Compass faces a reckoning

VC-backed firm has ascended the ranks nationally. But with spendthrift days in the past, it faces an uphill battle in over a dozen markets: TRD analysis

TRD New York TRD ISSUE /
Mar.March 11, 2020 09:00 AM
Robert Reffkin, CEO of real estate brokerage Compass. (Illustration by Daniel Castro Maia)

It was an audacious goal from the start.

Five years after Compass hired its first 10 agents in New York City, CEO Robert Reffkin pledged the company would have 20 percent market share in 20 major U.S. cities by 2020.

“That means we’re going to expand,” he told agents who gathered in New York for an all-team meeting in 2017. “We’re going to expand to Seattle, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Austin, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago.”

Having raised $1.5 billion from investors, Compass ended 2019 with 15,500 agents across 325 offices. It now has a presence in California, Seattle, Chicago, Colorado, Texas, Nashville, Atlanta, Florida, Washington D.C., Boston and the New York metropolitan region.

But a closer look at Compass’ track record across the country reveals uneven growth, even as the SoftBank-backed firm — now valued at $6.4 billion — has ascended the ranks nationally.

Last year, real estate data firm Real Trends ranked Compass as the No. 3 brokerage by volume nationwide with $45.5 billion in 2018 sales, up from $14 billion a year prior. According to Compass, that number exploded in 2019. The brokerage said it sold $88 billion worth of real estate in 2019.

But there’s still a deep chasm between Compass and the national frontrunners, Realogy Brokerage Group and Berkshire Hathaway’s HomeServices of America, which closed $176.4 billion and $135.9 billion, respectively, according to Real Trends.

And Compass’ growth in top markets nationwide has been irregular.

In Manhattan, where Compass launched in 2013, it is among the top three brokerages based on sales volume, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. In 2019, the firm closed $4.85 billion in sell-side deals.

Similarly, in the Bay Area, it rose to the top of the heap after acquiring established brokerages Pacific Union, Paragon and Alain Pinel.

But in other cities, like Phoenix and Charlotte, Compass never got off the ground. And in Seattle and Atlanta, it would be hard-pressed to hit 20 percent unless it were to absorb the top firms and agents — which seems infeasible.

“I know the leading brokers in all those markets, and many of them they can’t buy,” said Steve Murray, founder of Real Trends. “There are some big brokers they can buy, but they’re not for sale.”

Compass has spent heavily to obtain its growth. It’s offered commission splits and bonuses far above what local competitors pay. In 2018 and 2019 alone, it acquired 14 brokerages, boosting its headcount by 4,000 agents.

Last year, industry analyst Mike DelPrete published a white paper that, using data from Real Trends, estimates those deals cost between $220 million and $240 million, or roughly $55,000 per agent.

But DelPrete, who is a scholar in residence at the University of Colorado, said Compass’ main competitive advantage — its financial firepower — may not be sustainable. “Nothing is stopping a new or existing player from offering even more lucrative deals,” he wrote.

Increasingly, rivals say they think Compass’ 2020 plan was all about wooing investors and generating buzz.

“My opinion is they just want to open as many markets as possible to show there’s momentum to keep raising money,” said John Vatistas, founder of Launch Real Estate in Phoenix.

“It was an aspiration, it wasn’t a real goal,” added another brokerage head. “It was an impress-the-money-people goal.”

In a year-end letter to agents, CEO Robert Reffkin acknowledged Compass made “major progress” toward the 2020 goal but wasn’t there yet. Somewhere along the way, company executives also began targeting 20 percent market share “by the end of 2020,” rather than “by 2020” itself.

Privately, sources close to Compass now say the 2020 plan was more of a “strategic concept.” In other words, Compass never intended to plant signs in every city across the country; rather, its growth would be strategic in markets that were deemed to be a good fit. “It was more a signal to the industry, to agents and to stakeholders, that this is the way to think about growth,” one source said.

But the heady days of free-flowing cash, which allowed Compass to line up acquisitions, are most certainly over amid scrutiny of startups with high valuations and uncertain paths to profitability.

