The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate in 2020: The Unprecedented Edition

Welcome to the fifth installment of an annual tradition around here: the Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate, the 2020 Pandemic Edition. This was a weird year, to say the least, and it isn’t over as I start this post.

You know that word that was so popular all through 2020? “Unprecedented?” Yeah, unprecedented is another way of saying, “Screw precedents!” I think I might do that this year, just to mark how weird it’s been.

So, despite the fact that 2020 was the Year of Big Things Popping, leading to super-obvious choices for interesting people, I’m going to go in a different direction because screw precedent. For what it’s worth, in case you were wondering who the super-obvious choices are, here they are and a one sentence reason why they’re interesting:

  • Andy Florance, CoStar: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.
  • Eric Wu, Opendoor: Because he brought Opendoor back from the brink, and oh boy, is it back.
  • Rich Barton, Zillow: They say never to bet against Rich Barton, but he’s never fought a two-front war like he has to going forward.
  • Jack Ryan, REX: He’s the power behind the DOJ lawsuit and settlement of NAR.
  • Gary Keller, KWRI: 2021 seems like the year when KWRI will finally go public… as a tech company?
  • Glenn Sanford, EXP: If you somehow combined a real estate brokerage with a bunch of super horny rabbits, you might get to the growth rate of EXP in 2020, no?
  • Charlie Oppler: Pretty sure he’s the first NAR President to ever apologize for having been a bunch of racists in the past, while telling half of his current members that they are a bucket of racists.

But we’re not doing them this year, because screw precedent.

Instead, I’d like to introduce you all to seven fascinating individuals who most of us don’t know and wouldn’t recognize if we walked past them at an industry conference… assuming that we’ll ever walk past each other at any industry conference in the future. Well, now I will, because I’ve gone and looked them up and found photos of them online… which means you will too if you read this post and burn their images into your brains. (Though to be fair, I’ve gone singing and drinking with at least a few of the people on this list, so I’m quite likely to recognize them.)

As in earlier years, let me reiterate that Inman does the Influencers list, Swanepoel does the Power 200 list (I help out on that list), and both are far more respected and important than this short list of mine for a bunch of reasons.

Inman Influencers are “industry professionals who shape, change, and influence the industry.” Swanepoel’s SP200 takes hundreds of hours of work (I can attest to that personally) and is the definitive guide to the most powerful individuals in real estate.

The Notorious R.O.B. Interesting List is neither of those things, although there are obvious overlaps because I find influence and power to be interesting. It is simply a list of people I find interesting for a variety of reasons. They may or may not be influential, may or may not be powerful, and in fact, you may or may not have heard of them at all. But I find them interesting, and that’s enough.

To prepare this list, the Committee (that would be Sunny and me) spent many, many minutes of grueling debate and analysis, using a proprietary analysis technique with the working title, “What does Sunny think of my crazy suggestions?” Of note: She vetoed all of the obvious choices, so here we are in unprecedented times. Prof. Elijah Craig has been instrumental in finalizing this list.

Without further ado, Notorious ROB presents, The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate in 2020. As in previous years, this list is in no particular order but rank them as you see fit for your purposes!

 

1. Lynley Sides, REX

I thought long and hard about this selection, since Jack Ryan was also one of the Seven Most Interesting People in 2019. And I thought he was plenty interesting then. Go back and re-read that, since everything in there still applies.

Yet, we can’t possibly discuss the year that was 2020 and the years to come without at least touching on the fact that REX was the instigator behind the most recent lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice against NAR, which was settled on the same day it was filed.

It turns out, you can’t really understand REX or what Jack Ryan may be up to without turning your eyes to a hitherto unknown figure: Lynley Sides, the Co-Founder and President & COO of REX. She is indeed a very interesting figure as I learned when I got to speak to her for a bit for this profile.

First of all, Sides is a Yellowjacket from Georgia Tech who majored in electrical engineering, graduating in 1990. I don’t know how different things are today, but in the late 80s, it really wasn’t common to see women in engineering programs. Even in 2006, only 3.5% of female college freshmen intended to major in engineering, math, stats or compsci; trust me when I say the percentages were even lower in the 80s. That alone makes her an interesting pioneer.

She then got her MBA from UCLA because electrical engineering taught her a lot about circuits and technology, but she wanted to know more about finance, marketing, business operations. And that is where she has spent most of her career subsequently: in and around technology. As Sides herself put it in a blogpost titled, “Why I Joined REX“:

So I got hooked, early, on the experience of using technology to change both human experiences and businesses in significant and positive ways.  An entrepreneur at heart, I soon left the corporate world to focus on founding or growing companies that are doing just that.  The ones I’ve enjoyed most include:

  • At Red Herring, my team launched the industry’s first profitable digital content products through an aggressive, iterative approach to customer acquisition (now called “growth hacking”);
  • As interim head of marketing at Responsys (now Oracle), we integrated a web analytics company and empowered Fortune 50 marketers with the first real-time, cross-channel consumer marketing tools; and
  • As co-founder and CEO of The Glue Network, we harnessed the power of social media to solve marketing problems for companies while improving lives around the world.

Then, last year I was introduced to REX’s CEO and founder, Jack Ryan, and his idea to fundamentally change the process of buying and selling homes in the same way Amazon Prime has changed shopping for consumers.  I quickly realized REX could have a more significant positive impact – on consumers, on its industry, and on the world – than all of my previous business experiences combined.

