2023: The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate
The annual tradition returns
Welcome to another installment of an annual tradition around here: the Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate in 2023. Since this year, we’re on Substack, the post will be too long for email. Please come read it on the website if you’re getting this in your inbox.
As in earlier years, let me reiterate that Inman does the Influencers list, Swanepoel does the Power 200 list, and RISMedia does the Newsmakers list. All of them are far more respected and important than this list of mine for a bunch of reasons. Inman Influencers are people with 100K or more followers. Swanepoel’s SP200 takes hundreds of hours of work and is the definitive guide to the most powerful individuals in real estate. RISMedia’s Newsmakers are nominated by readers and selected by RISMedia to be “shining examples of not letting market conditions dictate the future, but taking control of your own story instead.”
The Notorious ROB Interesting List is none 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 it’s my list. Sunny Hahn and special 2023 advisor Wild Turkey Rare Breed have assisted in this list.
Without further ado, Notorious ROB presents, The Seven Most Interesting People in Real Estate in 2023. As in previous years, this list is in no particular order but rank them as you see fit for your purposes!
1. Ryan Schneider, Anywhere & Dave Liniger, RE/MAX
At the top of my list for 2023 is a pair of Big Dogs — powerful leaders in the industry who made one of the most spectacular bets in recent memory. The companies these men lead, Anywhere and RE/MAX, settled the Sitzer v. NAR lawsuit early for $83.5 million and $55 million respectively. RE/MAX settled on September 18th, and Anywhere settled on October 6th.
When the settlements were first announced, quite a few people in the industry thought they were nuts. Why pay tens of millions to the plaintiff’s lawyer instead of winning in court as NAR was so confident it would do? Wasn’t this just a cowardly retreat from the field of battle?
I thought the price tag was insanely cheap! Both Anywhere and RE/MAX paid the settlement amount out of cash on hand. No need to borrow money, no need to sell assets.
Then as details emerged about the settlements, I started to understand just how big a deal this was. I began thinking that RE/MAX and Anywhere had snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. Rather than face enormous liability, these two companies created a real competitive advantage for themselves through the settlement.
I have confirmed my suspicion, even though most lawyers think “there’s no way that the settlement allows that!” To which I say, “How else do you interpret the plain language of the agreement?”
Those settlement agreements have been approved by the court in Sitzer on a preliminary basis; I see no reason why the court would deny final approval.
And now… after the verdict in Sitzer, which saddles NAR, Keller Williams, and HomeServices of America with $5.35 billion in liability (before any reduction by the court post-trial), and after all of the copycat lawsuits getting filed all over the place, both Schneider and Liniger look like frikkin’ geniuses.
Long and short of it is that Anywhere and RE/MAX have immunized all of their franchisees from any seller-side litigation across the country. Moron lawyers, like the ones who filed the Georgia case, might name Anywhere and RE/MAX franchisees as defendants, but smarter ones like the ones who filed in Florida know not to bother.
What’s more, under the settlement, should Anywhere and RE/MAX acquire any other franchise, it and all of its franchisee brokerages also gain immunity from lawsuits across the whole country.
Any independent brokerage, or a franchise brokerage (who did not affiliate with KW or BHHS) also gain immunity should they join Anywhere or RE/MAX prior to the settlement receiving final approval.
Anywhere and RE/MAX have rendered the franchise sales departments of all other franchisors irrelevant, and have opened the door to a massive wave of consolidation as franchises and independent brokerages rush to safety under their two umbrellas. All for sums money that they paid out of pocket.
I just don’t know how you could have bigger wins in residential real estate today.
For engineering such enormous wins, both Ryan Schneider, CEO of Anywhere, and Dave Liniger, Chairman of the Board of RE/MAX, deserve all the credit in the world. (I am reliably informed that it was Liniger, who really drove the decision to settle, which is why I name him.)
They are the most interesting men in real estate in 2023.
Ryan Schneider, Director, Chief Executive Officer and President, Anywhere Real Estate, Inc.
Ryan Schneider became Anywhere Real Estate Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer effective December 31, 2017 and is a member of our Board of Directors. He joined the Company as President and Chief Operating Officer in October 2017 after nearly 15 years of senior leadership experience at Capital One Financial Corporation.
From 2007 to 2016, Schneider was President of Capital One’s Card division, its largest business, where he oversaw all of Capital One’s consumer and small business credit card lines in the United States, U.K., and Canada. He managed a staff of more than 10,000 employees and reported directly to Capital One’s Chief Executive Officer.
Schneider joined Capital One in December 2001 and held a variety of leadership positions within Capital One through 2007, including Executive Vice President and President, Auto Finance, which did the majority of its business with franchised auto dealers, and Executive Vice President, U.S. Card. He also served as a director of Capital One Bank (USA), National Association.
Schneider has substantial experience in public policy and regulatory affairs, including meeting with a sitting President of the United States and testifying in front of a Senate committee.
Previously, he was a partner at McKinsey & Company, where he specialized in financial services clients with an emphasis on consumer credit and insurance. Schneider received a B.A. in Economics from Williams College and his Ph.D. in Economics from Yale University.
Dave Liniger, Chairman of the Board & Co-Founder, RE/MAX
Dave Liniger is the visionary leader of the Denver-based global real estate franchise he co-founded with his wife, Gail, in 1973. Dave is well respected internationally for his vast knowledge of the real estate industry and influence on housing policy. At the height of the recession, Dave pushed for governmental housing reform policies that would help speed the housing recovery; many of his recommendations were adopted. He is widely credited with improving conditions for real estate agents by creating a successful business model combining the maximum commission concept with a host of support services. Dave is a major advocate of advanced training and education – and, as a result, RE/MAX agents are the most productive in the industry. Dave currently serves as Chairman of the RE/MAX Board and Co-Founder.