Compass is now competing in a fractured brokerage landscape in which rivals are making big acquisitions of their own. In 2018, HomeServices of America bought Ebby Halliday Realtors, the largest independent firm in North Texas with 1,700 agents and $8 billion in annual sales. Farther east, Pittsburgh-based Howard Hanna acquired Charlotte’s Allen Tate, a move that gave it 11,000 agents and staff and $24 billion in combined annual sales.

“When Compass came out fast and hard, it caught the incumbents napping,” said Murray, “Well, they’re not napping anymore.”

To assess Compass’ impact nationally, TRD analyzed market-specific MLS data sets and spoke to dozens of brokerage heads and agents in 10 markets the brokerage has publicly targeted. Compass declined to comment.

Hamptons

In retrospect, it’s laughable to think Compass’ foray into the monied world of Hamptons real estate would be seamless.

After angering rivals in New York City by poaching talent, the brokerage began cherry-picking agents and managers like Ed Petrie and Ed Reale from competitors Sotheby’s International Realty and Brown Harris Stevens. It absorbed a handful of independent firms, too, including Mrs. Condie Lamb Agency in East Hampton, Strough Real Estate in Sag Harbor and Keeshan Real Estate in Montauk.

But Compass stumbled relatively early on when rivals BHS and Saunders & Associates sued over its role in recruiting agents and staff with noncompetes.

Today, with 119 agents across six offices, Compass is the No. 5 residential firm on the East End based on listing volume, according to TRD’s analysis of 2,416 properties listed for sale on HamptonsRE.com on Feb. 13. Corcoran is the largest with 22.68 percent of listings, followed by Douglas Elliman (20.69 percent), Saunders (19.08 percent), Sotheby’s (10.8 percent) and Compass (9.18 percent).

But sources said the firm hasn’t made inroads into the Hamptons’ ultra-luxury market, where Compass only accounted for around 3 percent of sales over $10 million, according to data provided by Bespoke Real Estate.

Bespoke, a boutique firm that focuses exclusively on luxury properties, accounted for 26.5 percent of sales above $10 million, followed by Corcoran (22 percent) and Sotheby’s (15 percent), the data show.

“The Compass effect has yet to take hold,” said Cody Vichinsky, who founded Bespoke in 2014 with his brother, Zachary. “It’s a nice, shiny facade, and when you get in it has the same fundamental elements the other firms do.”

Vishinsky said the reality is that the same top players do most of the big deals. Bespoke, which has $1.7 billion in listings, carved out a specific niche to gain traction quickly. “To do something different, you actually have to do something different,” he said.

In recent months, Compass’ recruiting has picked up. In November, it hired Corcoran’s Cee Scott Brown and Jack Pearson, who sold $500 million over the past five years. It also picked up Chris Coleman, Saunders’ No. 1 agent in Montauk with $108.5 million in sales in 2019. “I think it’s going to be a breakout year for Compass in the Hamptons,” Coleman said.

Scarsdale, New York

Westchester

In Westchester, there isn’t a bigger name than Houlihan Lawrence.

Established in 1888, the 1,300-agent firm accounted for 30 percent of sales in the county last year. Since 2017, when Houlihan was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway’s HomeServices, it’s had even more firepower.

Against that backdrop, Compass headed to the suburbs north of Manhattan in 2018, acquiring Zachary and Heather Harrison’s Platinum Drive Realty, a Scarsdale firm with 100 agents and $238.7 million in 2017 sales.

As of October 2019, Compass had 180 agents across six offices; it reported $228 million in sales for the first half of 2019, according to Westchester Magazine.

“We’re taking over market share,” said Heather Harrison. “It’s been two years, but I think we’re at that point now where people have heard about Compass.” She added that buyers and sellers seem “hungry” for a new way of transacting. “Real estate was very sleepy out here. Compass is taking it to a whole new level,” she said.

But data from the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors suggests Compass hasn’t exceeded 5.5 percent market share in Westchester and trails behind Houlihan, Sotheby’s (11.1 percent) and Coldwell Banker (7.2 percent).