That line about having a more significant positive impact on the industry and on the world is important. Because social good defines her approach to business. Her consulting firm, Sides & Associates, is an enlightening example. Here’s the relevant section of Sides & Associates:

The most important phrase, I think, is “a deep commitment to social good.”

She remains very involved with The Gratitude Network as well, which describes itself as:

The Gratitude Network is a Leadership Development organization. The Gratitude Network identifies “game-changing” social enterprises around the world who are improving the lives of underprivileged and under-served children and accelerates the success and growth of these organizations by impacting the leadership. We are on target to impact over 120 social enterprises by 2021, whose reach extends to over 50 million underprivileged children/youth.

Lynley Sides is a veteran of and an expert in the social enterprise movement, something that is really starting to emerge into capitalism in the 21st century. What might this “social enterprise” be? One definition comes from Social Enterprise Alliance:

Social enterprise can be challenging to define, in large part because the concept has been evolving rapidly in recent years and increasingly blurs the lines of the traditional business, government and non-profit sectors.

Social Enterprise Alliance suggests the following basic working definition:

Organizations that address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach.

Social enterprises are companies and organizations that are trying to make money while doing good. The social impact is as important, if not more important, than financial results. I would classify Tesla as a social enterprise, for example: make a fortune, of course, but while trying to address the issue of fossil fuels and their impact on the environment. I don’t believe that Elon Musk would build and sell V-8 sports cars even if he could make a shit-ton more money by doing so; the social good is as important, if not more important, than the bottom line.

The fact that Jack Ryan partnered with Lynley Sides, then, to launch REX is extremely significant.

One, the DOJ lawsuit, the fight against the industry, and the maverick attitude that REX brings are not incidental. They aren’t just because a startup is frustrated by its inability to break rules to make money. No, these things stem from the core of REX’s self-understanding as a company. Lynley Sides would not be involved in a real estate brokerage of all things if she did not see a strong social good element to what they are doing.

Two, it is a huge mistake to think that REX is just another venture-funded discounter that doesn’t know how the industry works and is bumbling around because “they don’t get it.” No, Sides is an engineer, entrepreneur and an executive. She’s brilliant. She knows exactly how the industry works. She gets it. She (and Jack Ryan) just want to change how the industry works.

Three, REX will never compromise, can’t be bought off, and won’t be beaten down and intimidated, at least not while Ryan and Sides are running the show.

Four, REX’s promise to build a new home for a family in need for every 50 homes it sells is not virtue signaling. It isn’t just a way to attract idealistic Millennials to the company. It truly is who they are. Sides just broke out in a huge smile as she told me about how enriching, how exciting, and how rewarding it is to be able to give a home to a homeless family… and I’m 110% convinced that the rest of REX shares that passion.

Speaking of passion… one of the things she was most passionate about was around recruiting and career development. REX spends an enormous amount of time, money and energy recruiting people. As Sides put it, they recruit for excellence and self-discipline. REX wants people who have achieved real excellence in some area of their lives, whether that’s academics, athletics, art, or whatever. REX also only wants people who are self-disciplined, driven, and with a burning desire to do social good. The result is that they hire very slowly, but fire very quickly, but the team REX as assembled is driven by the same passion that Ryan and Sides have about changing the industry, changing the world. And then REX truly invests in that person’s career arc, even if he or she might leave to join a competitor later. It’s not a common attitude one finds in real estate, to be honest.

Finally, in person (at least on Zoom), Lynley Sides is one of the most delightful, charming, and charismatic people you will ever meet. Her intelligence, both rational and emotional, simply shines through and I could see why she and Jack Ryan make such a good team.

I realize that most of the industry will want to be hostile to REX, but I couldn’t help but think that Lynley Sides is exactly what events like Inman and WomanUp! should have on stage to talk about leadership, business, and social enterprise. We all could learn from her, and she has a lot to teach.

She is one of the seven most interesting people in real estate in 2020.

Official Bio:

Lynley is a serial entrepreneur and executive with 20 years of experience in tech and media. She’s an engineer by education — her undergrad degree from Georgia Tech is in Electrical Engineering — and she holds an MBA from UCLA. In addition to being our co-founder and helping raise almost $200M for REX, Lynley has launched over a dozen startups and Fortune 100 companies.

 

2. Joe Rand, Broker Public Portal

Unlike many of the others on this list, Joe Rand should not be a stranger to anybody reading this post. He is one of the most popular speakers in real estate, a published author with a very popular book, a second-generation broker, and a former corporate attorney with degrees from Georgetown and Stanford Law School. He is also quite an amazing performer at karaoke, because he’s actually like a semi-pro singer on top of everything else. Evidence can be found here.

As you could imagine, Joe is a really, really good dude who is really really smart, really charming, and really compelling. He’s one of my favorite people in the industry, even if his politics are a bit too woke for my tastes… but that’s why he lives in New York and I live in the desert. He’s one of my favorite people to argue with, because we argue ideas and facts and principles, rather than let things get personal and ugly.

He is also, and has been since September, the Executive Director of the Broker Public Portal (“BPP” for short):

As Executive Director for BPP, Rand will serve as the face of a movement that has grown to include more than 240 multiple listing services (MLSs), representing over 90 percent of all property listings nationwide. BPP with Homesnap is the number one real estate engagement platform for consumers and agents, driving millions of agent/client interactions inside the Homesnap app and free leads to agents.

