Brokerage

Bleeding cash, Compass closes 8 offices

Brokerage's critics pounce as company halts expansion plans

Compass closed eight offices as the high-profile brokerage embarks on austerity measures that may refashion U.S. residential real estate.

The closings just pare down Compass physical space from 564 brick and mortar offices to 556, according to a company spokesperson. Five of the closings were in California, one in Illinois, one in Delaware, and one in Massachusetts. *The spokesperson did not specify which offices shuttered.

The reduced space for real estate agents and staff to work from is the next move in Compass’s “Plan for Transformation,” unveiled Tuesday in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The plan includes the layoff of about 450 workers, and the shutdown of Modus Technologies, a title and escrow company that Compass bought for about $70 million two years ago.

Compass, a 10-year-old, New York-based company co-founded by current CEO Robert Reffkin has previously valued growth over profits. But it is halting market expansions and company acquisitions, according to the filing.

The company, which lost $188 million in the first quarter of 2022, professed to be responding to forces beyond its control.

“Due to the clear signals of slowing economic growth we’ve taken a number of measures to safeguard our business and reduce costs,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Compass’s rivals beg to differ.

A Compass Issue?

“This is a Compass issue, not a market issue,” said Thaddeus Wong, co-CEO of @properties.

“You have to be an ant putting away crumbs when the weather is good to have enough food when the weather is bad,” added Frederick Peters, CEO of Coldwell Banker Warburg Peters. “Compass never did that.”

Peters’ corporate parent Anywhere, the brokerage conglomerate formerly known as Realogy, echoed that thought.

Unlike Compass, Anywhere, which was eclipsed by Compass on RealTrends’ most recent list of biggest brokerages by sales volume and is head locked into multiyear litigation with Compass, does not plan drastic cuts.

“We do not have any employee actions planned, and we will continue to make smart decisions, execute prudent expense management, and drive savings that are reflective of the volume environment,” Anywhere spokesperson Trey Sarten said in a statement.

“Given the cyclical nature of our business, we know that there are often winners and losers during any market shift, and we are prepared to win,” Sarten said.

Other national brokerages including Howard Hanna, which has had its own litigation with Compass, also vowed to not make employee cuts.

“We have not had any dialogue, discussions or conversations regarding layoffs,” said Howard Hanna company president Howard “Hoby” Hanna IV. “I have an executive committee meeting Thursday. Layoffs are not on the agenda.”

To be fair, Compass’s contention it is dealing with larger economic currents is not exactly invented out of thin air.

Redfin laid off 470 workers Tuesday. Two weeks ago, Side, which like Compass has aggressively recruited experienced agents in high-end markets, announced the layoff of about 10% of its workforce. And REX Homes may be all but done as a consumer-facing brokerage.

Also, the average interest rate on a 30-year home mortgage is presently about 6.1%, compared to hovering around 3% in early 2022. Rising mortgage interest rates are largely the result of the Federal Reserve fighting inflation. For example, the Federal Reserve’s extraordinarily powerful Federal Open Markets Committee announced Wednesday a hike in the federal funds interest rate, which will chill an already-cooling housing market.

Meanwhile, real estate stocks have been absolutely battered long before this week, when the total valuation of public stocks sank by more than 20%.

And other brokerages, including Realogy, have expressed a willingness to reevaluate their physical footprint.

None of these factors, of course, make Compass’s rivals sympathetic to the formerly profligate spender.

“The rate increases in the mortgage market have been widely anticipated,” Hanna noted. “They were pretty lucky last year with the market.”

What Hanna, Wong and virtually everyone interviewed hammered home was that even in 2021 – one of the greatest single-year housing markets in U.S. history – Compass lost $494 million in net income. Redfin also lost $118 million. Other publicly traded brokerages including Realogy and eXp were profitable.

“If you couldn’t manage to make money in 2021,” Peters said. “You’re probably in deep trouble.”

The Next Direction

In its quarter one earnings call this May, Reffkin signaled that a company which formerly claimed it could grab a 20% share in the country’s 20 biggest markets by 2020 (a goal it accomplished in San Francisco alone), “Will do more with less.”

“We are managing the business to ensure that we do not need additional capital,” Reffkin said, asserting that $476 million in cash plus access to a $350 million in credit facility is sufficient.

Even Compass’s legion of detractors does not see the brokerage going bankrupt within the year.

“I don’t think they’re going to go out of business,” said Michael Nourmand, president of Nourmand & Associates in Beverly Hills. “But they are going to have to restructure.”

Nourmand mentioned Compass negotiating out of more office leases, a cut in advertising and marketing, and more layoffs, particularly of a technology team with employees in the U.S. and Hyderabad, India.

Asked about what cuts would come next, a Compass spokesperson referred to the public filing. The document offers few other specifics, besides a U.S. hiring reduction.  

Where the reduced support staff leave Compass’s 27,000 independent contractor agents is not clear.

An increasingly small number of agents have availed themselves of company stock options. But those who did face a stock that debuted at $20.15 a share in April 2021 and closed Wednesday at $4.08. Compass currently has a market capitalization of $1.75 billion, less than the nearly $2 billion it has raised from investors.

Agents reached after the layoff announcement remained generally upbeat.

“It doesn’t affect me at all,” said Todd Armstrong of San Diego. “I still have my marketing team in place.”

“It’s a clear that the market is shifting,” noted Thebe Warren of Houston. “And Compass is always pro-active to adjust. I saw this at the beginning of the pandemic.”

Indeed, Compass laid off 15% of its staff in March 2020, before resuming its growth plans later in the year.

One agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would be upset if Compass shuttered, or further cut operations.

“I am emotionally invested,” she said. “They have great branding.”

Still, the agent noted, most who joined Compass were lured from another brokerage. They can go brokerage-hopping again.

“I can transfer my license anywhere,” she said. “We are portable businesses.”

Brooklee Han contributed reporting

* UPDATE: June 16, 2022. This piece was changed to reflect where Compass is now closing eight offices. Yesterday the company also stated it was closing eight offices, but said each of the closings were in California.

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