Dave spent much of 2012 recovering from a life-threatening infection that surfaced in late January. After multiple surgeries, weeks in intensive care, and months in the hospital, he returned to RE/MAX World Headquarters in July. He chronicled his ordeal and recovery in an inspirational New York Times Best Seller, "My Next Step: An Extraordinary Journey of Healing and Hope."
Fifty years ago, Dave revolutionized the real estate industry when he created the RE/MAX business model, which combines a maximum commission concept with world-class support services. The name "RE/MAX" was coined from the words "real estate" and "maximums." The model continues to attract experienced, top-producing agents who lead the industry in individual sales and professional education. The RE/MAX Balloon is one of the most recognized corporate images in the world and has become a symbol of the leading real estate network.
In 2011, Dave was named the Inman News “People's Choice” Most Influential Real Estate Leader. In 2010, he was included in Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s profiles of the 50 Most Powerful People in Real Estate. Dave has been featured in Entrepreneur, Forbes, Fortune, Inc., Success and other leading publications and media outlets across the globe. He received the Warren Bennis Award for Leadership Excellence from the Global Institute for Leadership Development and has been inducted into the International Franchise Hall of Fame, the Council of Real Estate Brokerage Managers (CRB) Hall of Leaders, the Real Estate Buyer’s Agent Council (ABR) Hall of Fame, and has earned the Council of Residential Specialists (CRS) Special Achievement Award.
Dave has set a tone of philanthropy since the early days of RE/MAX. The culture of giving attracts professionals who care about making a difference in their communities. Since 1992, RE/MAX has been the official real estate sponsor of Children's Miracle Network Hospitals. And, Dave and Gail own the acclaimed Sanctuary Golf Course in Sedalia, Colorado. Devoted primarily to charity golf tournaments, the private course has raised nearly $100 million for hundreds of organizations since opening in 1997. In 2011, Dave and Gail accepted the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Founder's Award on behalf of the RE/MAX network, which has donated nearly $200 million for local children's hospitals.
Dave was born and raised in the small town of Marion, Indiana. Prior to starting his real estate career, Dave served in the Air Force and served in Vietnam. He first became interested in real estate after successfully buying and selling properties to supplement his income while stationed in Phoenix, Arizona. After working for both a 100-percent commission company and a traditional brokerage, he co-founded RE/MAX in 1973.
2. Gary Keller, Keller Williams
On the exact opposite side of the coin from Ryan Schneider and Dave Liniger is another first-ballot Hall of Famer: Gary Keller, the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Keller Williams.
That he has left an indelible mark on the real estate industry cannot be questioned by any rational observer. He founded Keller Williams, one of the most influential and powerful brands in the history of the industry, and introduced numerous innovations: profit-sharing, recruiting downlines, novel training and coaching programs, agent councils, cap on commissions, and a real focus on teams among other things. For about a decade or so, the entire industry copied Keller Williams and shook in fear of what KW might do next to take their agents and brokerages away. He is one of the Great Ones in real estate.
Keller built success on top of success, becoming one of the wealthiest men in real estate as well as one of the most powerful. The Swanepoel Power 200 [I have participated in compiling that report until this year] said of him last year, while naming him the #2 most powerful person in real estate:
Keller, who co-founded Keller Williams Realty in 1983, is one of a few leaders who is still in the same high level national leadership position and has seen and been through it all. That consistency and experience is yet another reason why Keller has remained one of the five most powerful people in residential real estate every year since the SP 200 debuted in 2014. He is considered by many to be the most dynamic and charismatic leader of his generation, and with the stormy market, his experience, wisdom and hard-won expertise from countless hours invested will be a steadying influence on the company that bears his name.
Entering into 2023, despite a terrible housing market, KW had posted steady performance throughout 2022 and outperformed the industry as a whole.
Then came Sitzer v. NAR.
While Anywhere and RE/MAX settled, Gary Keller chose to fight. Precisely zero people who know Gary Keller or know someone who knows Gary Keller was surprised. A native Texan, Gary Keller’s pugnacious streak is well known to most industry veterans, and evident to anyone who has ever watched him on stage.
Here’s an example of peak Gary Keller, combining intelligence, feistiness, and folksiness all in one:
Most industry insiders I spoke with about Sitzer over the years thought that Anywhere would settle first (“They always do”) and that RE/MAX would also settle, but that Gary would fight. They also thought that Gary would take the stand, to explain to the jury — to teach the jury if you will, as he has taught so many real estate agents over the years — how things really work.
And he did, first via videotaped deposition during the plaintiff’s week and then again in person during the defense’s case. I have written on both appearances so I’m going to skip the analysis. Especially since the analysis doesn’t matter anymore; we know that the jury took less than three hours to find for the plaintiffs.
The result is that Keller Williams, the largest single real estate brand in North America with over 170,000 in U.S. and Canada, which did 1.1 million transactions in 2022 with $473 billion in sales volume, is functionally insolvent. The jury returned a verdict of $1.87 billion in damages, which is automatically trebled to $5.35 billion under antitrust law. Because it’s antitrust, KW is jointly and severally responsible for all $5.35 billion — oops, $5.25 billion once Anywhere and RE/MAX’s settlements are deducted.
According to KWRI’s FDD (Franchise Disclosure Document) which is public record, KW had total assets of $331 million at the end of 2022, out of which only $96 million was current assets and frankly only $47 million was in cash.
When you owe $5.35 billion and only have $47 million to pay, that is the definition of insolvency. On paper, Keller Williams is bankrupt.