Joe Rand is one of the most trusted and well-known thought leaders in real estate,” said John Mosey, a National Broker Public Portal board member, Chairman of the BPP, and CEO of NorthstarMLS. “He is uniquely qualified – with his experience as a broker, agent educator, and industry insider – to take the Broker Public Portal with Homesnap movement to every market in America,” he added.

John Mosey is not wrong; Joe is uniquely qualified to lead BPP with Homesnap. So he’s an interesting guy in a regular year; in 2020, he vaults to near the top of the list of the most interesting people in real estate.

While everyone else will be fascinated by Andy Florance of CoStar, I think the person to really watch is Joe Rand. Because Andy has a $35 billion company to run; he can’t be focused on executing the critical entry into the residential real estate industry. Of course Homesnap has very capable people running it, but… let’s be honest here: without BPP, and the joint venture with BPP, Homesnap is a mobile app for MLS access… and there’s no way that CoStar pays $250 million for that.

So what Joe Rand and the Board of BPP decides to do with the post-acquisition Homesnap is tremendously important. From that standpoint, this tweet from Joe is all sorts of interesting:

I have two thoughts about this thread.

One, it is a bit odd to me that Homesnap would not have gotten the blessing of, or at the very least have informed, their most important partner before agreeing to the deal. I mean, sure, Homesnap didn’t have to, since BPP has no ownership of Homesnap and no financial interest in the transaction. But still, it’s odd that it appears that Joe and the Board of BPP have not yet made up their mind about whether the acquisition was or was not a good thing for the industry.

Two, Joe leaves out one very important fact when he says, “The BPP is a nonprofit dedicated to empowering the industry of MLSs, brokers, and agents to provide better experiences for consumers.” It’s quite a bit more than that. It is, by design, the only real estate portal designed around Fair Display Guidelines — something that Joe knows and embraces. From the press release announcing his appointment:

A longtime advocate and founding member of the Broker Public Portal — the only national portal committed to pro-consumer and pro-agent Fair Display Guidelines — Rand says his mission is very clear. “My two-year goal working with the BPP with Homesnap is to make it the number one real estate search site in the country,” he said. “We have an opportunity to take the BPP to the forefront of the conversation about our industry’s future.”

Andy Florance has essentially echoed the sentiments of Fair Display Guidelines in his interview with Brad Inman. He thinks Zillow’s business model is garbage; well, so does the BPP.

Maybe I’m missing something significant here, but it seems to me that the CoStar and the BPP are kindred spirits traveling down the same road in the same direction. They both want BPP with Homesnap to be the number one real estate search site in the country; they both want Fair Display Guidelines; they both want to preserve the preeminence of the real estate agent. I’m struggling to see how BPP would come to regard the entry of a $35 billion behemoth on their side as a bad thing.

And on that road trip to Kill Zillville, Florance might be the captain of the caravan, but Joe Rand is the navigator. Without Joe, CoStar-Homesnap will have a very rocky road ahead. With Joe, it may very well be a smooth highway. Yeah, I’d say he’s an interesting man today.

Official Bio (from JoeRand.com):

Joe Rand is the Chief Creative Officer for Howard Hanna | Rand Realty, one of the largest companies in the New York tristate region with almost 30 offices, over 1,200 agents, and closing over 6,000 transactions worth over $2.5 billion in real estate volume in 2018.  He is also the Executive Director of the BPP, an industry consortium dedicated to building an advertising-free home search experience with Homesnap.

Joe is the pioneer of the “Client-Oriented Real Estate,” or “CORE,” philosophy of real estate education, which is designed to raise the level of client service provided by the industry by teaching agents how to be “great at their jobs.”  An industry thought leader, has spoken at numerous industry conferences including Real Estate Connect, the RIS Media CEO Summit, REALTOR Triple Play, and the Women’s Council or REALTORS national meetings. He was honored by RIS Media in 2018 with one of the inaugural industry Newsmaker Awards, and recognized by Inman News in 2017 as one of the Top 100 Real Estate Influencers.

He is the author of Disruptors, Discounters, and Doubtersabout how the industry can overcome the challenges posed by disruption by raising the bar on client experiences, and the forthcoming How to be a Great Real Estate Agent, about how agents can build their business by becoming better at their actual jobs. He is also a regular contributor to Inman News, and the author of several online blogs: the Client-Oriented Real Estate Blog, where he writes about the CORE concept and real estate education; the Rand Country Blog, providing real estate analysis for the New York City tri-stage market; and the Move to SUMA, about his personal experiences relocating from Manhattan to the suburbs.

A graduate of Georgetown University, Joe also has a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a Masters of Law from Stanford University.  He lives in Nyack, New York with his wife, two children, and three dogs.

 

3. Julie Todaro, Opendoor:

Two years ago, I named Arik Prawer, President of Zillow Homes, as one of the seven most interesting people in real estate. He’s still super interesting in all sorts of ways, but in 2020, he has a new direct competitor: Julie Todaro, who was brought on as President of Homes and Services in October. That means she is one of the senior executives to join the newly revitalized Opendoor after its merger with Social Capital.

And frankly, Todaro may be the most important of the new senior team, because her area of responsibility is basically the core of Opendoor’s iBuying operations.

