In 2001, Ben Pan split his days between working as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service and working at a brokerage on the side. He spent three years working for the post office, where he would finish his mail route early, hit the books and prepare for his real estate salesperson exam.
His company Winzone Realty was born in 2002. It wasn’t an immediate success, as Pan struggled to keep hold of his 10 agents, losing talent to bigger-name franchises. But he kept at it, and today, Winzone is the biggest brokerage in Queens, both by agent count and sales volume. And it plans to get even bigger.
“We just keep hiring,” Pan said. “In the last two days, I had eight new agents join.”
The firm, based out of an expansive office on Queens Boulevard featuring landscape paintings from China and a suit of armor, has been the top brokerage in Queens for the past two years, according to The Real Deal’s analysis of MLS data. In the 12-month period ending March 31, 2017, it did about $454 million in sales across 794 deals, up 24 percent year-over-year.
Those numbers put it more than $100 million ahead of its closest competitors, East Coast Realtors, which sold about $340 million in the same period, and Keller Williams Realty Landmark, which did about $333 million.
Pan credited the company’s commission structure as a key reason for being able to scale. The firm lets its agents keep 100 percent of their commissions and gives them two options for making payments to Winzone: either a $488 transaction fee per closing sale, or a $288 fee per sale along with a $28 monthly fee.
“When I started the company, we charged like 80-20,” Pan said, “but in one year, we only had, like, 10 agents.”
The firm had grown to about 120 agents by 2013, when Pan switched to a 100 percent commission model, and its agent count has ballooned since then. About two-thirds of Winzone’s agents work full-time, while the rest generally close just one or two deals per year, according to Pan. The business is evenly split between rentals and sales, he said.
“Their fee structure is very competitive in the market, so they built a brand,” said Peter Murdakhayev, a broker who has been with Winzone for about five years. Several other agents at the firm echoed his point.
But letting agents keep all of their commissions means that the firm, and Pan, don’t benefit from a trophy sale the same way other firms do. Whether a Winzone agent sells a $100,000 home or a $10 million one, the firm makes a maximum of $488. The second largest firm in Queens is Keller Williams Realty Landmark, where agents keep 70 percent of their commissions.
Some of Winzone’s biggest deals of the past year included a $2.5 million residential sale on 41st Avenue in Flushing, a $1.5 million residential sale on 161st Street in Flushing and a $1.4 million residential sale on 69th Street in Woodside, MLS data show.
One of Winzone’s strongholds is Flushing, which is in the spotlight these days thanks to projects such as Onex Real Estate’s Sky View Parc, and Flushing Commons, a $1 billion, 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use development. George Xu’s Century Development Group has multiple big projects in the works as well, including two – the Farrington and Northern Tower – that will include residential, retail and hotel components.
Since 2010, more than 2,600 condominiums have been built in the neighborhood, and between 2,400 and 2,800 could hit the market by 2021, with a greater share of them going the luxury route, according to a recent analysis by real estate consultant Nancy Packes.
Pan isn’t concerned that the shift to luxury will lead to increased competition in the neighborhood from bigger brokerage brands, repeatedly insisting that “they cannot survive here” without making some changes, especially to their commission structures.
“I think maybe they need more Asian agents,” he said. “I think there are some policies that might need changing.”
Winzone’s buyers are typically Asian clients who have been in the country for about five years and can afford large down payments, according to Pan. The neighborhood is also popular with Chinese parents looking to find a place for their children to live while they attend school in the U.S., and it is very common for clients to see their properties as investments rather than as residences, Pan said.
Winzone plans to keep growing by opening a new office in Flushing next year close to the No. 7 train station, but it is focusing outside the city for further expansion. Pan said Long Island and New Jersey were more on his radar than Manhattan, as he views those as markets where his commission structure is more feasible.
Despite Winzone’s size and its dominance in Queens, a quick glance at its website would not reveal either of these things. The homepage consists largely of just a single image of a small house and a shed that appears to be collapsing in the middle of a bucolic field.
But play around on the site a bit more, and you’ll find that the company has taken pains to highlight its achievements.
“We really are OFFICIALLY THE BIGGEST REAL ESTATE OFFICE IN ALL OF QUEENS,” the website reads, stressing that all its agents are located “right here in Queens and THAT’S WHAT REALLY COUNTS!!!”