Like NAR and HomeServices, KW is counting on Judge Bough to reduce the amount of damages; there is a flurry of post-trial motions. Perhaps one of those motions will stick; perhaps they will not. Is there an amount of damages that Judge Bough can realistically reduce it down to, as well as an appellate bond amount that KW can afford to pay with only $47 million in cash in the bank? We’re all about to find out.
Nonetheless, despite daunting odds, Gary Keller looks like he wants to fight on. After losing, KW put out a press release touting the fact that Paul Clement, former U.S. Solicitor General, has joined its legal team. It surprises no one in the industry that Gary Keller wants to keep fighting.
But copycat lawsuits are getting filed against not just KW corporate, but against numerous KW franchisee brokerages and even agent teams. They do not enjoy the immunity that Anywhere and RE/MAX franchises enjoy. Will the famously loyal cadre of Keller Williams brokers and agents rally behind Gary and Keller Williams and fight to the end no matter what? Or will they choose to flee to save their own skins?
We’re all about to find out.
Whatever happens, what 2023 made clear is that the industry might be facing its Alamo from a variety of legal threats. If so, then Gary Keller is our William Travis, the hero of the Alamo who refused to surrender, who wrote the famous Victory or Death letter, died in the siege and became immortal as a result. We admire warriors even if they die, even as we flee from danger knowing we have not the courage to stare down certain doom. So it is difficult not to admire Keller’s possibly doomed struggle and wonder what comes next.
You don’t have to like Gary Keller. You don’t have to agree with his strategy. You don’t have to like his company, his books, his style, or anything about the man. But you do have to admire his courage and his willingness to fight. I think he has earned at least that much.
He is one of the most interesting men in real estate today.
Gary Keller helps set the strategic direction to create alignment, scale, and efficiencies across the Keller Williams ecosystem. He is focused on expanding market share and helping agents boost their production to fund their lives and create opportunities through technology.
Gary graduated from Baylor University in 1979 with a degree in marketing and real estate. He helped five families buy a home his first month in the business, and by age 26 was the vice president of expansion for Austin’s then-largest real estate company. He resigned from the position, and three and a half years later, his new firm was the largest in town – a position it retains to this day. Gary soon took his company and his philosophy of “people helping people” nationally, then internationally.
Gary is the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including The Millionaire Real Estate Agent, The Millionaire Real Estate Investor, SHIFT: How Top Real Estate Agents Tackle Tough Times, and The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, which reached #1 on the Wall Street Journal business bestseller list.
A recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and finalist for Inc. Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year, Keller is widely recognized as a business leader. REALTOR® Magazine named him one of real estate’s most influential thought leaders. A REAL Trends survey identified Gary as one of the five “Most Admired People” in real estate.
In 2015, Inman News named Keller as one of the top real estate “doers” who are driving change in the industry. And, in 2016, Swanepoel named him one of the five most powerful people in residential real estate. In 2020, Gary Keller officially stepped into a new role as executive chairman at kwx, transitioning all of his previous Keller Williams responsibilities and duties to the president’s position.
A teacher at heart, Gary has been acknowledged as a distinguished alumnus of both his high school and Baylor, where he established the Keller Center for Research in the Hankamer School of Business. Gary continues to teach seminars across North America and coaches small-business owners and entrepreneurs. He also guides the development of innovative new initiatives, including KW Kids Can.
A noted philanthropist and supporter of the arts, Keller and his wife, Mary Pfluger, live in Austin. His passions include fly fishing, hunting, snow skiing, golf, music, reading, movies, sports, dogs, and spending as much time as possible with his son, John.
3. Cory Shepard,
The Mafia San Diego Association of REALTORS
Let me be clear about a few things. I don’t know Cory Shepard. I have never met him, or if I have, it was years ago, must have been very brief and I have no recollection of ever meeting him. He has never done a thing to me that I’m aware of, and I have no personal feelings towards him one way or another. He is likely a nice guy and a fine leader. For all I know, he may be a great husband and father and the truest friend a man could have.
None of that matters to why he is one of the most interesting people in real estate in 2023.
That there is very little known about Mr. Shepard that makes him interesting as a person or as a leader does not matter. That such obscurity may be intentional (SDAR’s page on its Board of Directors has no bio of its CEO) does not matter. Because in a way Cory Shepard the individual, the leader, the person does not matter.
What makes him so interesting is what others have done — or more to the point — have failed to do about him and the organization he now leads. He is interesting as a focal point of REALTOR priorities.
For those who are new here, I learned about what appears to be massive corruption at San Diego Association of REALTORS (SDAR) back in August. I wrote about that in this post:
The former CEO of SDAR, Mike Mercurio, is credibly accused to have embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe millions) from the Association to pay for things like shopping trips at luxury retail stores and his daughter’s private school tuition.
What’s worse, the Board of Directors is credibly accused of either being in cahoots with Mercurio or being so completely asleep at the wheel that it likely rises to the level of grossly negligent culpability. There are credible allegations of what amounts to bribery of Board members to look the other way.
Then a couple of days later, I learned some additional facts that led to additional questions, this time for Cory Shepard, the new CEO of SDAR. He got one of the most coveted jobs in all of organized real estate as the CEO of one of the largest local REALTOR Associations in the country, a job that pays $600K a year plus bonuses, travel allowances, paid time off, etc. etc. with no experience, apparently no interview, and without applying for it.
I wrote about that here:
The questions I had for SDAR’s Board of Directors then, which of course no one bothered to acknowledge never mind answer, were:
Was the job of CEO posted anywhere? Was it made known privately to anybody other than Mr. Shepard? How did Mr. Shepard come to know that the CEO job was open in the first place?
Did Mr. Shepard apply for the job? Because “landed in my lap” does not sound like a job he applied for.
Did you interview any other candidate? If so, how many?