According to the website The Org, Todaro oversees pricing, buyer growth, market operations, customer experience, and processing and closing. In other words, she is responsible for properly pricing homes that Opendoor buys and sells, growing the number of buyers, buying up homes into inventory so Opendoor can sell them, ensuring a great experience for Opendoor’s customers, and making sure that transactions close on time and on budget.

Isn’t that basically everything that iBuying is? Everyone else at Opendoor, from CEO Eric Wu to CFO Carrie Wheeler to the data scientists and the marketing people and the janitors work to support Todaro and her sphere of operations, no?

What I find most fascinating here is that Todaro comes out of the world of e-commerce, while Prawer came out of the world of property investment; she from Amazon and he from Invitation Homes. I don’t want to read too much into that difference, but… well, hell with it, let’s read too much into that difference. Unprecedented, remember?

Reading far too deep into things, it seems to me that this is a bit of a tacit admission by Opendoor of both their strength and their weakness. Their strength is in the basic blocking-and-tackling of buying homes, renovating them, maintaining them and then selling them. They’ve been at it the longest, had a huge head start on Zillow, and feel they’ve got that side of the business figured out. But their weakness is in online merchandising, converting online traffic, customer service delivery via an online platform, sales and marketing… in other words, all the areas where Amazon is such a pioneer.

Todaro ran Amazon Canada, and then before that, two of the most important segments in Amazon: books and consumer electronics. I imagine her experience and knowledge of online sales & marketing are second to none. But has she ever done a rehab of a house? Does she know bricks and mortar and yard maintenance and asbestos mitigation? Pretty sure that Prawer does. Is that a requirement to be an effective general in the battle between the two giants of iBuying? Or is it more important for the general to be a well-versed expert in the art of online merchandising and marketing, if she has lieutenants who know the bricks and mortar? I don’t know, but boy, am I interested in finding out.

The only thing I can be reasonably sure of is that Todaro will be a worthy opponent for Prawer, as the rejuvenated Opendoor is a worthy opponent for Zillow. It will be a spectacular fight, and one that should lead to better products, services, and systems for consumers everywhere. Julie Todaro is one of the most interesting people in real estate today.

Official Bio:

Julie joins us after having consulted a number of high-growth companies, including Airbnb, Coupang and others. She also spent more than 13 years at Amazon, where she held leadership positions within finance and retail, as well as running Amazon Canada, North American books and consumer electronics. She possesses deep experience building operational excellence at fast-growing organizations.

4. Susan Daimler, Zillow:

I met Susan way back in the day when she was doing Buyfolio, even before Zillow acqui-hired her. It has turned out to be one of Zillow’s best investments in talent. She is simply one of the most delightful people in the industry, though it has been a few years since we got to hang out, and I’m certain that our next karaoke fest might be a bit different given her changed profile in the industry.

Now, what makes her so interesting for 2021 beyond just being cool, down-to-earth and yet another powerful female senior executive at a game-changing company, is the fact that she now has to be Rich Barton’s key general fighting on a front that I’m confident he did not expect to have to fight: the critical cash cow and strategic advantage that is Zillow’s portal business.

I spoke briefly with Susan for this profile, and well, all I can say is that she is taking the challenge seriously but is brimming over with confidence. Also, let me note that she says she wasn’t surprised by CoStar’s entry into the residential market, because Zillow spends a lot of time thinking about potential competitors.

Now, granted, she thinks I’m being dramatic when I use language like “war” and “battle” but… well, business does often take on that characteristic. The key for Zillow in the fight will be the same key that Zillow has spent 14 years developing: consumer traffic, lead flow, relationships with Premier Agents, and generating ROI.

Susan says that the PA’s are doing incredibly well, especially as Zillow moves more and more into Flex for its monetization model. As long as Zillow maintains its strength in what she called “front of house” (traffic, inquiries, leads) and works hard at keeping PA’s productive and happy, she thinks everything will turn out just fine. And Zillow is investing in technology for their PA partners, investing in coaching, investing in tools, and of course, investing in relationships.

My take on the battle, of course, is that Andy Florance is very, very smart. I don’t think he believes in challenging Zillow head on on its home turf: consumers and Premier Agents. CoStar will spend millions on marketing as well, as it has in the rental space, but CoStar can’t possibly believe that marketing alone overcomes this:

Which is why, as I said in my profile of Joe Rand above, CoStar is going to go after brokerages and infrastructure — the MLS, data, tools. Zillow has no shortage of talented people in that fight, including Errol Samuelson who is probably the key guy in the fight over the hearts and minds of brokers and MLSs. But on the other flank is Susan Daimler who has to ensure the continued loyalty of Premier Agents.

There is good reason for optimism if you’re Rich Barton. Since taking over for Greg Schwartz, Susan and her team have… how to put this… kicked ass and taken names. For the first nine months of 2020 (Susan took over in mid-November of 2019), the IMT segment has posted these numbers:

First nine months of20202019
IMTIMT% Change
Revenue1,026,394957,2317.23%
Costs and expenses:
   Cost of revenue76,15374,6282.04%
   Sales and marketing319,101380,608-16.16%
   Technology and development278,740276,8860.67%
   General and administrative166,185181,270-8.32%
   Impairment costs73,900
   Integration costs
Total costs and expenses914,079913,3920.08%
Income (loss) from operations112,31543,839156.20%
   Segment other income5,300
   Segment interest expense
Income (loss) before income taxes (1)117,61543,839168.29%

170% growth in profits YOY on revenue growth of only 7% strikes me as “kicking ass and taking names.” Generating over a billion dollars in revenue over 9 months qualifies as kicking ass and taking names too.