“They’ve taken a handful of agents from different companies, but no major raids,” said one brokerage source.

Others gave Compass more credit.

“We have lost several agents to Compass, and we have had success recruiting from Compass,” said Paul Breunich, president and CEO of William Pitt-Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty. “Agents have options.”

David Turner, a top agent at Houlihan, said competition is good for business. In recent years, both William Raveis and Douglas Elliman also expanded into Westchester, with limited success. “Houlihan Lawrence has maintained its three-to-one dominance despite the efforts to bite into that apple,” he said.

Turner said Houlihan’s heft goes a long way with buyers and sellers. “When I go on a listing pitch, I show them the market share,” he said. “If a seller can say their broker has three-to-one over the competition, why would you go with anyone else?”

Chicago skyline
Chicago

Chicago

Compass shot out of the gate in Chicago in November 2017 when it poached Jeff Lowe, the city’s No. 1 agent with $255.6 million in sales the year prior. But the New York firm was not exactly welcomed with a bear hug in the Windy City.

In early 2018, @properties put up a 25-foot-wide billboard cautioning locals not to “ask for directions from a tourist.”

By 2019, Compass had 1,000 agents across 10 offices in Chicago, where it acquired the 200-agent firm Conlon Real Estate as well as suburban brokerage Hudson Company.

In Chicagoland, an area that includes posh lakeside suburbs, Compass handled $2.9 billion in sales in 2019, according to MLS data provided to TRD by brokerage Baird & Warner. That represented 4.4 percent of the market, below that of @properties, Coldwell Banker and Baird & Warner, which all snagged at least 8 percent market share.

Compass fared better inside the city of Chicago, where the brokerage claimed 9.6 percent market share but still trailed the market leaders.

Stephen Baird, president and CEO of Baird & Warner, called Compass’ 20 percent goal “naïve” for the Chicago area. “The only way Compass could get near that threshold is by acquiring the city’s top three firms, which is a nonstarter,” he said.

“They’re not going to buy @properties, they’re not going to buy Coldwell, and they’re not buying us,” Baird said. “There are no magic bullets for them here.”

In mid-February, Compass said it would close its Gold Coast sales office as part of “streamlining efficiencies for agents.”

“Compass appears to be just another traditional real estate company that happens to be heavily funded by venture capital,” said Dennis Dooley, founder of Property Consultants Realty. “They have been aggressive in buying talent, but the Chicagoland market is highly fractured, and I don’t think they can change that.”

San Francisco

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

That’s what Mike Hulme, president of Alain Pinel, said upon selling the brokerage his father founded to Compass last year for an undisclosed price. “We thought joining them instead of fighting them was in our best interest,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Pinel deal, plus purchases of Paragon Real Estate Group and Pacific Union International, gave Compass its 20 percent market share in the Bay Area. Today, Compass has 3,000 agents across 87 offices in the area, an epicenter of tech where Compass sought to prove itself.

“They have been systemically buying market share,” said D.J. Grubb, broker at Grubb & Co. a residential real estate brokerage with headquarters in Oakland.

MLS data show Compass has about 30 percent market share in San Francisco, plus 20 percent in neighboring Oakland, Piedmont and Marin County.

Besides acquisitions, Compass has poached talent through its one-two punch of eye-popping bonuses and commission splits.

“I just lost someone who got a $120,000 bonus and 95 percent commission split,” Grubb said, adding that he would not go above an $85,000 bonus and 90 percent split to retain the agent.

“They are very smart, and it is a daily battle,” Grubb said.

But it’s unclear if top producers will stick.

Tracy McLaughlin, a Pacific Union veteran who landed at Compass but later joined the Agency, compared Compass to a “generic” big-box store trying to bend Bay Area real estate to its own will.

“I don’t think people want a Walmart or Amazon in real estate,” she said.

Across the country, Compass will have to build a company culture in order to retain agents long-term, according to Hoby Hanna, president of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, the largest independent firm in the U.S. with $16.3 billion in 2018 sales.