If you did not make the application known, and if you did not interview anybody other than Mr. Shepard, could you explain why he is so uniquely qualified to run one of the largest REALTOR organizations in the country that you felt compelled to offer him the job without an application and without an interview?
I further asked NAR and the state association, CAR (California) some questions arising from the whole affair:
In light of what appears to be enormous abuse at one of your local Associations, what investigations are you undertaking?
Who is undertaking such an investigation?
When can we expect to see a report?
Will you revoke SDAR’s charter if the investigation shows a systematic failure to live up to Core Standards? If not, what concrete steps will you take to correct the situation, if any?
If you are not undertaking an investigation, please explain why not.
Is there any provision in either CAR or NAR rules and regulations that provides for some ability for either of you to step in to deal with what is obviously a major corruption of leadership situation in SDAR?
Will you be accepting CAR and NAR Directors allocated to SDAR as voting Directors?
Will SDAR leadership be accepted at the NAR Leadership Summit, scheduled for next week?
What message do you think CAR and NAR send to the public and to the rest of the industry if you fail to act in such an obvious failure of local leadership?
Do you agree with President Powell’s description of a local REALTOR Association as “the Mafia?” If you do not, and I hope you do not, then what steps need to be taken at either the state or national levels to make sure that local Associations do not turn into an organized crime outfit? Will you take them?
Once again, no one bothered to even acknowledge these questions never mind answer them to me or anybody else.
It turns out that five of SDAR’s representatives to the National Association of REALTORS are still Directors of NAR as of this writing:
ANDERSON, CHRIS H — Start Date: 12/1/22 End Date: 11/30/25
FARLEY, CARLA — Start Date: 12/1/22 End Date: 11/30/25
KEVANE, ROBERT FRANCIS — Start Date: 12/1/22 End Date: 11/30/25
LUGASH, SPENCER — Start Date: 11/17/23 End Date: 11/30/23
POWELL, FRANK — Start Date: 12/1/22 End Date: 11/30/25
Four of five of these names appear in the Complaint as participants in whatever was going on at SDAR under Mike Mercurio. Frank Powell in particular stated that SDAR was “the Mafia” and that you had best get on board.
There has been no word from NAR whether they were allowed to take their seats on the NAR’s governing body given their legal situation. I imagine that if NAR did take some kind of action, we would have heard about it.
As far as anyone knows — including some NAR insiders — there has been precisely zilch done by NAR on the problems at SDAR. One wonders if NAR is doing any kind of an investigation at all.
CAR is the same. Apart from some bland corporate PR speak posted on its website that claims to be “investigating” and “committed to using all available tools” there has been precisely zero action by CAR.
I did find, however, that Frank “We’re the Mafia” Powell is still Chair of Region 24 in CAR:
Discovery Property Group Inc
The scandal broke in July; there has yet to be any kind of a report released or even hinted at. If this is what passes for “an investigation using all available tools” at CAR, I wonder what it looks like if CAR didn’t use all of the available tools.
NAR’s Association Executive Institute meeting (AEI) will be in San Diego in March. As far as I know, the various NAR committees related to AEI have done zip, zilch, nada about SDAR. I would like to know from Theresa Hatton, CEO of the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS and the Chair of the Association Executives Committee & Forum, and from Brendan Bailey, CEO of the REALTOR Association of Pioneer Valley and the Chair of the AEC-AE Institute Advisory Board if they even discussed the fact that the home Association for their AEI meeting is credibly accused of organized criminal activity over years.
Do they even care? Or is rampant corruption just part of the deal in REALTOR land?
Ultimately, Cory Shepard ends up being one of the most interesting people in real estate because he is a symbol. He is a symbol of the corruption of the REALTOR Association and the bewildering complete lack of give-a-fuck by those who are supposed to deal with such abuses. Not his local Board, not the State Association, not the National Association… not the numerous Committees, the staff, the industry press.
But by all means, NAR, tell us more about how ethical REALTORS are and boast some more about your Code of Ethics. Tracy Kasper, NAR’s President, can tell members that it is “critical to maximize transparency” but if it comes to potentially criminal behavior in REALTOR Association ranks? Transparency-shmansparency.
Kenny Parcell sends a pic of his belt buckle, and that leads to this:
But a major local Association calls itself the Mafia and behaves like it, and NAR has nothing to say whatsoever. No leader of NAR has anything to say. No one is issuing long heartfelt letters to anybody. No Executive Committee action — even symbolic action like in the picture above — has taken place.
Sure, millions were stolen from members, staffers were harassed then fired in retribution, a years-long coverup was maintained… but at least nobody sent a photo of a belt buckle! Under the rug you go!
The silence is deafening and the inaction is enlightening.
So Cory Shepard joins this list not for who he is or what he personally has done, but because he is the symbol for what appears to be deep rot in organized real estate at every level: local, state and national.
Silence is complicity. Long after Mr. Shepard has left the scene, long after the current batch of “leaders” in organized real estate have moved on, all of us will remember not what they said, or what a random asshole blogger has said, but the silence of those who were supposed to care.
None available online, and let’s face it: SDAR wasn’t going to send me a bio.
His LinkedIn profile.
Sorry, that’s the best I can do!
4. Nykia Wright, NAR
2023 was without question NAR’s annus horribilis. We had the SDAR scandal reveal deep corruption with NAR doing nothing about it, the Kenny Parcell’s sexual harassment scandal with NAR doing everything about that, and the historic loss in Sitzer — all of it coming against the background of the worst real estate market in recent memory. At least two of the above led to Bob Goldberg, the CEO of NAR and longtime veteran of NAR, deciding (?) to call it quits early.
So we have Nykia Wright stepping in as interim CEO while NAR continues the CEO search.