Thing is, Susan Daimler in person projects none of that “ass kicker” vibe. There is no harsh edge to her at all; just friendly, charming, and delightful… with a hint of competitive passion.

When I mentioned the kick ass results, Susan credits her team, and says that one thing people outside the company might not know about her is her focus on the team. She specifically said that “me alone” type of leadership can’t work in larger organizations like Zillow; each and every person on the team has to feel empowered and valuable. So she spends a great deal of her time thinking about team building, motivation, and leadership. To the extent that IMT has delivered fantastic results, she believes it is because of her team and her focus on the team, rather than on herself.

See? What did I tell you — one of the coolest people in the industry today.

A couple of miscellaneous notes: Susan loves mint chocolate chip ice cream, and to the extent she has favorite colors, it’s yellow. I think that makes sense because if you ever speak to her, you can’t help but be struck by her sunny personality. Plus, she’s a diehard New York City girl, who loves downtown — specifically Soho. Makes me like her even more, since Soho is my favorite part of the City, having gone to law school there and spent far too many nights walking those cobblestone streets. Susan believes deeply that New York City will come back after the difficulties with the pandemic and unrest, because it is the greatest city in the world.

I’m looking forward to following her next year and beyond, as she picks up the gauntlet that CoStar has thrown down. She is one of the most interesting people in real estate today.

Official Bio:

As Senior Vice President of Zillow Premier Agent, Susan oversees the strategy, sales, and operations of the company’s Premier Agent and StreetEasy businesses. Susan also oversees Zillow’s corporate relations function which includes internal and external communications, government relations and social impact.

Susan joined Zillow in October 2012 after the company’s acquisition of Buyfolio, a co-shopping platform for real estate agents and their homebuyers that she co-founded in 2009. Prior to Buyfolio, Susan co-founded the award-winning travel website SeatGuru, which was acquired by Expedia in 2007.

Susan is recognized as a leader in the industry, having been named by Inman as one of 33 people who are changing the real estate industry.

Susan earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Johns Hopkins University and currently sits on their Board of Trustees.

 

 

5. Tessa Hultz, LIBOR:

I have known Tessa for quite a few years, from way back when she was the CEO of the Wichita Association of REALTORS. And I thought she was plenty interesting as she moved on to Raleigh, and then to Long Island. She is smart, fiery, charming, and full of vim and vigor in everything she does.

But her position as the new CEO of the Long Island Board of REALTORS (LIBOR) catapults her into the ranks of the seven most interesting people in real estate today.

As anyone following this blog, or the industry, or the news in general at all knows by now, one of the biggest stories of 2019 was Long Island Divided, the Newsday investigation that revealed widespread racial discrimination among real estate brokers and agents throughout Long Island. I have written multiple posts on that topic, as I’m sure you all have already seen.

One of the things that emerge from the story so far, especially after the disaster that was the NY Senate hearings, is that much of the industry on Long Island remains either clueless or defiant. Because Newsday focused on the largest brands and companies, each and every one of those brokers who saw nothing wrong is a major important member of LIBOR:

Newsday’s investigation focused on 12 brands that represented more than half of the Island’s home sellers in 2017.

They included Douglas Elliman, Century 21 Real Estate LLC, Charles Rutenberg Realty Inc., Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage on Long Island, Coach Realtors, Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty, Laffey Fine Homes, Keller Williams Realty, The Corcoran Group, Signature Premier Properties, Realty Connect USA and RE/MAX LLC.

Tests of agents associated with two of the firms–The Corcoran Group and Daniel Gale Sotheby’s–produced no evidence of disparate treatment.

And in the aftermath of the Hearings, the NY Senate made it very clear that massive new laws and regulations are headed to the real estate industry, as I’ve detailed in my Seven Predictions post.

At the same time, what Long Island Divided revealed is not only widespread problems in the industry, but the inadequacy of the tools available to the REALTOR Associations to do much about it. As of this writing, 33 of the 34 agents busted on video are still employed, and are still REALTORS in good standing. I noted in my previous post in October that they were all being investigated by LIBOR, but if any disciplinary action has been taken, I’m not aware of it.

As CEO of LIBOR, that falls right in Tessa’s lap. And knowing Tessa, I think this lack of discipline to date is not a reflection on her but a reflection on the tools and procedures of the Association world for dealing with serious problems like these. Nonetheless, whether she has or does not have adequate tools, it still falls on Tessa to carry that investigation to conclusion… against ten of the largest brokerages in her Association. (Two of them, obviously, passed Newsday’s test with flying colors.)

The challenge is immense.

On the one hand, she has to complete the investigation, issue findings, and issue discipline to show her membership, the real estate industry, and the entire world that the Code of Ethics means something. She has to do that while ten of her largest brokerages remain defiant. And the discipline has to somehow straddle the line between too harsh and too lenient; too harsh and her entire membership could revolt, but too lenient and the public would not be happy… and when the public isn’t happy, the politicians who want their votes will be all to happy to get medieval on the industry’s ass.