Hanna said his firm acquired the No. 1 and No. 2 firms in Cleveland in the early aughts and wrestled with combining offices that were previously fierce competitors. “I will tell you it was a lot of work,” he said. Using a sports metaphor, he said it’s possible to assemble an All-Star team by hiring stellar free agents. But, he asked, “What’s the culture so that winning is sustainable over time?”

Venice, California

Los Angeles

If Compass is viewed coolly in the Bay Area, it is pilloried in Los Angeles.

“Compass is in the business of losing money,” said Steve Shapiro, co-founder of Westside Estate Agency. “My brokerage and other brokerages are in the business of making money.”

“If I wanted to go into great debt, I could also offer everybody 90 percent commission splits,” said Jeff Hyland, president of Hilton & Hyland.

Compass used Beverly Hills as its L.A. launch point, opening up an office there in 2015. Today, Compass has a 17.2 percent market share in Beverly Hills, based on MLS data that show it had $2.5 billion in sales volume between February 2019 and January 2020.

It’s the second-biggest brokerage in Beverly Hills (a community where the median listing price for a home is $4 million) behind Coldwell Banker, which had a 19.3 percent market share, or $2.8 billion in sales volume, over the 12-month time frame TRD analyzed.

Compass would appear worse off in the rest of L.A. County, where according to Real Trends’ 2018 data the brokerage sold $7.5 billion, far behind Coldwell Banker’s $15.1 billion.

Since 2018, Compass has furthered its efforts to recruit big names. In August, it picked up Coldwell Banker star agent Chris Cortazzo, who generated $500 million in 2018 sales.

Still, Compass has at best a 15 percent market share, Hyland estimated, bolstered by the Pacific Union acquisition. Other brokers, who requested anonymity to speak freely about a competitor, put the figure at closer to 10 percent.

In the ultra-luxury sector that includes Westside Estate, Hilton & Hyland, the Agency and Douglas Elliman, Compass is a major — but not dominant — player. Between Nov. 21 and Feb. 20, Compass had a transaction volume of 17 percent in deals over $5 million, according to MLS data.

Market share could go up if Compass has more money for recruiting, brokers said. But it also could crater if the firm is faced with the same profit margin expectations as its competitors.

“What is the end game here?” said one rival broker. “Their books could make WeWork look like Apple.”

Phoenix

Phoenix

This desert city was among several new markets Compass was eying in 2017. Somewhere along the way, that changed.

In addition to backpedaling in Phoenix, Compass had plans to launch offices in Charlotte but never set up shop. There was also talk — but no action — in Minneapolis and Raleigh (where ironically, Compass would have faced local competition from Compass Realty Partners and Triangle Compass Real Estate in those markets, respectively).

Vatistas, a longtime brokerage executive in Phoenix, said he met with Reffkin in 2015 to discuss the market and see if it “made sense to do something together.”

Of the meeting with Reffkin, he said, “It didn’t make sense for either one of us.”

Before it became known as Ground Zero for iBuyers such as Opendoor and Offerpad, Phoenix was the “epicenter” of 100 percent commission firms including HomeSmart and Realty One Group, which have 10.7 percent and 6.5 percent market share respectively, according to local MLS data.

“For other brokerages, margins are wafer-thin,” Vatistas said. “Even Keller Williams charges a hefty split and then caps the agents at a certain point.”

As a result, some of the top-producing agents don’t necessarily work for the biggest national firms. “I do all my own work so I can afford to have a full staff,” said Joan Levinson, a top agent at Realty One Group. “But I make a lot of money, so it pays for me.”

In 2017, the Agency, based in L.A., announced it would open in Scottsdale, but it failed to make a splash, sources said. Compass avoided a similar fate by dialing down plans for the market.

Vatistas said Reffkin and his team were “surprised” by the lack of margins. “Shortly after we met, they stopped saying they were going to Phoenix,” he said.

A year later, Vatistas started a boutique firm called Launch Real Estate, which today has 200 agents who closed $1 billion in sales last year.

Atlanta

Atlanta

Compass’ growth in Atlanta has been anything but peachy.