Ms. Wright is a complete unknown in the real estate industry because she is from outside the industry. Prior to being named as interim CEO, she was the CEO of Chicago Sun-Times. Prior to that, she owned a franchise brokerage company and then was a consultant before that.
I suppose one is to assume that somehow she and other top leaders in NAR mixed with one another in Chicago, got to know each other, and then when shit went south, they tapped her as an interim CEO. Maybe not. We won’t know because NAR is — to quote Tracy Kasper — all about maximizing transparency. But I digress….
That she is an outsider could be a good thing… or a bad thing. But I think Byrone Lazine from BAM reflects the “Huh?” of most members in this video:
His question over and over is, “Do you have the authority to clean house?”
Well, as I write this, she has been in office for a few weeks: she started on November 20th. If there has been a housecleaning, it has gone completely unnoticed. Now, to be fair, it’s only been a few weeks. Perhaps the housecleaning is coming.
Unfortunately for Byron (and those of us wanting reform), there isn’t a whole lot in Ms. Wright’s background to suggest that she is one of those clean-house turnaround artists. She did come into Chicago Sun-Times as the COO and helped right that floundering ship. The full story can be found on Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business website, as Ms. Wright is a Tuck alumna.
With a background in finance, she “dug into the books she found a warren of wasteful spending and restrictive contracts” and quickly eliminated that. So there is reason for hope here.
What she doesn’t have a track record of is stepping into a situation that isn’t simply about wasteful spending (although I do wonder what she would find if she dug into NAR’s books) but about a culture of corruption, incompetence, and high-handed arrogance… then turning that around. What she doesn’t have is any experience leading a membership organization where she is answerable to 1.6 million members instead of to a few shareholders and their Board members. What she doesn’t have is any experience in navigating extinction-level legal threats from all sides and managing multiple complex litigations.
The challenges confronting NAR are enormous. Unprecedented. It is facing the most serious set of threats to its very existence in over 100 years of history. Litigation is at the top of the list. Credible evidence of RICO-level corruption and criminality is another. A broken culture that says one thing and does the exact opposite is another. Sexual harassment concerns, hostile work environments, an unwieldy (if not outright broken) governance model, a secretive top-down oligarchy… on top of a terrible housing market doubly challenged by the emergence of new technology.
Ms. Wright may be able to confront all of those things, identify the problem, and drive home solutions. She may be able to deal with the lawsuit, root out corruption, change the culture, and heal the very deep wounds within the organization. She may be the savior that NAR has been seeking. We just don’t know.
And that is what makes Nykia Wright one of the most interesting people in real estate in 2023. She is a cipher inside of a mystery wrapped in enigma. None of us have any expectations because none of us know anything about her other than the surface resume stuff you can find on LinkedIn. I actually went looking for any video interviews of her on any news program or podcast; one would think someone in the media business would leave some… media behind.
All I found was a brief prepared speech she gave accepting an award which gave little sign of what she might be like as a real person. Mystery wrapped in enigma.
Of course, above all of that looms the real possibility that she is merely an interim CEO. Wright might be a substitute teacher who just has to keep the classroom semi-docile. Everybody knows how easy it is for substitute teachers to exercise authority and control, said no one ever.
For being a mystery, for taking on challenges beyond the norm, for being either a bridge from the past to the future, or a placeholder for the real new CEO of NAR… Nykia Wright is one of the most interesting people in real estate today.
Nykia Wright is the Interim Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of REALTORS®. Nykia brings a breadth of executive leadership and strategic advisory experience with her.
Prior to assuming the role in November of 2023, Nykia was the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Sun-Times, the oldest continuously published news publication in the state of Illinois. As CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times, she led the newspaper through a sweeping digital transformation and a merger with WBEZ (Chicago Public Media). She is a recognized leader in the journalism industry who was responsible for managing significant disruption, driving change, and implementing digital transformation at the newspaper.
Before joining the Sun-Times, Nykia was a strategy and business transformation professional with more than 15 years’ experience advising and leading companies and teams for operational, financial, and performance improvement projects. Specific areas of expertise include planning for growth, operational turnarounds, launching global digital strategies, starting new business lines, and initiating organizational redesigns. Nykia has served as a strategic advisor to a number of institutes of higher learning including MIT, Duke, and Dartmouth College, and to Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, and Toll Brothers.
Most recently, Nykia co-founded SonicMESSENGER, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) startup helping democratize audience engagement and measurement by leveraging smart audio. She sits on the board of the American Cancer Society and the Better Government Association, among other entities, and is a member of the Dean's Advisory Council at her alma mater, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. She has received many awards for her success, including the 2022 YWCA Chicago – Outstanding Leader in Business, 2019’s Chicago’s most powerful women in journalism, and Chicago Crain’s 2018 40 under 40.
Nykia has a B.S. in Business Administration and Finance from Carnegie Mellon University and an MBA in General Management and Strategy from Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
5. Greg Robertson, Gentleman of Leisure
Obviously, I am going to be biased when talking about the Fabulous Greg Robertson. He and I have been co-hosting the Industry Relations podcast for a few years now, and I’ve known him for years and years. I count Greg as one of my closest friends in the industry.
What makes Greg stand out in 2023 is that for the first time in quite some time, he is liberated.
As he and I discuss often on the Industry Relations podcast, Greg has been working in software and technology pretty much since he was a wee lad. As an entrepreneur since forever, Greg has always had the responsibility not just for himself but for a company. His breakthrough success came with W+R Studios, which he cofounded and ran with Dan Woolley, where they developed Dwellicious, a real estate version of Delicious, a social bookmarking service. They sold that to VHT Studios back in 2011. They then had the breakout hit with CloudCMA. They parlayed that hit into more products, such as CloudStreams and CloudMLX.