On the other hand, Tessa has to be part of the response of LIBOR, NYSAR and NAR to the inevitable avalanche of new laws and regulations that the NY Senate will hand down. Some of them will be justified, while others will be completely over the top. We know this, because that’s how the authorities do things: why use a scalpel when a chainsaw is handy? So she has to somehow navigate that thin space between being overly defensive to pissed off legislators and “Thank you sir, may I have another?” She has to help angry politicians eager to curry favor with the media and with voters craft legislation and regulation that is based on the reality of real estate practice to stomp out problems without causing other problems. The cure can’t be worse than the disease, but in politics, that is far too often the case.

On the third hand, she has to deal with the damage to the REALTOR image that Long Island Divided has caused right there at home. Newsday isn’t some tiny blog; it’s one of the largest daily newspapers in the country. And that story has now been picked up by celebrities ranging from John Legend to Trevor Noah. It seems overly optimistic to think that black and brown consumers throughout Long Island (and elsewhere) have not gotten it into their heads that their agents can’t be trusted to treat them fairly. So Tessa has to somehow reassure the public that the vast majority of agents do the right thing and that the bad apples have been identified and purged.

Which brings us back to “on the one hand, she has to issue discipline” thing above.

It’s a delicate and treacherous dance with pits on one side and vipers on the other.

If anyone can do that dance, it would be Tessa Hultz who has shown a balance of energy and calm, discipline and creativity, fire and ice. All of her skills and knowledge and political acumen will be called upon in the year ahead. And how she navigates things in New York may very well be the template for other REALTOR Associations throughout the nation as the regulatory tsunami hits other states and potentially the federal government.

Yeah, I’d say Tessa is one of the most interesting people in real estate today.

Official Bio:

Tessa Hultz, RCE, CAE, CIPS has been serving REALTOR® Associations since 2005. Her dedication to the industry has earned several notable achievements and honors including being named by her peers as an inaugural recipient of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) Association Executives YPN Leaders of Tomorrow Award and her induction in the Bud Smith Leadership Society. In 2017 she was inducted in the NAR RPAC Hall of Fame.

In 2018 Tessa pioneered a first-of-its-kind local REALTOR® Association affordable housing study. Using MLS data, this study measured the impact of Habitat for Humanity homes on surrounding properties compared to homes in similar neighborhoods without Habitat built homes in proximity. The study measured 9 metrics and found neither the control nor study group were consistently favored and that subdivisions with sizable Habitat built homes continued to draw for-profit builders. This study has since been cited by regional affordable housing groups to argue favorably for affordable housing projects.

Tessa has served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Long Island Board of REALTORS® since joining the organization in early 2019. She is a speaker and presenter on topics ranging from new association executive training, women in leadership and how the 30-year mortgage creates household wealth.

In 2020 Tessa was named in Long Island Business News’ “Top 50 Women in Business” and to City & State New York’s “The 2020 Long Island Power 100″.

 

6. Shannon McGahn, Chief Advocacy Officer, NAR:

I am not a historian of NAR. So I can’t say whether there has been a worse year for the oldest trade association in the country than 2020. But I’d be shocked if there was. 2020 was annus horribilis for the oldest trade association in the country.

Not only did we have a pandemic and a lockdown, we also had significant setbacks for NAR on the litigation front in both Moehrl and Sitzer cases, as well as the Department of Justice coming down hard on NAR. The lawsuits will now enter discovery phase, and one of my Seven Most Interesting People from 2019 Katie Johnson, the General Counsel of NAR, will be working her ass off to defend NAR’s interests there. She will also have to deal with the DOJ post-settlement and figure out how to deal with the consequences of that.

However, from where I sit, it becomes increasingly more evident to me that the path through the fire and the flame lies not in the courts but on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and in the various giant offices of various giant federal agencies. And those are Shannon McGahn’s domain as the Chief Advocacy Officer of NAR.

McGahn took over for NAR’s longtime head of lobbying, Jerry Giovaniello, in 2018 and was the first woman to be named to that position in NAR’s history. And when Bill Malkasian retired from his post as Chief Advocacy Officer, McGahn stepped in to those legendary shoes, again, the first woman to be named to that position as well. What it means is that she is, for all intents and purposes, the head of NAR’s political activities.

What she has to deal with is both extraordinarily difficult and critical to the industry: saving cooperation and compensation, or if that can’t be done, creating some alternative to it.

Both the lawsuits and the DOJ action took aim at real estate commissions, but in slightly different ways. The lawsuits want to eliminate the practice of the seller paying for the buyer’s agent by way of having the listing agent share his commission. The DOJ, at least to date, was satisfied with greater transparency about how buyer agents are compensated, a prohibition on advertising that buyer agent services are free to the buyer, and by mandating lockbox access to non-REALTOR, non-MLS members.

Given the direction of the lawsuits at trial, it appears more likely than not that the plaintiffs would prevail at trial. Of course it will be appealed immediately by Katie Johnson and her team, but given the scope of damages ($50 billion or more), there will be a need to figure something out. In previous massive class action lawsuits, as in tobacco, state and federal governments were called upon to step in to prevent widespread bankruptcy.

