By Jim Morrison
The nationwide trend of real estate agencies mergers and acquisitions came to Boston this month with Douglas Elliman’s announced purchase of local Otis & Ahearn Real Estate. Smaller firms are feeling the pinch from rising costs and market forces, and more consolidations are likely.
The increased attention from out-of-town players has been a major topic of conversation around the watercooler at Boston Realty Advisors, said Jason Weissman, founder and senior partner – and he couldn’t be happier about it.
“It shows the strength of the market,” he said. “You have to look at Boston. If we end up going into a recession, Boston is going to have the softest landing of any city in the country because of the diversity of strong industries we have here. This city is going to outpace other cities.”
Boston Realty Advisors in the largest independent brokerage in the city as measured by gross commission income, Weissman said, and he has also been approached by other companies looking to acquire it. He’s not interested. In fact, he’s actively looking for companies to acquire.
“There’s no exit plan,” he said. “We’re very focused on serving our clients. They say if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life and I love the business. I love competing and I love competing successfully. It’s extremely tough for smaller independents to compete. We’ve built the infrastructure to compete and win.”
Think Globally, Sell Locally
Gibson Sothebys is also in acquisition mode. Co-owner and chairman Larry Rideout said his company is not looking to be acquired, but he does see more acquisitions in Boston’s future.
“Big, New York companies are starting to see that Boston is on the map,” he said. “We’re also in acquisition mode. Now is a good time to consolidate in the Boston market. We’re looking for a cultural fit. Of course, the numbers have to work out and it has to be a win-win.”
Rideout said the white-hot Greater Boston real estate market can’t burn forever, but he thinks the signs point toward a few more good years. Companies that make smart acquisitions now will cash in on those good years.
“Permits are down, but they were up for a long time and things have to take a breath,” Rideout said. “Sales slowed a little this summer, but they’re going to come back. You have to look long term. Mortgage interest rates are low, money is cheap and Wall Street is doing OK.”
As Boston has become a more international city, Rideout said having the money and the network to market globally has become vital. Small, local companies just don’t have the same reach, making it harder for them to compete.
“You have to start thinking globally,” he said. “I have Sothebys, with an amazing international reach, and I still joined ‘Who’s Who in Luxury Real Estate.’ You have to use everything you can.”
Boutique Firms Can Compete With Behemoths
There’s still plenty of business for small, locally owned real estate agencies with excellent customer service, said Carmela Laurella, president of CL Properties. Laurella isn’t concerned with acquisition talk; she’s focused on remaining small and providing “excellent service and exceptional results.”
“Our firm is eight years old and we’re having one of our best years ever,” she said. “We operate like an investment banking firm. We choose to stay small and boutique. Most of our business comes from the Internet and repeat business. We have no problem getting listings and making sales.”
Deep pockets and a global reach are not as important as growing a local base of satisfied customers, she said. Big firms like Douglas Elliman and Berkshire Hathaway, who are both in acquisition mode, don’t bring that to the table.
“I wish them both well, but I do think they’ll have a hard time catching up,” she said. “This business is about people and relationships. I used to work for Coldwell Banker and Otis & Ahearn and when I left, my clients followed me, the agent, not the brand. We’re niche players. I have people who will walk over the Charlestown bridge to find me because they want me to sell their homes.”
Douglas Elliman did not respond to requests for comment.
Change Creates Opportunity
The trend of smaller companies being consumed by larger ones will continue in Boston, said Jeff Heighton, regional vice president and Boston-area general manager at Compass Real Estate. The Greater Boston economy is growing quickly and big companies are looking to capitalize on that.
“Boston is a major metropolitan area with a lot of investments from across the country and globe,” Heighton said. “If you’re a large company, you need to make sure you’re in the major markets across the country, like Boston. For companies that aren’t here, they’re thinking about it.”
Growing a business by acquisition is far more complex than simply buying an agency and changing the flag, he said.
“I’d say we’ll see more acquisitions in the near future at all levels as agents ask their firm, ‘What are you doing to grow my business?” Heighton said. “As that question can’t be answered, they’re going to look for companies that can. That’s part of what’s driving the consolidations.