Amid a push to expand its footprint nationwide, the brokerage targeted the Georgia capital in late 2018. “They came in like a bully with guns a-blazing, trying to buy every good agent in town,” said Bonneau Ansley, founder of Ansley Atlanta Real Estate.

But then things got complicated.

According to Murray, Atlanta is a big market but there’s no path toward 20 percent market share.

“The top 10 in Atlanta include Keller Williams, you can’t buy them; Berkshire Hathaway, you can’t buy them,” he said. “There’s an independent firm and two long-term franchisees,” he continued. “Even if they were able to acquire the top teams and agents, that would only get them to 7 percent in Atlanta.”

In February, Compass suffered a blow when Jere Metcalf, one of its earliest recruits and a star agent in the city, moved her three-person team to Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby’s International Realty.

Still, Compass’ overtures got rivals paying attention. “Look, I kind of like it,” said Shaun Rawls, who founded the Rawls Group at Keller Williams, a franchise with 2,000 agents and $5 billion in sales. “It makes everyone sharpen their saw and get better.”

For Mark Hall, Compass’ expansion into Atlanta simply reinforced a desire to maintain the independence of his firm, Atlanta Communities Real Estate Brokerage. Hall launched the firm in 2009 after ending a 20-year franchise relationship with RE/MAX. “Franchise companies don’t get to call the shots quickly enough,” he said. “We wanted to be able to succeed or fail on our own.”

For Ansley, however, Compass’ entrance forced the boutique to take action. Last year, Bonneau Ansley sold a stake in the firm to Chicago-based @properties. “I knew I was going to have to compete with big companies coming into town — like Compass — and I wanted my agents to have better technology and the utmost and latest and greatest things for their business,” he said. 

Seattle

In April 2018, Compass blew into the Pacific Northwest, announcing plans to merge with Northwest Group Real Estate and Avenue Properties.

The deals gave Compass 225 agents overnight, but competitors recoiled when Reffkin appeared on CNBC in May of that year claiming, “We just launched Seattle five weeks ago, and we already have 5 percent market share.”

Two years later, Compass in Seattle has grown to 415 agents with $3.7 billion in annual sales — but still just 5.59 percent market share, based on data from the Northwest MLS. (For sales above $1 million, Compass is No. 2 with 10.48 percent market share.) 

“They went from nothing to $3 billion in production in a year, so they have traction,” said Matt van Winkle, CEO of RE/MAX Northwest.

It’s no secret why Compass was drawn to the tech hub, where Jeff Bezos started Amazon and where Redfin, Zillow and Flyhomes are based.

At least some agents were lured by Compass’ professed tech prowess. “We’re the Silicon Valley of the North,” said Moira Holley, a top agent at Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty, which lost agents to Compass. “I think people saw Compass as a way to really bond with tech clients.”

But that’s also been a double-edged sword. “Tech expectations are very high in our market, and if you claim to have tech that doesn’t function on par with what we’ve seen for 10 years, that’s a factor,” van Winkle said.

In Seattle, 100 percent commission firms also dominate the brokerage landscape, making it hard for firms with more traditional splits to compete for top talent.

Meanwhile, rivals haven’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat. “You’ve got Opendoor and Compass raising billions of dollars in private money. It puts a lot of pressure on all of us,” said Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman in a 2018 interview. A year later, Kelman accused Compass of copying its website “pixel for pixel,” Inman reported.

MoxiWorks, a tech platform that was spun out of the local firm Windermere Real Estate, has been a vocal critic of Compass. And while Zillow doesn’t compete with Compass on the brokerage level, the two locked horns after Compass opened a “tech hub” in Seattle. In April 2019, Zillow sued Compass for allegedly poaching tech talent; the suit was later dropped.

Austin

Austin

There’s an 800-pound gorilla in Austin, and it goes by the name Keller Williams.

Founded and headquartered in the Texas state capital, KW is the largest franchise firm in the U.S. with 169,317 agents. But doing business in Keller’s backyard didn’t stop Compass from targeting the market in 2018, when it launched with new hires from local firms Gottesman Residential Real Estate, KW and Sotheby’s International.

