In a market where luxury listings can soar well into the nine digits, a $58 million Hollywood Hills mansion wouldn’t ordinarily garner much attention. So it was curious when the 17,000-square-foot contemporary appeared in a lavish Wall Street Journal writeup last week.
For Los Angeles brokers, the answer seemed to come in the story’s final sentence: “Rayni and Branden Williams of the Williams & Williams team at the Beverly Hills Estates have the listing.”
This summer, as the real estate market was trying to find its footing, powerhouse L.A. luxury agents Rayni and Branden Williams were taking a leap. The husband and wife agent team quietly departed their longtime home at Hilton & Hyland to set up their own shop.
By the fall, the company had been officially registered as Beverly Hills Estates — billing itself Williams & Williams Estate Group — with little accompanying fanfare and many unanswered questions. Variety first reported news of the move through a records search in early October.
While the manner in which the duo set off on their own was unusual, their impressive client list and sales chops made the move a natural progression, industry pros said.
Working for Hilton & Hyland, the Williams & Williams Estates Group team had the third highest sales volume — $412.5 million — of any L.A. agent or team between March 2018 and February 2019, according to a Real Deal analysis at the time.
More than that, the couple are ambassadors of the L.A. luxury market, selling sun and fun on Instagram to their 140,000 followers, along with TV appearances on “Good Morning America” and Bloomberg, where they would patiently explain what possesses people to buy homes for $50 million.
The pair have called themselves the “King and Queen of Trousdale,” a neighborhood so luxurious it’s fancy even by the standards of home city Beverly Hills.
Besides the near radio silence from the king and queen about their new brokerage, some competing brokers wonder why the Williamses would choose to be hemmed in by the dreary logistics of running a brokerage.
“They’re extremely successful and I guess they feel that they can make extra money,” said Stephen Shapiro, who co-founded his own brokerage, Westside Estate Agency, 20 years ago with Kurt Rappaport. “But there’s going to be short-term pain.”
New beginning on Sunset
While 2020 has been an unusual year for anyone, it has been especially so for the Williamses.
The couple had the listing for spec developer Nile Niami’s Beverly Hills mention dubbed “The Opus.” It sold for $40 million in February, but Rayni Williams at the time would only say Niami had found the buyer himself. That buyer turned out to be one of Niami’s long-term lenders, apparently taking control of a property that had been on the market for years, and was once listed at $100 million.
In June, the Williamses leased a two-floor building at 8878 West Sunset Boulevard, according to CoStar and sources close to the deal. The property had been listed for $25,000 a month.
A month later, Beverly Hills Estates Inc. registered as a business with the California Secretary of State, with Branden Williams as CEO and Rayni Williams as chief financial officer.
On Thursday, Rayni Williams declined to discuss the new brokerage, saying it was “not an opportune time.”
Neither agent has a broker’s license with the state, so Greg LaPlant, a former colleague at Hilton & Hyland, is the broker of record. LaPlant received his broker’s license in July, according to state records. He not is mentioned on the Williams & Williams Estate Group’s recently-launched website.
Despite having spent months setting up their new business, the Williamses have done nothing to publicize it, and the $58 million Hollywood Hills property appears to be their first major listing.
A spokesperson for the duo, Alexander Ali, said last week that any announcement would be “too soon,” and “won’t be ready until December.”
Their former employer, Hilton & Hyland, has also been silent. Representatives there have not responded to numerous messages, leaving rival brokers wondering.
“It must be a messy business unwinding from Hilton & Hyland,” said Michael Nourmand, president of Nourmand & Associates.
No room “on that plate”
Fact: Luxury homebuyers don’t care about what brokerage an agent belongs to.
“I could go to every homeowner in Beverly Hills and ask them, ‘Do you know who Jade Mills is?’” said Ron Wynn, an agent at Compass. “Eighty-five percent of them would say they do. I could then ask, ‘What brokerage does Jade work for?’ People wouldn’t know or wouldn’t even know what I meant.” (Mills works for Coldwell Banker.)
That leads to the question: Why bother with a brokerage?
But top agents see the question another way: Why bother with your own business?
Elite L.A. agents reach a point where they operate autonomously from the parent brokerage. These agents often retain 90 percent or even more of their commission fees, while worrying little about administrative duties.
“Paying your split to the company is less than having to take on a bunch of agents, a manager,” said Josh Flagg of Rodeo Realty, during a TRD Talks Live panel in October. “What’s the benefit? I can’t even see it.”
“We’re all so busy,” Douglas Elliman’s Josh Altman added, during the same discussion. “It’s another thing to have on our plate. I don’t think any of us have room on that plate right now.”
Another issue is liability. Brokerages routinely wind up in court over breach of contract and other lawsuit claims. Hilton & Hyland, for example, has sued or been sued over two-dozen times in the last 20 years, according to L.A. County Superior Court records.
The agents that do start brokerages, then, “do it for ego or a feeling of accomplishment,” Wynn said.
The business reason, Wynn added, is to build an asset that could later be sold. He cited as examples recent deals involving Partners Trust and the John Aaroe Group.
Another recent instance: Mauricio Umansky left Hilton & Hyland himself in 2011 to start The Agency, a Beverly Hills brokerage that has added locations across the country.
But it is not clear if even successful boutique brokerages in L.A. — namely Hilton & Hyland, Westside Estate Agency and Nourmand & Associates — are handsomely profiting from the high-end lifestyle they sell.
“The margins are tough, the competition is tough,” Nourmand said. “One week you’re on the top of the world, but it’s hard to maintain long-term dominance.”
“The way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start out with a big fortune,” said Spencer Krull, managing broker at Side, a brokerage with the model of purely doing the administrative work for agents, and a former manager at Westside Estate Agency. “You could say the same about brokerages.”
“Good people around us”
Despite the pandemic lockdowns, Rayni and Branden Williams did a combined $75.5 million in on-market sales alone in the first six months of 2020. That amounted to about 12 percent of Hilton & Hyland’s total sales volume for the period, according to a TRD analysis.
Hilton & Hyland has other big producers, including co-founder and president Jeff Hyland, along with brokers Drew Fenton, and Linda May. The 27-year-old firm also made significant new hires this year in Marc Noah and Lisa Optican.
But none can match the Williamses recent track record. “It’s a huge loss for Hilton & Hyland,” Nourmand said.
By moving on, the couple may also be able to boost their profile, if they eventually choose. While Hilton & Hyland higher-ups tend to frown on reality TV shows like “Million Dollar Listing,” Branden Williams has no such aversion to the camera. Before getting his sales license, he landed speaking roles in movies, including the 1998 teen rom-com “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
“They may be looking to be more like other more celebrity realtors,” Wynn said.
But agents interviewed for this story acknowledged they were merely speculating.
Adding to the intrigue, the pair has presented themselves in the past as dependent on a team.
In a 2016 interview with Top Agent magazine, Rayni Williams was succinct: “The key to our success is having good people around us.”