Three years ago, Lone Wolf acquired W+R Studios giving Greg and Dan a legitimate exit from a startup they built from scratch. And Greg has had the responsibility to a corporate parent since 2020 as he served as General Manager, MLS at Lone Wolf.
Until he stepped down in 2023. While he remains a Strategic Advisor to Lone Wolf, as the blog linked above says, “With the change, he’ll be able to focus on his passions as an industry influencer, blogger and podcaster, and of course, world traveler.” The description left out “author” as Greg is a published auteur with the book “The Art of the CMA.”
That liberation from corporate responsibility, whether to his own company or someone else’s company, opens up some real possibilities for Fabulous.
I don’t believe that I am betraying some kind of confidence when I say that Greg’s real passion these days is speaking, writing, and influencing. Exactly what Lone Wolf said upon his departure. I believe he’s working on a second book, which I hope is of interest to someone like me who isn’t a working real estate agent.
Obviously, I know the work Greg does on Industry Relations, and I know that his personal podcast, Listing Bits, is a valuable resource within the MLS sub-sphere we both inhabit. He speaks frequently at industry events, including the crowd favorite at CMLS conference, “Industry Update.” The 2023 version is here:
The reason I find Greg so interesting this year — more than previous years — is that I think he may be free to pursue his passions in media at precisely the moment in time when the industry might be open to new media.
The industry press — from Inman to RISMedia to HousingWire to the new RealEstateNews venture — has not been innovating. It’s as if they’re still using the playbook from the early 2000s: some print, mostly online, written by trad-journalists in the stilted Chicago Manual of Style fashion, plus events. Those worked great for years and years, but the men and women who run industry media appear stuck in the past of “journalism.”
We live in a time when Joe Rogan is the single most important media outlet in the country, if not the world. When Tucker Carlson, a solo commentator using Twitter instead of expensive studios and broadcast networks, influences nations in ways that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal no longer do. Podcasts and video are far more important as sources of news, information, opinion, and influence than any newspaper.
None of the industry press I mentioned has much of a presence in podcasting and video. And new entrants, like BAM (Broke Agent Media), are making inroads.
I think this environment is tailor-made for Greg Robertson.
I can attest to Greg’s skills and talents as a podcaster; he is friendly yet incisive, funny and insightful. He makes people feel comfortable but asks some great questions and has insights from his 30 years of work in the industry. He is not only respected, but beloved, and most importantly, there isn’t a shred of inauthenticity in the man.
In an age when authenticity trumps corporate spin, when smart and funny video trumps millions of words (something I am acutely aware of… but I’m stuck in my old-age ways), Greg Robertson could become the Joe Rogan of real estate. If he wants to.
He will write another book. Or two or three. He will speak at events and conferences. He will be a strategic advisor, particularly to proptech companies. But I think Greg could be the new Brad Inman, the next John Featherston, but of an audio-visual era instead of an online journal era.
I hope to see it happen soon. He is one of the most interesting people in real estate today.
Greg is the founder and publisher of Vendor Alley, a real estate blog, “where real estate gets its dirt.” Greg is a serial entrepreneur having started his first real estate software company in 1992. In 2008 he co-founded W+R Studios. Their flagship product, Cloud CMA, is currently licensed to over 700,000 real estate agents in North America. W+R Studios was acquired by Lone Wolf Technologies in December of 2020. Greg also produces two podcasts, Industry Relations and Listing Bits. He is also written a book, The Art of the CMA. Greg lives in Huntington Beach, California with his wife, three kids, and their dog, Molly.
6. Douglas Miller, AttorneyRE
One of the benefits of doing a list that isn’t about influence or power or any other criteria other than interesting to me is that I sometimes get to introduce the industry to individuals who are not in the spotlight. But they should be.
Douglas Miller, Attorney at Miller Law PLLC and Executive Director at Consumer Advocates in American Real Estate, is certainly one of those individuals. Who? What? Why?
Start with this article from the Wall Street Journal titled “How the $1.8 Billion Real-Estate Commissions Lawsuit Came to Be” by Laura Kusisto. It’s paywalled, but I’ve clipped the most relevant part.
The article tells the backstory of how the Moehrl and Sitzer cases came about and we get this:
Groups as varied as the Consumer Federation of America and the Cato Institute have published papers accusing the industry of working to keep Realtor commissions high. The Justice Department has conducted high-profile investigations of NAR twice in the last 20 years. Plaintiffs’ attorneys said they would often field calls from home sellers interested in filing lawsuits.
For three decades all those efforts amounted to very little.
“It seemed a little bit out of reach. You would need an entire industry to be reformed,” said Benjamin Brown, co-chair of the antitrust practice at Cohen Milstein, a 100-lawyer plaintiffs’ firm known for suing big companies and banks.
A call five years ago from a Minnesota consumer advocate and lawyer with a one-person firm would change that.
George Farah, then a partner at Cohen Milstein, took the call with the advocate who had spent decades investigating practices in the industry. Farah says he readily talks to advocates about case ideas and has at times had to listen to a 45-minute soliloquy about how squirrels in the park are creating a shortage by hoarding nuts.
But this time Farah readily saw the potential for a major antitrust case. “C’mon, this is just sitting here,” he remembered thinking. “I was stunned to see that it hadn’t happened yet.”
The WSJ does not identify who this Minnesota consumer advocate and lawyer with a one-person firm. But that advocate is Douglas Miller. (I had speculated as much in my first draft of this post, and he has since confirmed.)
He is the Executive Director of CAARE (Consumer Advocates in American Real Estate). WSJ was not precisely correct when they called Douglas a one-man nonprofit. CAARE started in 2008 with a Board of Directors and a full-time employee (a fundraiser). It remains a small charity, however, because there isn’t a lot of money in advocating for consumers.
