improve communication to NAR members
  • Start a “Day in the Life Program” for NAR
  • Review NAR’s organizational structure

He also has talked constantly about “smashing the ivory tower facade” and “turning the pyramid upside down” and so on.

Now, he hasn’t yet delivered on a number of those promises, but hey, it’s NAR we’re talking about — an organization with a Board of Directors larger than Congress. Zillow, it is not. So it doesn’t move that fast. I assume the think tank, tech conference, and so on are on their way as we speak.

But what makes Bob Goldberg more interesting than his promises is the sea change in culture taking place at NAR under his kinder, gentler leadership style.

I have written before that the biggest impact that Bob Goldberg will have is on the culture of NAR. Since writing that post, a number of people both inside and outside NAR have contacted me privately to say that I was dead-on. They won’t say so publicly, for obvious reasons, but it is clear that the institutional culture at NAR has and continues to change.

That alone makes him interesting. But one other thing has surfaced since he took office: the fight over Tax Reform.

Who knows how things will ultimately end up, but as of this writing, the Republican tax reform thing appears to be a done deal. According to the linked Forbes article, the mortgage interest deduction is raised to $750K from $500K in the House version and the capital gains exclusion remains unchanged. Given where things were before at the House and the Senate, you have to count this as a big win for NAR. Saving the MID and saving the home sale exclusion were two of the top priorities for NAR going into this fight. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but I have to say Bob and team delivered.

However things turn out on Capitol Hill, how NAR responds to this will be all kinds of interesting. Presumably, there were a number of Congresscritters who went against NAR on this. How will NAR respond in the coming years? The public might forget the tax bill in a few months when some new Kardashian thing hits social media, but NAR and its lobbying team are not going to forget so quickly or forgive so easily.

And that is interesting because our politics are so incredibly divided. How the REALTOR Party politics plays into that divided general politics of NAR members in the years to come is definitely popcorn worthy in my book.

Official Bio

A 25-year veteran of NAR, Goldberg took over the reins on August 1, 2017. Prior to assuming the CEO position, he served as NAR senior vice president of Sales & Marketing, Business Development & Strategic Investments, Professional Development and Conventions for NAR.

In his SVP role, Goldberg was responsible for brand and strategic marketing and association non-dues revenue, and oversaw the largest employee base at NAR, with 69 division personnel. He guided a broad range of association initiatives including business development, strategic planning and partnerships, association product and marketing services and management, member professional development, competitive brand positioning, marketing, advertising and promotions, and group conventions.

Additionally, Mr. Goldberg is the President and Chief Executive Officer for the REALTORS® Information Network (RIN), a for profit, wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), the nation’s largest professional trade association. As CEO, he is responsible for oversight of the® Operating Agreement with Move, Inc. Previously, Mr. Goldberg was the Chief Operating Officer and Senior Vice President of Marketing for RIN. As a member of the Executive Management team, he was responsible for business development and strategic partnerships, product marketing, management of all products and services, contract negotiations, strategic planning, competitive positioning, marketing and corporate communications, advertising and promotions, and conventions.

4. Amy Bohutinsky, Zillow

[Note: I had a business relationship with Zillow until June of this year.]

There is no way to talk about a list of Interesting People without talking about somebody from Zillow. Normally, that would be the company’s CEO, Spencer Rascoff. He’s plenty interesting, and is the undisputed leader of Zillow Group, but I went with Amy Bohutinsky, COO, because… well, it’s my list and I can cry if I want to.

No, the real reason is that Amy is the highest profile female executive in an industry that is rather dominated by men. Plus, we simply can’t ignore what Zillow did in 2017.

Let’s start with the fact that Zillow posted a profit in Q3 of $9.2 million, a record, on $281.8 million in revenues, another record. Its traffic grew by 6% YOY to 175 million monthly uniques. By any measure, those are stellar numbers, and Amy as COO can take credit for much of it.

Another milestone came when it was revealed that consumers search for the term ‘zillow’ on Google more than they do ‘real estate’. If you need proof of power of Zillow’s brand, seek no more. As the former CMO of Zillow, one could argue that Amy has had more of an impact on this incredible milestone than anyone else.

