Is Keller Williams rising or falling — or has it settled into a role of venerable franchise network in a growing ecosystem of international brokerages?
The team’s executive leadership shifts give the appearance that change is afoot. Gary Keller, who founded the Austin, Texas-based company, stepped down last year as CEO. Holding company KWx was created, with Carl Liebert, someone outside the real estate industry, named as its CEO.
Then in February, Josh Team announced on Facebook he was out as company president, replaced by Marc King, the company’s then-director of growth.
King has spent over a decade at Keller Williams, including leading the company’s Branson, Missouri, operation. He speaks reverently of Keller as someone who is obsessed with real estate agents and who, when he dies, “Will have ‘Realtor’ carved on his tombstone.”
How to measure Keller Williams’ success is not always easy. The brokerage is bursting with agents — 173,000 in the U.S. and Canada at last count — and is a traditionally “high-volume, low-margin” enterprise, King said. Other brokerages of such reach — Realogy, RE/MAX, Compass this list goes on — are publicly traded with readily available profit and revenue numbers.
Keller Williams has resisted the initial public offering path. “When everybody runs in one direction, Gary runs in the other,” King said.
HousingWire spoke over the phone with King about what it’s like to work with Keller and leading a company in a time of acute social turmoil. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:
HousingWire: Did becoming president of Keller Williams necessitate a move to Austin?
Marc King: I moved to Austin officially in March. I bought a house and was reminded how important a real estate agent is. You would think someone with my experience might not need one, but the local real estate expert is so important, them being the fiduciary in action.
My agent knew street-to-street the tax rates, which is important because property taxes are so much higher in Texas. Understanding if it was good land to have horses, or where the local landfill is, and where the good school districts are. My agent was very good.
HousingWire: Who was your agent?
Marc King: Clay McLaughlin [a Keller Williams broker associate in Austin]. That question puts me in the hot spot because it’s kind of like I have 184,000 children.
HousingWire: What is it like communicating with your leadership team — how much is in real life and what is virtual?
Marc King: It’s a hybrid. Some weeks I will have 60 hours of Zoom calls alone. There is a lot of work to do, and we are facing not just the COVID challenge but social unrest.
Thank goodness I work with Gary Keller. He is unbelievable.
HousingWire: Regarding social unrest, Texas is the center of controversy now for both state laws that prohibit local governments from taking precautionary measures on the coronavirus as well as the recent state measure outlawing abortions after six weeks.
Marc King: There’s also the storms like the hurricane that hit New Orleans last week. It’s a myriad of things altogether.
It’s the most challenging leadership environment I’ve ever seen.
HousingWire: What has KW done in response to these challenges?
Marc King: We hired Julia Lashay-Israel as head of diversity and inclusion in May and she has written two real estate courses, and the goal is to get those courses in front of as many associates as possible. There’s a confluence of issues that we have to address.
And we clearly must do a lot more digital training. Mega camp (a Keller Williams showcase two weeks ago focused on agent training) became digital.
But there is a lot of fatigue with sitting in front of a computer. As agents, we are people people. We like to be the life of the party.
This has been a great study in human sociology. COVID has made them adopt to a different behavioral lifestyle. People who are used to being the life of the party have had to move to a different format.
And we were always the company that put big, physical events on the map, so that was a big pivot. When we saw the number of available hospital beds declining and the Delta variant growing, we made the right decision for the health and safety of our people to make Mega camp digital. The swing there cost us millions of dollars but there was no question we were doing the right thing.
HousingWire: If the real estate economy has anyone approaching celebrity or even cult of personality status, it’s Gary Keller. What is it like working with someone like him? How do you both respect his experience and wisdom but also voice your own strategic vision?
Marc King: Obviously, I admire him. He has been more impactful on my opportunities than any single human being.
Gary works with me and Matt Green, [head of agent growth and partnership experience] almost daily. You would think someone with his success would be off at the beach, but he is actively engaged in coaching and mentoring us. He is also super inclusive and brings everyone along on the journey.
I’ve referred to him as the Steve Jobs of real estate. He is that intense about protecting the Realtor. If you want to understand every move Gary Keller makes, all you do is ask, “What’s in the best interest of the real estate agent and consumer?”
Gary created profit-sharing models, revenue cap models for agents. These were revolutionary ideas that were blasphemy at the time.
HousingWire: But now those ideas have been adopted by eXp and other competitors. What new ideas does Gary Keller and Keller Williams have now to keep its edge?
Marc King: We have a lot of worthy rivals, and a lot of people came from Keller Williams (including eXp CEO Glenn Sanford). Most of the economic models mirror what Keller Williams created. Look, we are going to protect the real estate agent. We are also building an ecosystem that is agent-centric.
I know people think that agents make a lot of money. But there’s a lot that goes into it. The last thing I want to do is negotiate with a brain surgeon. That’s how I view the real estate agent.
HousingWire: Keller Williams has developed Command, a platform for customer relations management. There’s a bit of an arms race right now between brokerages to develop tech that agents will use, and benefit from. What would you say is the advantage of KW’s tech?
Marc King: This company was built by agents and our tech is an extension of that. Every screen on our CRM Command was built by agents with technologists in the room. There are always some ups and downs with the tech piece, but the thing that blows everyone’s mind here is that there are 105,000 active users. I think anyone would tell you that that’s a massively high number.