For example, the tobacco “National Settlement Proposal”:

Faced with the prospect of defending multiple actions nationwide, the Majors sought a congressional remedy, primarily in the form of a national legislative settlement.[9] In June 1997, the National Association of Attorneys General and the Majors jointly petitioned Congress for a global resolution. On June 20, 1997, Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore and a group of other attorneys general announced the details of the settlement. The settlement included a payment by the companies of $365.5 billion, agreement to possible Food and Drug Administration regulation under certain circumstances, and stronger warning labels and restrictions on advertising. In exchange the companies would be freed from class-action suits and litigation costs would be capped.[10]:422

That particular proposal did not pass Congress, but led to a Multistate Settlement Agreement that resolved all of the legal issues. The real estate industry is quite likely to need something very much like that should the Moehrl or Sitzer cases go against it. The follow-on lawsuits will ruin the industry.

That is one of Shannon McGahn’s challenges: to lobby for and engineer a global settlement to stop what will be a flood of private lawsuits, so that we all can put the issue behind us and move on.

At the same time, she has to craft then lobby for some kind of legislative action to either preserve cooperation and compensation (i.e., some kind of legislation that would specifically allow for commission-sharing), or in the alternative, some kind of a way for buyers to be able to capitalize the buyer agent fee.

The issue is that most buyers are trying to scrape together every penny to make the down-payment when they are buying a house. They don’t have the cash to write a big check to their agents. By having the seller pay the buyer’s agent, the cost of that commission is baked into the price of the home, which lets the bank lend against it, which lets the buyer “pay” for it with the mortgage.

If commission-sharing is outlawed, then the industry needs to find a way to let buyers capitalize the cost of the buyer agent fee, or some other way to allow them to afford to pay that fee. That in turn requires significant changes to how lenders are allowed to do business and there are few industries today as heavily regulated as the mortgage industry.

Once again, Shannon McGahn and her team would be tasked with figuring out a solution.

Complicating matters even further, prior to taking on her role at NAR, McGahn was deeply intertwined with the Republican Party. She was the Staff Director for the House Financial Services Committee under Jeb Hensarling when the GOP held power in the House, worked for Steven Mnuchin at Treasury Department, and worked for other Republican organizations and candidates throughout her career. Her husband, Don McGahn, was White House Counsel for Trump and enormously influential, including being the point person behind nominations of both Justice Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.

In the current political environment that has become poisoned beyond recognition, it is not at all clear whether lobbying can even happen effectively across party lines as has long been the case in Washington DC, what with many prominent Democrats calling for punishing “Trump enablers”.

Whatever happens in 2021, though, McGahn will be tasked with saving the industry as we know it. She is one of the most important individuals in real estate that few people know, and certainly one of the most interesting.

Official Bio:

Shannon McGahn is the Chief Advocacy Officer for the National Association of REALTORS®, which represents more than 1.4 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.

McGahn is responsible for managing NAR’s Federal Legislative and Political Affairs and Political Representative teams. She provides strategic advice on public policy issues impacting NAR and helps direct its Independent Expenditure and Public Advocacy programs.

Before joining America’s largest trade association, McGahn served as the staff director for the House Financial Services Committee and, prior to that, as a counselor to the United States Treasury Secretary. She also held communications roles for three members of House Leadership during her near 20-year Capitol Hill career.

In addition, McGahn served as Vice President for a D.C.-based public affairs firm, and held the same position for a consulting firm focused on grassroots communication in major national media markets.

The first woman to hold the Chief Advocacy and formerly Senior Vice President of Government Affairs positions in NAR’s 110-year history, McGahn brings with her nearly two decades of experience working with or for the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government. As she continues her career at NAR, she is focused on working on behalf of America’s 1.4 million REALTORS® to promote and protect property ownership for people across the United States.

McGahn earned her B.A. in History from The George Washington University. A native of Westerville, Ohio, she currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and two sons.

 

7. Sean Reynolds, Summit Properties & Seattle Real Estate Podcast

I know what you might be thinking: whodat? In a year when so much happened in real estate, with big names and big personalities of big giant mega-corporations… who the hell is Sean Reynolds and what makes him interesting?

The answer is that Sean has one of the most interesting real estate YouTube channels I have ever seen: the Seattle Real Estate Podcast. Granted, it is but one section of the YouTube channel of Summit Properties NW, which also has your typical market updates and featured listing videos and such. But this podcast-on-YouTube is the one of the most unique things I have ever encountered in real estate social media.

Because it is so political.

It is so political in a year when one would think politics is the last thing anybody wants to talk about or think about, especially when one is in real estate sales.

Not only that, Reynolds takes a center-right position on most political topics I’ve seen him opine on, and he’s doing this in Seattle, one of the most leftist cities in America. I mean, Seattle has an openly Socialist council member fergossakes; hard to be more left than that, right? Isn’t he afraid of alienating potential clients?

And yet, his channel is filled with if not conservative, at least non-leftist politics and opinion. For example:

I have no idea what his political affiliation actually is; I’ve watched several of his videos and it isn’t really clear whether he’s a Democrat or a Republican, but based on what he’s openly saying to the world… I doubt he wins popularity contests in certain demographics of Seattle.

The fascinating thing is that Sean Reynolds has over 28,000 subscribers for this Seattle Real Estate Podcast. Some of his videos get hundreds of thousands of views. I don’t have any statistics, and I doubt anyone has really studied this, but I think Sean might be operating one of the largest “real estate” related YouTube channels in the country. The only one I can find that beats him is Ryan Serhant, and he’s a TV star in New York City whose YouTube videos look like produced documentaries. Sean Reynolds is one guy sitting in front of a microphone talking.