Zillow Research continues to do cool and interesting things, like the Consumer Housing Trend Report. And more and more think tanks, academics, and media are using Zillow Research numbers over NAR’s numbers — quite likely because Zillow gives away its data for free to a lot of universities and institutions.

And of course, we had Zillow Instant Offers. It unleashed a firestorm of hate from parts of the industry with people screaming (virtually) that Zillow is now a brokerage and will insert itself into the relationship with sellers. This despite the company saying Instant Offers is just a test, that they’re not charging for it, and that they come in peace, and so on and so forth. (One imagines that the folks at Redfin, an actual brokerage with the third largest portal in real estate, who launched a competing service in Redfin Now, were quietly chuckling reading the comments on Inman and elsewhere.)

What struck me about l’affaire d’Instant Offers was that Opendoor had been merrily buying and selling homes for a couple of years. They’ve bought and sold thousands of homes with their buy-direct model. Competitor Offerpad had raised $260 million in equity and debt in January. And except for weirdoes like me, nobody paid any attention to any of it.

Once Zillow gets in the game, however, despite not actually buying or selling any houses, the talk of the industry becomes The iBuyer Phenomenon. Franchises and brokers and MLS and Associations all start talking about the iBuyer. It was amazing.

What it showed me was that once again, Zillow is the tail that wags the real estate industry’s dog. I wrote once that every conversation in real estate begins and ends with Zillow. I see no reason to change that opinion.

Finally, as mentioned, AmyBo is the highest profile female executive at the highest profile company in real estate. One of the oddities about the industry is that some 60% of real estate agents are women, but most of the top executives are men. It is odd enough that Inman issued a Special Report on the topic, and the California Association of REALTORS, under the leadership of Leslie Appleton Young and Sara Sutachan, launched a movement called WomanUp!

Now add to the mix the current business and cultural environment around sexual harassment. It seems like a matter of time before that hits real estate. We know that there are already underground whispers about #MeToo in the industry.

At a moment like this, I feel like the actions of all leaders, but especially high-ranking woman leaders like AmyBo, could be both important and interesting.

Official Bio

As chief operating officer, Amy oversees Zillow Group’s people organization (HR, recruiting and learning & development), as well as marketing, communications and consumer care. Amy joined Zillow pre-launch in 2005, as one of the company’s earliest employees, and previously served as Chief Marketing Officer.

In 2017, Amy was the first woman to be named one of Swanepoel’s ten most powerful people in real estate. Amy has received numerous awards including: Puget Sound Business Journal’s 2017 Women of Influence, Inman News’ list of The Real Estate Influencers of 2017, Direct Marketing News’ Marketing Hall of Femme 2014, HousingWire’s 2014 Women of Influence and Puget Sound Business Journal’s 20 Under 40 in 2012. Amy also lends her expertise on the boards of directors of Avvo, the web’s largest legal marketplace, and HotelTonight, a fast-growing mobile-based hotel booking service.

Before joining Zillow, Amy ran communications for Hotwire, a discount travel site. She led the PR launch of Hotwire in 2000, and continued through the company’s $675 million acquisition by IAC/InterActiveCorp in 2003.

Amy started her career as a broadcast journalist, working for various CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from Washington & Lee University.


5. Gary Keller, Keller Williams

It is difficult to find an individual as interesting as Gary Keller. In real estate, maybe only Dave Liniger of Re/Max could match up as an interesting person. Most leaders of major real estate companies are powerful people behind the scenes who avoid the spotlight. Think Richard Smith of Realogy, Ron Peltier of HomeServices of America, Hoddy Hanna of Howard Hanna, and the list goes on.

Gary Keller, on the other hand, is a bona fide rockstar in real estate. When he takes the stage at various KW events, tween girls at a One Direction show got nothing on Gary Keller fans. And for good reason: he’s a great, compelling speaker who motivates and inspires.

The company he founded in 1983 has grown to be the largest franchise brand in North America with 173,015 sales associates by Q3 of 2017. Through KW, Keller has pioneered real innovations that drove the rest of the industry to catch up, often kicking and screaming. Keller introduced caps on commissions, profit sharing, and the modern agent team as we know it today.

