RealTrends 500: The Rise of Compass

The top three brokerage firms by sales volume were Compass, Realogy Brokerage Group and HomeServices of America

“It’s all about the agents.” That’s the message Compass CEO Robert Reffkin passes along throughout his interview with RealTrends about becoming No. 1 in sales volume in the 2022 RealTrends 500 brokerage rankings — the first company to reach the top in only 10 years of being in business.

RealTrends released its 2022 RealTrends 500 brokerage rankings today and for the first time since the 1990s, Realogy Brokerage Group and HomeServices of America were not in the top spot by sales volume. Relative newcomer Compass snuck by Realogy to claim No. 1.

Reffkin’s message about agents seems cliché, obvious, even. I mean, most real estate leaders say their success is because of their agents. After all, without them, you don’t have a company. But, this interview with Reffkin is different from those we’ve done in the past. He seems joyous, relaxed — his young son, River, chattering happily in the background throughout our interview. In fact, Reffkin loses his train of thought multiple times because River is trying mightily to get his attention — and succeeding. It’s not annoying. Instead, it’s refreshing. It’s a side of Reffkin that many outside his trusted circle don’t see — the father, the leader, the son.

Sure, he’s talked frequently about how his mom Ruth inspired him to start Compass. He invokes her name multiple times during our interview. And, when he does, he pauses, his voice changes and you can feel the authenticity in his words. “I was raised by a mother who bounced back with passion again and again. It’s part of the DNA that she raised me with,” he says.

Because of her, he says, he’s able to shrug off the naysayers and stay focused on what he can control — the success of his company. “I’m not the kind of person that listens to naysayers. I’ve dealt with that my entire life. I saw my mom deal with it her entire life,” he says. “My mom was disowned by her parents for an interracial relationship. She was abandoned by my father. I saw her making [prospecting] phone calls and being told ‘no’ time and time again, but she didn’t give up.”

It’s not always about the money

Neither did Reffkin — despite an onslaught of pundits and others unhappy with his aggressive agent recruiting methods. Some comments heard over the years are: ‘Whoever heard of giving agents five- and six-figure sign-on bonuses?’ and ‘Who can compete with that?’

Maybe they won’t have to. Reffkin suggested in his 2021 earnings call in February that Compass is not giving agents the compensation packages it has in the past, stating 62% of agents who recently came to Compass are receiving a less favorable split compared to their brokerage. Also, “Less agents are getting equity,” Reffkin said.

Even still, the Compass agents RealTrends spoke with never mentioned the money when asked why they joined the company.

Jennil Salazar, of the Jennil Salazar Private Client Group of Compass, joined the company in August 2021 as a founding agent in Indiana. “Before I joined Compass, a lot of owners of big real estate companies offered me incentive bonuses but my decision to join Compass was not about the incentives they put in front of me,” says Salazar. “The reason I joined is that for a long time I’ve dominated the luxury market in Carmel, Indiana. My last company was very good to me, but they just did not have the digital platform to get my luxury business to the next level.”

Salazar has a private office and a team of five non-selling, but licensed, assistants. “Compass listened to what I wanted,” she said, alluding to the fact that having a private office was important to her and Compass realized that, among other things.

What about technology?

Highly targeted and aggressive recruiting in very specific areas initially helped Compass gain market share, that’s true. For all the early talk of technology, Compass wasn’t offering anything earth-shattering, just useful. “I didn’t found Compass to be a technology company. I founded it to be a company that makes agents better,” Reffkin says. “It just so happens that every year that goes by, technology plays a bigger role in what makes agents better and more successful.”

Leonard Steinberg, past president of Compass in the Greater New York City and Washington, D.C. areas and now chief evangelist for them, agrees. He was one of the first agents to sign on with the shiny new company in 2014. “Well before Compass came along, I had a growing desire and need for technology that would positively impact my day-to-day life,” he said.

For Steinberg, Compass offered enough technology to make a difference in his business. “There’s high tech and medium tech. Medium tech must help us function. The high tech is a whole different level, which Compass had ambitions for at the very beginning, which I found appealing,” he notes.

“Agents deserve meaningful investment in their profession,” says Reffkin. “We’re heavily invested in artificial intelligence [high-tech] that recommends to agents all of the clients in their CRM that are likely to sell [also the name of the tool: Likely to Sell] and it converts at a 10% rate, so much higher conversion than the traditional leads.”

Steinberg, who is team leader for The Leonard Steinberg Team in New York City, adds that, “Everyone thinks I was incentivized with hundreds of millions of dollars, when I was actually incentivized mostly with the promise of building that high level technology, as well as the environment where the culture of the brokerage would be elevated so the consumer viewed us as [being] in a serious profession.”

Positivity reigns

As with most real estate companies that disrupt the status quo, like RE/MAX in the 70s and Keller Williams in the 80s, Compass has had its fair share of criticism and controversy. From reports questioning their path to profitability to criticism over recruiting practices.

Reffkin takes these reports in stride. In fact, if you could say that Reffkin has a superpower, it would be his positivity. “I believe that positivity can be a competitive advantage. The only reason we’re here today is because every person who came to the company brought their ideas and dreams for what this company could be, and we turned those dreams into reality.”

He adds that, “The IPO was the culmination and celebration of the hard work for all those people who invested their careers over the years to get us to that point, but it didn’t change anything about our business. We still have the same mindset, sense of urgency and desire to be better for our agents that we had in those early years when Compass just started.”

In addition, he says, “the best parts of Compass didn’t come from the leadership team. It came from the agents. Our culture of collaboration, Compass Concierge, an in-house marketing and advertising agency, our CRM and AI tools to unlock inventory, our referral network — all that came from asking agents what matters to them, then putting the time and investment behind those ideas.”

As for what’s next for Compass, Reffkin says the celebration of the company’s rise to the top of the 2022 RealTrends 500 brokerage rankings by sales volume will be exuberant but short-lived. Then, it’s back to business. He says, “It’s simple, we want to focus on getting 1% better every day. We want our agents to focus on getting 1% better every day. We do that and things fall into place.”