The mercurial Keller Williams founder Gary Keller still operates like a cowboy, running his sprawling global enterprise as he sees fit.
Twenty years ago at the RE/MAX convention, company founder Dave Liniger arrived in a green Humvee, dressed in military fatigues and black boots. He delivered a passionate speech dubbed, “Real Estate Wars.” He was “doing battle with the dot.coms, who believe they’re entitled to part of the real estate commission.”
Twelve years later, I sat on stage at the RE/MAX convention in Las Vegas with Liniger for a one-on-one interview.
A small group of Palestinian protestors were marching outside, because of the real estate company’s big presence in Israel
As we were getting mic’d up, Dave leaned over and discreetly adjusted a small pistol and its ankle holster underneath his pants leg. His oversized German Shepherd Max was standing front and center, right off the stage, fixed on his master.
Liniger is one the last real estate cowboys, who started his iconic and powerful real estate brand from nothing. Until it went public in 2013, he controlled the ownership, the direction, the strategy and every decision at the Denver-based enterprise.
Today, Liniger is older, wiser and more buttoned up. His race cars, private golf course in the Colorado Rockies and the RE/MAX hot air balloons are now part of the company’s lore. Publicly traded company investors are not too keen on those types of extravaganzas.
Personality-driven companies are going away as the industry consolidates.
One exception is Keller Williams.
Often playing his guitar from stage at KW events, the mercurial founder Gary Keller still operates like a cowboy, running his sprawling global enterprise as he sees fit.
This past week, we learned that he parted ways with KW president Josh Team in a clumsy post by Team on Facebook, before Keller could announce the news to the KW troops. Such a stumble is less likely to occur with a publicly traded company, where executive suite changes are handled as delicately as protecting a $10 million diamond at a Christie’s estate auction.
In the last six years, six different individuals have occupied the top role at KW: Mark Willis, Chris Heller, John Davis, Josh Team, Carl Liebert and Keller himself. Nevertheless, the company is still growing with founder Keller at the helm driving growth and innovation.
Today, the real estate industry has a new generation of leaders: Zillow’s Rich Barton, eXp’s Glenn Sanford, Redfin’s Glenn Kellman, realtor.com’s David Doctorow and Compass’s Robert Reffkin.
They are not technocrats, but their Gen-X style is different from characters like Keller and Liniger. But like their industry forefathers, they are all men with big ambitions to spread their reach and make a pile of money.
The charismatic Barton and Reffkin, who are both founders like Keller and Liniger, have some characteristics of an earlier generation, but it’s hard to imagine them dressed up in military fatigues or packing heat on stage.
Reffkin openly expresses his admiration for Keller. “The person I most admire in the industry,” he once told me.
They are all controversial innovators. Liniger built the first large agent-focused real estate empire, changing how they were paid and diminishing the value of broker owners. Keller pioneered profit-sharing for Realtors. They both have cult-like agent followings.
What will the new generation of real estate luminaries do with their clout and reach is difficult to predict. It is not clear that they have any sort of a higher industry calling, like Liniger with his attack on technology or Keller with his agent protectionism ideology.
Twenty five years ago, Wall Street financier Henry Silverman swooped in and consolidated many of the big real estate brands like Century 21 and Coldwell Banker — creating Realogy. Ten years later, he unloaded the company at the peak of the housing market to private equity firm Apollo. It was burdened with staggering debt and left on life support for 10 years.
Unlike Keller and Liniger, Silverman was not a good caretaker of these powerful brands and they suffered as a result. He did not seem to care much about real estate or the industry built around it.
The love for the real estate business is what motivated many of these iconic personalities. And many of us.