Through September of this year, KW had 813,828 Transaction Sides and $240.7 billion in Sales Volume, up 10% and 16.6% YOY respectively. Owner profit was $160.3 million, up 12.9% YOY, and the famous profit sharing was $139.2 million in Q3, up 14% YOY.

That’s kickass by any measure. But that’s not the only reason why I find Gary Keller, and by extension Keller Williams, so interesting.

What makes KW so interesting is that it is facing enormous pressure from the new crop of low-cost operators, like NextHome (below), and the 100% transaction-fee brokerages like RealtyOne, HomeSmart and others. In an article earlier this year, Inman highlighted and profiled the 100% phenomenon, including interviews with people like Kuba Jewgieniew of RealtyOne. For years, KW held the title belt to low-cost models which it took from Re/Max. Well, these new guys are gunning for that cost-advantage belt in a big way.

Looking at one migration report from San Diego, it shows that the biggest winners were the new 100% brokerages, while the biggest losers were Re/Max and… you guessed it, Keller Williams.

Even outside of these new 100% shops, other companies have copied what works. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the industry is flattering the hell outta KW. Caps on commissions and some form of “profit sharing” for recruiting are commonplace now. Upstart eXp Realty is experiencing enormous growth having copied a lot of the concepts from KW. Traditional brokerages belonging to old-line brands have had to offer caps in order to compete. We saw above that even Compass, a new tech-hybrid, has had to offer revenue sharing for recruiting.

NextHome, profiled below, is taking advantage of the agent team model pioneered by Gary Keller and going directly at them. While other franchising brands only work with brokers, NextHome is more than happy to help an agent team setup a small brokerage.

Taken together, what it signifies is that the current way of doing things is not enough for KW despite fantastic performances to date.

That might explain why Keller Williams made some big recent hires: Josh Team as Chief Innovation Officer in 2016, Jonathan Berkowitz as Chief Strategy & Product Officer and Steve Peterschmidt as Chief Technology Officer in 2017. They introduced “Keller Cloud” which will be an integrated platform for KW agents.

What KW has announced is that it will develop its own technology, rather than working with vendors:

“World-class technology companies do not outsource their technology roadmap or their vision,” said KW chief innovation officer Josh Team. “It’s imperative that we control our destiny, and that we create the real estate platform that agents and consumers choose to use.”

He said the company is “no longer renting solutions but owning them” and “no more silos.”

And of course, KW announced that it is setting aside a whopping $1 billion with a B for technology development.

That is all kinds of interesting. $1 billion will buy KW a lot of talented developers, especially in the growing tech hub that is Austin. On the other hand, we’re left to wonder if that’s $1 billion per year? $1 billion over 10 years? Up to $1 billion over some period of time?

Since Zillow spends roughly a quarter of that on technology each year, Redfin spends $35 million or so a year, and Compass is led by a Google/Twitter tech genius who just raised $450 million… what will KW have to spend to be competitive with them? It’s a good question, and I assume answers will be forthcoming over the next several months.

Suppose KW is successful with this in-house technology play. And let’s be honest: KW does have a rather lengthy track record of success. If so, others will again flatter KW by rushing to copy the KW technology model. Realogy and HomeServices of America both can afford to spend, once KW has proven that spending on tech works.

What happens to real estate technology vendors then? They could maybe ask the dinosaurs and flightless dodo birds that question.

However things play out, there is no doubt that Gary Keller, the undisputed master and heart and soul of KW, is one of the most interesting men in real estate.

Official Bio

As Chairman of the Board for Keller Williams, Gary Keller helps set strategic direction for the company.

Gary graduated from Baylor University in 1979 with a degree in marketing and real estate. He helped five families buy a home his first month in the business, and by age 26 was the vice president of expansion for Austin’s then-largest real estate company. He resigned from the position, and three and a half years later, his new firm was the largest in town – a position it retains to this day. Gary soon took his company and his philosophy of “people helping people” nationally, then internationally.

Gary is the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including The Millionaire Real Estate Agent, The Millionaire Real Estate Investor, SHIFT: How Top Real Estate Agents Tackle Tough Times and The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, which reached #1 on the Wall Street Journal business bestseller list.

