The Real Deal Miami

Firms poach top producers

In an age of free agency, South Florida real estate brokers are changing allegiances as firms look for agents who get results. 

Recent moves add to a list that figures to get longer: Eric Pruitt and Isabel Stephenson recently left RE/MAX to join forces with Keller Williams, and Esslinger Wooten Maxwell Realtors hired Jo-Ann Forester and her eight-member team away from Coldwell Banker.

Real estate executives and head hunters never stop recruiting top producers, but more agents are considering making the move in a down market, according to Matt Johnston, CEO of Workway, a real estate staffing firm with offices in Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Everybody is taking advantage of the upheaval to attract ‘A’ players that can drive the business through recovery,” Johnston said. “Smart companies are putting together packages to entice top agents, and agents are listening because they feel frustrated by market conditions.”

Janice Leis, an associate broker at Prudential Fox & Roach in Boca Raton, said poaching is an age-old tactic in real estate — but the current market is ripe for headhunters on the lookout for top agents.

“It’s an easy time to find out which agents feel stifled by company budget cutbacks or are personally unhappy for a myriad of reasons,” Leis said. “A company is only as good as the people at the helm. Companies with the best management teams identify and ward off agent departures.”

Tony Nestor, CEO of Progress Technologies, a Fort Myers-based company that develops Web sites and deploys databases for real estate firms, said agents are moving to brokerages that are making significant investments in technology tools that help agents generate leads.

“Those with the means to invest in the downturn, from our experience, are definitely looking to hone their business model and capture more of the market,” Nestor said. “Future market improvement is a factor, but I think that is a distant goal.  The [intention] now is to tighten their operation and grow in the market currently available to them.”

Some brokerages are tightening. Others are shutting down. The RE/MAX Northern Palm Beaches office recently closed shop after Pruitt, a leading agent for decades, moved to Keller Williams. He said RE/MAX couldn’t match own requirements. He was paying close to $4,000 a month to hang his license there, plus 5 percent commissions on sales. The Keller Williams business model sets a cap on agent commissions.

“My colleagues were shocked when I moved to Keller Williams because I’ve been with RE/MAX for so long,” admits Pruitt, who has closed $25 million in sales in the past 12 months. “RE/MAX is the General Motors of the real estate industry. We need a new model — and Keller Williams has it.”

Stephenson was in a similar situation. Her RE/MAX office in Jupiter was shutting down. She could have relocated to another office, but decided to make the move to Keller Williams instead.

“Keller Williams has the whole package, the commission structure, the support system for agents, the brand recognition in the local market,” Stephenson said. “I wanted to be with a growing company and Keller Williams is it.”

The shaky market itself isn’t what’s leading to the poaching and defections. Realtors are less apt to change allegiances based on promises alone, Johnston said.

“The poaching cycle is a little longer, but recruiters are going after the top agents who weren’t as approachable in their heydays,” Johnston said. “Instead of shotgun recruiting to get agents on board, they are pinpoint targeting their efforts — and the top agents are listening.”