Douglas Miller came about his activism in real estate because he’s a lawyer and understands what fiduciary duty really means and what it requires. He has seen far too many instances of brokers and agents violating fiduciary duty, which got him passionate about trying to reform the industry. His efforts to reform real estate has been going on for 30 years, to the 1990s, when Douglas was fresh out of law school and got involved in a dual agency case against Edina Realty.
It has been a thankless journey, a real slog uphill and it cost Douglas. He stepped down as the President of his own title company because of hate and blacklisting by REALTORS. The man has paid a price for his convictions.
One of the areas where Douglas felt was a breach of fiduciary duty is how buyer broker commissions have been handled — precisely the issue that Moehrl and Sitzer tackles. Lawyers like Douglas understand just how difficult and narrow a path one must walk in order to fulfill one’s fiduciary duty to the client while being paid by someone else. Far too many brokers and agents do not walk that difficult and narrow path; quite a few don’t even know the path exists.
Pointing out such failures doesn’t win any popularity contests, but it is difficult to argue that Miller isn’t trying to raise the bar on the profession. You don’t have to like his message and don’t have to agree with the criticism. But I do think the man deserves some respect for 30 years of trying, as well as a nod of acknowledgment for being the spark that lit the firestorm that has truly disrupted the industry for the first time in decades… maybe ever.
I provide the same services as Realtors (I am a member of the Realtor Association and the MLS), but I also provide legal services to my clients. For a fraction of the cost of a traditional (and over-priced) Realtor, you can have a real estate attorney representing you throughout the entire transaction. I only provide exclusive representation (never a dual agent). I have set out to prove that Realtors charge too much one client at a time. Check out my reviews here and on Google.
As requested, I checked out his reviews on Zillow. Here’s one that really intrigued me:
My husband and I wanted a new construction home and saw several model homes before narrowing down to a couple of homes. We did our research (the local market, the reputation of builder etc) and found the home we wanted to buy. We saw no reason to hire a realtor at that stage to work as a buyer's agent but not using an agent wasn't going to save us money (the builder saves the 2.7% but doesn't pass on the savings to buyers. It's ridiculous!!).
We found Doug who agreed to represent us as our agent and charging a reasonable fixed fee (instead of a % that realtors usually charge, another absurd practice in the real estate industry) to go over the documents/contracts (Doug is actually qualified to do this since he is a lawyer) and help us with the negotiations. We had a smooth process from start to finish with Doug and we successfully closed on our home and saved over 9000 dollars!!
I can't recommend Doug more highly. He is trying to help people save on real estate transactions and reform the way this whole process works.
It’s intriguing because the idea of “flat fee” representation would have been laughed out of the room a mere three months ago. But now, brokers and agents across the country are taking a hard look at that model of compensation. Douglas may be able to provide real guidance on how to go about alternative models of compensation. And if he can educate the industry on what fiduciary duty means and what it requires — or at a minimum, engage in a debate about what it means — I think there are some positive lessons to be learned there.
Perhaps more importantly, I think Douglas stands as a symbol of sorts. He might be a symbol of what ignoring, silencing and sidelining honest critics end up costing the industry in the long run. If only we had taken him and CAARE more seriously 30 years ago, ten years ago, five years ago… how might things be different today?
As I was learning about Douglas and writing this profile, Rachel Patten’s “Fight Song” kept playing in my head:
Like a small boat
On the ocean
Sending big waves
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion
Douglas Miller might have only one match, but he made an explosion. He has already changed the industry and the full extent of the impact is not yet known. As the catalyst for the most significant disruption to the industry, he is one of the most interesting people in real estate today.
I have been a real estate and consumer protection attorney in the Minneapolis – St. Paul area for more than 25 years. Some of my experience:
Executive Director of Consumer Advocates in American Real Estate (www.caare.org), the only non-profit 501(c)3 dedicated to consumer protection in residential real estate. I’ve drafted an Amicus Brief, helped journalists write dozens of stories, filed numerous complaints with regulatory authorities, drafted numerous letters to legislators and helped other nonprofits work on important consumer issues in residential real estate. In this position, I have advocated on behalf of consumers nationwide in regards to many harmful practices involving realtors and title companies including:
Dual agency and designated agency.
Price fixing of buyer brokerage commissions.
Secret bonuses (bribes) paid by listing brokers to buyer brokers.
Pocket listings, aka “Coming Soon Listings” or “Pre-Listings.”
Data hoarding through MLS and other arrangements.
Controlled business arrangements.
New construction agreements.
Owned and operated www.TitleOne.com, a Twin Cities title company that focused on Minneapolis/St. Paul properties for more than 20 years. That company was voted the most technologically advanced title company in the nation under my leadership. I sold my interest in that firm so that I could pursue consumer protection in residential real estate. I remain a loyal fan.
Spoke before Congress about the corruption in the title insurance industry (click here for the video).
Volunteered on the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Residential Forms Committee for more than a decade.
Multiple class action consumer protection lawsuits involving:
Edina brokerage firm that engaged in undisclosed dual agency.
Minneapolis brokerage firm that secretly offered sub-standard coop fees to cooperating brokers.
Edina firm that set up sham title firms in order to pay kickbacks to realtors.
Edina brokerage and title firm that steered clients to in-house firm.
Expert Witness testimony.
Helped draft the Code of Ethics for the National Association of Independent Land Title Agents (www.nailta.org).