A noted philanthropist and supporter of the arts, Keller and his wife, Mary Pfluger, live in Austin. His passions include fly fishing, hunting, snow skiing, golf, music, reading, movies, sports, dogs, and spending as much time as possible with his son John.

6. James Dwiggins, NextHome

I’ve been friends with James for quite some time. And he’s clearly one of the tallest — and definitely the leader in the height-to-weight ratio — men in real estate. But that’s not what makes him one of the Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate.

No, what makes him interesting is the incredible growth of his new franchise, NextHome.

As of this writing, NextHome has the following:

  • 263 franchisee offices, up 63.4% YOY
  • 2,000 agents, 94.9% YOY
  • 9,500 transaction sides, up 140.9% YOY
  • $2.3 billion in Sales Volume, up 115.0% YOY

And the year isn’t quite over.

From 2015, when NextHome officially launched, its growth in offices, agents, transactions, and volume respectively are 275.7%, 507.9%, 1,410.3%, and 812.7%. Put simply, NextHome is growing like crazy.

To be fair, it’s easier to have triple digit percentage growth rates if your base is low. And the 9,500 in transaction sides and $2.3 billion in volume pale in comparison to say KW, with 800K transactions and $240 billion in volume.

But the fact is that NextHome is growing like crazy and often at the expense of its bigger competitors.

NextHome’s value proposition is simple yet strong: fresh, modern branding, combined with technology-powered services, all at extremely low cost. With the entire management team under 45 years old, NextHome is young (at least for real estate), and that affects the aesthetics and culture of the brand.

Now, like any other franchise, they offer training, a technology platform, marketing services, and a branding package. But the costs are extremely low, especially when compared to the industry stalwarts like Realogy brands who often charge 6% royalties plus 2% in National Advertising Fund.

But what I find so interesting about NextHome, even compared to other fast-growing brands like eXp, is its outright focus on bringing agent teams in as startup brokerages.

KW introduced the modern agent team into real estate. But oftentimes, the team leader realizes that she isn’t getting all that much from her brokerage since she pays for all her own technology, marketing, admin staff, buyer agents, and even her own office space. Such teams often spin off into a small boutique brokerage, but most national franchise brands are not even interested in such small companies. NextHome is, and in fact targets agent teams for franchising.

It’s been a winning formula for NextHome, and eventually, existing franchises will have to take notice. Because the value of a brokerage is often tied to its highest producing agents, and almost all such top producers today have or are forming teams. Lose one or two such teams, and a brokerage could be looking at enormous losses in market share and revenues.

NextHome’s growth may have been as strong just targeting small brokerages. But its explosive growth is a coda to the biggest story in real estate in the past decade or so: the agent team is eating the industry. While traditional franchises not named Keller Williams are struggling with the issue of agent teams, NextHome is taking things to another level by offering to liberate the agent teams from their brokers in the first place.

I think that’s super interesting.

Official Bio

James is the Chief Executive Officer of NextHome, Inc. He brings to the table a sharp, innovative and forward-focused vision. He has been in the franchise business for 8 years now, originally joining Realty World Northern California & Nevada as Director of Technology and Strategy in 2006. In October 2011, his stellar performance in that capacity led to his promotion of Vice President. In May 2014, he and his business partner finalized the funding of their newest venture, NextHome, Inc., and purchased the Master License Agreement to Realty World Northern California & Northern Nevada, which has over 180+ office locations and 900+ agents.

Prior to joining Realty World in 2006, James co-founded VREO, Inc., the developer of groundbreaking enterprise-level Internet applications for agents and brokers. VREO pioneered biometric signature software for paperless transactions and garnered numerous industry awards including the coveted Inman Innovator Award for its breakthrough technologies. Previously, James co-founded USA Virtual Tours, helping to grow the company nationally until its acquisition in 2001.

James regularly speaks to audiences at the California Association of Realtors Annual Conventions, the Asian Real Estate Association of America, the Inman Agent Reboot and Real Estate Connect conferences, and numerous Women’s Council of Realtors and local Realtor’s association meetings and events. In 2010, he started and chaired the Young Professionals Network for the California Association of Realtors and served on the 2010 National Association of Realtors Events and Conventions Committee. He has also been a member of Trulia’s industry advisory board since 2011.