The move ruffled feathers.

Last year, Gottesman owner Laura Gottesman told a local reporter that Compass targeted her company after she refused to sell. “When I told them I was not interested in selling,” she told ATX Real Estate News, “they came back with, ‘If you don’t come over, we are going to take a lot of your agents.’” Five of her top agents later jumped ship.

MLS data show Compass has since grabbed 3.8 percent market share, trailing behind KW with 8.9 percent and Realty Austin with 8.4 percent.

But several sources said Compass didn’t make agents the kind of eye-popping offers in Austin that the firm has become known for.

“A lot of people had offers — myself included,” said Cord Shiflet, a top producer at Moreland Properties. “For the right offer I could be bought, but that wasn’t offered to me,” he said. “Maybe they got tired of scorching the earth in other markets.”

Still, Compass’ foray into Austin had a ripple effect among independent firms.

After losing some top agents to Compass, Realty Austin — a 450-agent firm with $2.85 billion in annual sales — acquired Reilly Realtors in February 2019, absorbing the 135-agent firm with $520 million in sales.

“I honestly don’t think the deal would have happened,” said Jonathan Boatwright, co-owner of Realty Austin, “if Compass didn’t come in strong and kind of put everyone on notice.”

But J Kuper, the third-generation owner of Kuper Sotheby’s International Realty, said it would be nearly impossible for Compass to capture 20 percent market share without buying the top five firms in town. “There’s either a lack of understanding about how the brokerage business works to make a statement like that, or a level of blind optimism,” he said. “It’s not achievable in our market.”

Outside of KW, several family-owned firms have retained their businesses for generations. In addition to being a tax haven, Texas is a nondisclosure state — meaning if a property isn’t put into the MLS, the sale price doesn’t need to be disclosed.

One brokerage head said although Austin is a liberal bastion in an otherwise conservative state, it’s still Texas and Compass came in too aggressively for its own good. “Here, you eat lunch and you don’t talk business until dessert,” the executive said. “You don’t get straight to business. It’s the South.”

South Florida

South Florida

In 2015, as Compass’ New York rivals were migrating to South Florida, Reffkin called Miami “one of the most important real estate markets in the world.”

Today, the firm has around 250 agents across seven offices (and as many as 700 statewide). In 2018, it acquired Palm Beach-based Hall Real Estate, an 11-agent firm with $300 million in sales between 2013 and 2018.

But 20 percent market share remains elusive — and not just for Compass.

Mike Pappas, president and CEO of the Keyes Company, said South Florida’s brokerage market is highly fragmented, in part because of geography. The region is 120 miles long and 25 miles wide and spans Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, with the ocean on one side and the Everglades on the other.

“If you take the top brands — Keller Williams, Berkshire Hathaway, EWM — you probably have less than 30 percent,” Pappas said. Any regional fiefdoms are typically in “micro” submarkets, he noted.

In 2019, Compass accounted for 1.8 percent market share of closed sales in South Florida, according to Broker Metrics. It captured 3 percent in Miami alone, behind Coldwell Banker (6.2 percent), EWM Realty International (5.4 percent), One Sotheby’s International Realty (5.3 percent) and Douglas Elliman (3.7 percent).

“They’ve become real, there’s no question,” said one rival brokerage head, who admitted he’s become “weary” and “frustrated” by the competition. “They’ve got their names on every bus stop. They’ve got ads in every magazine.”

Some rivals conceded Compass’ timing was prescient, entering South Florida when the market wasn’t doing well and agents were more likely to move. Others said Compass’ recruiting was “relentless.”

Phil Gutman, president of Brown Harris Stevens Miami, said a Compass recruiter showed up to one of his agents’ open houses. “I felt it was in bad taste,” he said.

But he speculated that Compass made a stronger push in markets that are more lucrative than South Florida, where agent splits are higher than they are in the Northeast. “We’re all really waiting for Compass to go public so we can see the true numbers,” he said.


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