7. Glenn Kelman, Redfin
Glenn Kelman, the CEO of Redfin, is no stranger to lists. Not even to this list. He was in it in 2017 and in 2018. In 2017, Kelman made it as Redfin went public and revealed its numbers for the first time. In 2018, it was because he went on stage at Inman supposedly to talk about “The Rise of the Innovative Brokerage” and spent his entire time talking about race and real estate. Here’s the video (start at 2:26:00 or so):
Here’s what I wrote about that back then:
[Kelman] then proceeds to do 20 minutes on racism in real estate, history of redlining, lack of diversity, why black and Latino buyers get screwed, and so on. It is a seriously uncomfortable topic, especially in front of a real estate audience, which might be the third whitest industry in North America after the NHL and NASCAR. And he did it beautifully, striking a tone not of accusation but of contrition, not of self-righteousness but of sorrow, talking about what Redfin was trying to do to address imbalances and inequality. By implication, he was talking about what everyone else could (and should) do as well.
You could have walked into that auditorium absolutely convinced that Redfin was the brainchild of a partnership between Beelzebub, Cthulu and Kali the Goddess of Death, but if ten minutes into Kelman’s speech, you weren’t thinking, “Wow, what a great guy!” then you have no emotions whatsoever.
He ends by saying that Redfin is going to do a meeting, that will be streamed, to talk to the agents in the field about what it’s like to be a homebuyer of color. Pitch perfect.
It is impossible to prove but I believe that his presentation at Inman might have sparked the real start of the DEI movement within the industry. Suddenly, race was on everybody’s mind at events, in MLS and Association boardrooms, in brokerage C-suites.
Not everything from that movement has been positive; in 2020, NAR approved a speech code for REALTORS that applies to personal activities outside of real estate. It was used against a pastor in Montana, which even got some national press and I wrote about it back then. But the point is that Glenn Kelman either sparked a movement or was ahead of the curve in spotting the trend.
In 2023, Kelman may be repeating the act of either starting a new movement or being ahead of the curve. In October, Kelman wrote a blogpost on Redfin announcing that Redfin was leaving NAR:
Redfin is moving to end our support of the National Association of Realtors for two reasons:
NAR policies requiring a fee for the buyer’s agent on every listing
a pattern of alleged sexual harassment.
A Long Time Coming
We’ve had many meetings with NAR execs to explore compromises on the policies that would let us continue our support. Since a Redfin-wide initiative to join NAR in 2017, we’ve paid more than $13 million in dues, in an effort to influence NAR to advocate for an open, technology-driven marketplace that would benefit consumers. We’ll now explore other ways to advance those goals.
As part of that leaving, Redfin resigned from the NAR Board of Directors, and require its brokers and agents to leave NAR. Glenn spoke against the Three Way Agreement in that post:
NAR Has Forced An All-or-Nothing Choice On Us
But this all-or-nothing approach isn’t of Redfin’s choosing. NAR rules require us to leave local and state associations even when our only beef is with the national association. The rules require that for a broker to be a member, she must pay dues for each of the agents under her supervision, regardless of whether an agent wants to be a member. The rules further say that if a broker isn’t a member, no agent under her supervision can be a member.
So We Choose Nothing
This is like eating at a restaurant that requires you to buy food for your entire family even when you come in alone, and that also says no family member can dine there if you ever stop dining there too. The painful choice is to stop patronizing that restaurant altogether.
And of course, Glenn noted the impossibility of leaving NAR in some markets because of the linkage between MLS and the REALTOR Association:
In Many Markets, We Can’t Even Do That
But often we don’t even have that choice. In about half the U.S., including in cities like Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Long Island, Minneapolis, Nashville, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, we can’t quit NAR individually or en masse, because NAR membership is required for agents to access listing databases, lockboxes, and industry-standard contracts. It’s impossible to be an agent if you can’t see which homes are for sale, or unlock the door to those homes, or even write an offer.
He ends the post asking NAR to decouple the MLS from NAR. There is virtually no chance that NAR will do such a thing voluntarily. But that’s not the point.
The point is that as was the case with “race and real estate”, and as has been the case throughout Kelman’s career at Redfin, he is either triggering a new movement away from NAR… or is at the bleeding edge of a building movement within the industry away from NAR.
Either way, Kelman is pointing the way towards a whole new chapter of the real estate industry without NAR.
Maybe it’s much ado about nothing, and Kelman has no shortage of critics. Perhaps this time, Kelman’s move will be merely symbolic as most Redfin agents have to stay with NAR in order to access the MLS.
And yet… the man has an eerie track record of anticipating major shifts in the industry and being at the very tippy-top point of them. With other brokerages making a similar decision to leave NAR — without the public declaration that Kelman made — we may be seeing the start of something truly monumental.
Once again, Glenn Kelman is one of the most interesting people in real estate.
Glenn is the CEO of Redfin. Prior to joining Redfin, he was a co-founder of Plumtree Software, a Sequoia-backed, publicly traded company that created the enterprise portal software market. In his seven years at Plumtree, Glenn at different times led engineering, marketing, product management, and business development; he also was responsible for financing and general operations in Plumtree's early days. Prior to starting Plumtree, Glenn worked as one of the first employees at Stanford Technology Group, a Sequoia-backed start-up acquired by IBM. Glenn was raised in Seattle and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a regular contributor to the Redfin blog and Twitter.
A Parting Word
There is no doubt in my mind that 2023 will go down in history as the most significant year in residential real estate since… perhaps 1908? This was the year when gotterdammerung began in earnest, and it will be the pivotal year we all will look back on as the moment when things really changed.
The seven people above are in many ways emblematic of the year we have just had. Most are interesting this year because of their connections to this massive year of change and disruption.
I know that I personally will remember 2023 as the pivotal year for me, for reasons that will become clear in 2024. Yet as momentous as 2023 was, in at least one respect, it remained constant. The most interesting person in 2023, as was in 2022 and 2021 and for four years prior, is the same.
I wish you and your family and loved ones a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!