James studied business and criminal law at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, CA.

7. Dave Liniger & Adam Contos, Re/Max

I find Dave Liniger, Founder and CEO of Re/Max, interesting all by his lonesome.

Most business executives own a set of top-notch clubs and belong to multiple exclusive country clubs. Dave, on the other hand, owns an entire golf course. And Sanctuary Golf Course is the toughest tee time to get in Colorado, perhaps in the world, with all of the green fees (as much as $1,250 per person for 18 holes) going to charity. His house has a full fledged shooting range that I’ve heard the local police departments train in thanks to its advanced simulation technology.

He’s a Vietnam veteran, hunted big game all over the globe, drove race cars, flies jet airplanes, is an accomplished diver, and of course, pilots hot-air balloons. He survived a very serious illness in 2012 during which he flatlined and spent four months in a coma. The man is interesting.

Adam Contos, the new co-CEO, is all kinds of interesting as well. He is a former LEO, who led the local SWAT as Tactical Commander, with a sergeant’s rank in the USMC Reserves. He began his career at RE/MAX teaching a course on Realtor Safety long before that was on many people’s radars.

Just the fact that they’re both gun guys makes me want to hug them, so yeah, they’re interesting.

But what makes the duo one (well, two) of the most interesting people in real estate in 2017 is the fact that they did something — we’re not entirely sure what that something is — that required a delay in Re/Max reporting its Q3 earnings and the announcement that the company is undertaking an “internal investigation involving allegations of wrongdoing.” Understandably, Re/Max stock dropped 21% overnight on the news.

Supposedly, the entire brouhaha is because Liniger loaned Contos — who isn’t just the new CEO, but also a personal friend — some money so he can buy a house.

Thing is, major corporate boards tend not to go apeshit because of something minor. Furthermore, I have my doubts as to a publicly traded company delaying its required quarterly earnings release, resulting in a warning from the NYSE that its stock might be delisted, because two executives loaned each other money in violation of an internal company code of conduct provision.

I mean, look at this press release from Re/Max:

In October 2017, the Board of Directors appointed a special committee of independent directors (the “Special Committee”) to investigate allegations concerning actions of certain members of the Company’s senior management including an allegation of a previously undisclosed loan of personal funds from David L. Liniger, the Company’s Co-Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, to Adam M. Contos, the Company’s Co-Chief Executive Officer, and allegations of wrongdoing in employment practices and conduct. These matters could constitute violations of the Company’s codes of ethics and business conduct and policies.

Messrs. Liniger and Contos have confirmed the existence of the personal loan for the purchase of a residence in the amount of $2.375 million at a below market interest rate, certain other personal transactions in the form of cash and non-cash gifts, and that no Company funds were used or otherwise involved in any of these transactions.

The Special Committee is conducting an investigation with the assistance of independent outside advisors.  Management of the Company does not currently believe material adjustments to its previously issued financial statements are required as a result of the loan and gift transactions described above.  However, the investigation by the Special Committee is ongoing and the Company is currently unable to predict the outcome or the timing of its completion.

A Special Committee, with outside advisors (read, lawyers), for a personal loan between two friends where no company funds were used? Okay, they violated the Code of Conduct, fine. Slap them on the wrist, make them pay a fine or something, put a note in their personnel files, and move on, no?

And the critical Q3 earnings report is delayed, possibly until May of next year with the Company saying that it “is not able to complete its Form 10-Q while certain aspects of the investigation remain incomplete.” What the hell?

Even more puzzling, it isn’t as if Re/Max was hurting, which might raise some suspicion of shenanigans. Looking at the Q2 Release, it looked as if Re/Max was doing very well indeed:

  • Agent count up 5.7% YOY to 116,270
  • Revenue up 12.5% YOY to $48.8 million
  • Net income of $7.5 million
  • Paid a quarterly dividend of $0.18
  • $70.3 million in cash, with low debt

Its Motto Mortgage business was doing fine and growing. Re/Max had solid performance all around at least halfway through 2017.

So taken altogether, the whole investigation-and-not-releasing-earnings thing is a head scratcher. And as of this writing, we have heard nothing from the Company from November 2nd when it released the bombshell delay announcement.

