Court blocks ex-Keller CEO from joining eXp

Keller contends that Mark Willis will share confidential info with rival causing "irreparable damage"

A fierce, maybe unprecedented, court room battle over executives is brewing between Keller Williams and eXp, with Keller Williams winning round one.

Texas state court judge Cleve Doty issued a temporary restraining order Monday against Mark Willis, who is the former CEO of Keller Williams, from joining eXp in an executive role.

Doty of Travis County court, which is home to Austin and Keller Williams’ headquarters, found Keller Williams had valid contentions that Willis would illicitly share trade secrets.

Doty also scheduled a hearing for Feb. 18 on whether to extend the injunction.

The imbroglio is perhaps the climatic salvo in a feud between Keller Williams and eXp that has simmered for years but escalated this summer, says one source close to the situation. According to the source, eXp, which has grown its 12-year-old, cloud-based brokerage partly through recruiting Keller Williams agents, began targeting Keller Williams executives.

Keller Williams fought fire with fire. Besides suing eXp over Willis, Keller Williams’ CEO from 2005 to 2014, the brokerage snared Stacey Onnen, former president of operations at eXp. Onnen is Keller Williams’ new director of growth operations, Keller Williams announced Friday.

Keller Williams’ actions prompted tweets from eXp CEO Glenn Sanford cryptically denouncing his rival’s tactics. On Tuesday, Sanford, a former Keller Williams agent took a more explicit stance:

“I am a strong proponent for agent and leadership mobility in the real estate industry,” Sanford declared in a statement provided to RealTrends. “We are interested in engaging with Mark Willis because of his management experience and demonstrated leadership in the industry. eXp Realty has intervened in the lawsuit to protect its right to hire qualified real estate professionals and has no interest in any competitor’s confidential information.”

The company also noted that Willis resigned from Keller Williams in 2014, and “his only role with Keller Williams since 2016 has been as a passive investor in one Keller Williams franchise and two regions.”

According to his LinkedIn, Willis has, in the intervening years, founded Mark Willis Leadership, is founder and chairman of the Willis Family Foundation, and is owner and chairman of BrainJuice, “A brilliantly-crafted supplement made of handpicked, high-quality ingredients that are scientifically verified to benefit the brain,” per the LinkedIn profile.

Willis declined to comment for this story.

Keller Williams declined to comment as well, stating the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Keller Williams’ court filings claim declare that “unless restrained…Willis, through his employment with eXp, will disclose Keller Williams’ intellectual property” causing “irreparable damage” to the brokerage, the largest in the country by agent count.

The direct feud between Keller Williams and eXp comes on the heels of pending litigation between other real estate rivals including Realogy and Compass. But it is virtually unheard of for brokerages to specifically try and poach the leadership of one rival firm, said Steve Murray, senior adviser at RealTrends.

“This is the first time I have seen such a thing in my 36 years in real estate,” Murray said.

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