Just as a point of reference, The Real Word, by Byron Lazine and Nicole White, which gets immense press on Inman.com has 31 subscribers. Not 31,000… or 3,100… thirty one. Their last five videos got 76 views, 374 views, 58 views, 17 views… and 31 views.

Maybe Reynolds is on to something with social media for real estate. Maybe it isn’t trying to position yourself as a generic local expert who can recite MLS numbers that connect with people, talk about wonderful restaurants, or whatever other safe topic there is that works. Maybe it’s about letting it all hang out there to connect with people emotionally, and if that pisses off potential clients… so be it. Sunny likes to say “sometimes the garbage takes itself out.”

I have this theory that real estate agents should recognize that we are now living in an age of tribalism with so much division, so much disagreement, and so much… well… tribalism. And while agents all should transcend all of that personally and professionally and provide excellent service to everybody, marketing is a different story. I distinctly remember encouraging a friend of mine, a REALTOR in Houston who was my REALTOR for years, that he should consider creating a real estate website for gun enthusiasts. He didn’t, but the principle is the same as what we’re seeing from Reynolds here.

So I don’t know if explicitly political podcasts are effective as a marketing and lead generation vehicle for Sean Reynolds, because I don’t have access to NWMLS to see what kind of production Reynolds and his brokerage are doing. But damn, I hope he’s killing it, because courage like his ought to be rewarded.

At the very least, it ought to be recognized, and I do so here by naming Sean Reynolds as one of the seven most interesting people in real estate in 2020.

Official Bio:

Sean Reynolds, the owner of Summit Properties NW, LLC and Reynolds & Kline Appraisal, is an expert in both real estate sales and residential appraising. He has over 30 years of experience in the industry and is eager to use his expansive knowledge to support your needs.

Summit Properties NW and Reynolds and Kline Appraisal are the only large scale real estate brokerage and real estate appraisal firms operating in the Pacific Northwest simultaneously under single ownership. Sean Reynolds began his residential real estate career in real estate pulling comparable sales and copying data for Reynolds & Kline Associates Appraisal of Kirkland in 1983.

Upon the departure of owners, Steve Reynolds in 1989 and Frank Kline in 1994, Sean by default became the Designated Managing broker of Northwest Traditions in Real Estate in 1994 and owner of Reynolds and Kline Appraisal and has been operating the business ever since. In 2001, Sean created Summit Properties NW, LLC, a Bellevue based independent real estate sales brokerage that currently licenses 100+ real estate brokers.​

In addition to appraising and managing the closing real estate transactions in the greater Puget Sound region, Sean has acted as a professional witness appraiser in dozens of civil litigation and marriage dissolution cases in the state of Washington.

In May 2015, Sean was Awarded the SRA Designation, the Highest Residential Appraisal Designation by the Appraisal Institute⁠—fewer than 1% of all appraisers nationwide have achieved the SRA Designation. Appraisers holding the SRA Designation have met rigorous requirements relating to education, testing, experience and demonstration of knowledge, understanding, and ability. The SRA designation has long been recognized by courts of law, government agencies, financial institutions, and investors as a mark of excellence in the field of real estate valuation and analysis.

A Parting Word

Interestingly enough, I think that’s the most women I have ever had on this list: 5 of 7 are women. Plus, I think this might be the first time every single one of the Most Interesting People are either Gen-X or Millennial (you never ask a lady her age, after all).

Perhaps there is a real shift happening in the real estate industry that was so long seen as the province of old white men. If so, that is a welcome shift as younger and more diverse leaders have to step up. Time will tell whether this new generation of leaders are just younger female versions of the same old same old, or new wine in new bottles.

I also wanted to highlight individuals who are not as well known as some of the past Most Interesting Peoples because one day, the lockdowns will end, and we all will gather again in various conferences around the country. Many of these people will be there, and you might be able to recognize them then, and understand the extremely key roles they are playing in the evolution of the residential real estate industry.

But of course, as in past years, while there are numerous very interesting people in our industry, of whom I have profiled a mere seven, there is only one person who will top any Most Interesting, Most Influential, Most Powerful, or Most Anything list for me:

Thanks to you all, and a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your families!

-rsh

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Rob Hahn

Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

5 thoughts on “The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate in 2020: The Unprecedented Edition”

  1. Newsday’s great work not only uncovered bad agents in the field. It was also reported that Ms Diane Scalza, the 2019 President of the Long Island Board of REALTORS® (LIBOR) & NYS approved Instructor didn’t even hide her own behavior or thoughts as she taught her Fair Housing Class. 


    It is even more disturbing that as the 2019 President, Ms Scalza automatically has a very powerful seat on the LIBOR Executive Committee and the Board of Directors until 12/31/2021. Those two positions are charged with the vision and direction of the organization.

    A reasonable person would believe that the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors would be charged to create a plan to rid racism from its ranks. If Ms Scalza was so flippant with her comments on race in her Fair Housing Class, how can she be part of the solution? In fact, one would argue that she may interfere with the process of healing and instruction. 

    Please tell me how LIBOR can be on the right path with these leaders still in place?

    Just wait until the next round of Senate Hearings!!!

    Yes, Tessa Hultz must have one of the toughest jobs and is deserving the mention as of the most interesting people in real estate!

    A concerned practicing REALTOR®.

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