That’s an awfully long time to be investigating an internal code of conduct violation that Liniger and Contos both already admitted to where no company funds were used.

With each day that passes, the mind starts to speculate as to what the allegations of wrongdoing could be. Could it be some financial impropriety that throws the numbers posted by Re/Max into doubt? Maybe, but the specific wording in the delay announcement was “allegations of wrongdoing in employment practices and conduct.”

You know where you see that phrasing? We’ve all seen it quite a bit in recent months. Yep, that’s right, we see it in the #MeToo sexual misconduct stories that seem to be everywhere these days from Hollywood to media to the NFL. Could there be some sort of #MeToo bombshell brewing over in Denver? Is that why there’s such a delay and so-far lengthy investigation involving outside lawyers?

Who the hell knows? It’s all pure speculation until the Board completes its investigation and releases something. But until then, they remain one (two) of the most interesting people in real estate.

Official Bio

I don’t think that’s necessary given why they’re so interesting.

Interesting, But Not Top Seven

In any list like this, there are always people who aren’t on it but maybe should be. For myself, I thought of a bunch of people: Ryan Schneider, new CEO of Realogy; Eric Wu, CEO of Opendoor; Joel Singer, CEO of CAR; John Peyton, CEO of Realogy Franchise Group; Ryan O’Hara, CEO of Move; Leslie Appleton Young, Chief Economist of CAR; and on and on and on.

But the nice thing about the Interesting List, instead of say the Influencers or Power200, is that the criteria is so subjective. Different people are interesting to different people for different reasons. This is my list and reasons why I find them interesting. You are likely to have your list and why you find them interesting.

I know I would love to hear who you find interesting and why, and maybe I’ll watch them too over 2018 for next year’s edition.

Until then, I hope this has been as fun for you to read as it was for me to write.


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Rob Hahn

Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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11 thoughts on “The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate, 2017 Edition”

  1. A list of industry notables is interesting. A list of such notables accompanied with a narrative as to why they are the people that have been placed on the list. Better. Nice job Rob.

  2. Jim Weix, who was the catalyst behind MLS Policy 7.42 and Territorial Jurisdiction being done away with beginning 2018.

    Real estate broker-owner Jim Weix received an unexpected letter a year ago from his multiple listing service: If he did not pay subscriber fees for 12 of his 27 agents by August 1, 2016, his firm’s MLS service would be suspended.

    MLS services are not free, and no MLS is obligated to provide its services to anyone who fails to pay the subscriber fees. But what if agents don’t want the service at all? Should they be forced to pay anyway?

    That question will go before a National Association of Realtors (NAR) MLS committee at the 1.2 million-member trade group’s midyear conference this month.

    At issue will be an NAR MLS policy that allows Realtor-affiliated MLSs to require that all of the licensed salespersons affiliated with a broker’s office subscribe to the MLS — if a broker is a member of the MLS and the physical location of that broker’s office lies within the boundaries of the MLS’s territorial jurisdiction. MLSs’ territorial jurisdictions are not fixed, unlike the jurisdictions of local Realtor associations.

    The policy is a “local option,” meaning that NAR does not mandate that it be adopted, but allows local MLSs to adopt it in their marketplace.

    According to Weix, the policy hurts agent recruiting and retention and props up small MLSs that would otherwise consider consolidating with their neighbors. On the other hand, some MLSs may be worried about agents having access to the MLS through their broker without paying for it.

  3. Rob, you always deliver a “good read” and this was no exception.
    In fact, the piece was as “interesting” as the “interesting” people you selected. Thanks.
    Only problem I see…the movie had seven people and this piece you have written has nine people.
    What’s up with that?
    See you at ICNY!

    • Damn good catch, Michelle! I just couldn’t find a way to separate Allon/Reffkin and Liniger/Contos….

      I’m surprised no one has suggested some other names for 2018! 🙂

  4. Extraordinarily well written Rob! I appreciate how much you dug into the numbers and supported why you thought they were interesting. I’m sharing this at my company meeting today. An impressive piece. Hoping we will catch our once yearly dinner in NY at ICNY. Looking forward to next year’s musings….

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