Zillow hires MLS CEO to smooth industry relations

ARMLS CEO Bob Bemis influential voice on listings data policies

Real estate listings and valuation site operator Zillow Inc. has recruited the top executive at one of the nation’s largest multiple listing services to help the company improve its relations with brokers and MLSs.

Bob Bemis, CEO of Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service Inc. (ARMLS), submitted a notice of resignation to the MLS’s board of directors at a special meeting Monday, ARMLS said. Zillow announced that it had hired Bemis as vice president of partner relations the same day.

"Bob’s deep industry knowledge will help Zillow engage with brokerages and MLSs in a mutually beneficial way as we bring expanded communication and cooperation to our current and potential partners," Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff said in a blog post.

In recent months, Zillow and other listing portals have been swept into a debate over the advertisements they run next to listings they receive from brokers, MLSs and companies that syndicate listing data.

Some brokers who object to having ads next to listings they represent generating leads for agents at competing brokerages have decided to stop providing listings altogether to third-party sites not affiliated with an MLS or Realtor association, such as Zillow and Trulia.

Two MLSs have also dropped Zillow subsidiary Diverse Solutions as a provider of Internet Data Exchange (IDX) listings for their members’ websites after Zillow acquired the company in November.

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As the top executive at ARMLS since October 2007, Bemis has worked to provide brokers and agents with tools that improve the delivery of information to consumers, helping ARMLS members compete with third-party sites.

At industry conferences, and as a member of an influential National Association of Realtors committee that helps draft MLS policies, Bemis has warned that the restrictions associations and MLSs imposed on their own members can hurt their ability to compete with third-party sites not subject to the same rules.

In debates over NAR policies governing search engine indexing of listings on broker and agent websites, and distribution of  listings data through social media sites and mobile devices, for example, Bemis argued that industry leaders should take less restrictive stances.

Now that Bemis has, in effect, switched sides to work for a listings portal not affiliated with an MLS or Realtor association, he will no longer be eligible to serve on NAR’s Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee. But his new role with Zillow will put him in daily contact with brokerage, MLS and Realtor association executives.

"I am looking forward to the challenge of building bridges to Zillow’s current and potential partners in the industry, including MLSs, (Realtor associations), brokers, agents, appraisers, title companies, mortgage lenders and other service providers," Bemis said in a statement provided by Zillow.

"I intend to foster a spirit of cooperation that has sometimes been missing in the dialogue between licensed practitioners, their support organizations and the rest of the industry."

Asked if his voice will carry the same weight when he is representing a third-party listing site rather than an MLS owned by Realtor associations, Bemis told Inman News that he hoped his experience and reputation in the industry will at least enable him to get conversations started.

"I’m hopeful my past reputation for being trustworthy, honest, straightforward and direct will indeed carry over (to Zillow), and that I can have those conversations that industry veterans were previously unwilling to have with Zillow," Bemis said.

"I think the title they bestowed on me (vice president of partner relations), says worlds about what they’re expecting," Bemis said. "Zillow wants to create better relationships" with brokers, Realtor associations, and MLSs, he said — "somebody who they can call on to engage in conversation, and to find common ground. That’s the challenge."

Bemis said he gave ARMLS 60 days’ notice on Monday, and plans to stay on as CEO until April. He has no official start date with Zillow.

The announcement of Bemis’ departure coincides with a flap over a decision by ARMLS to provide property tax information to members through a new vendor.

Members who are unhappy with the switch, from iMapp to CoreLogic Realist, have started a Facebook page, "Bring iMapp back to ARMLS." Some Facebook commentators have suggested that Bemis was forced out or fired over the controversy.

"It was an interesting juxtaposition of timing," Bemis said of the Feb. 6 launch date for Realist, but dismissed "rumors that I’ve been run out of town" as "totally unfounded."

Bemis said he’s been in discussions with Zillow "for a while," noting that the company "doesn’t hire a VP overnight."

The impetus to move on, he said, is that plans to turn ARMLS into a statewide multiple listing service have bogged down.

In August, the Arizona Association of Realtors announced that its board had approved a plan to acquire ARMLS for $4.75 million, and that Bemis would lead the effort to build a statewide MLS.

But the plan hit a roadblock when the SouthEast Valley Regional Association of Realtors (SEVRAR) announced in September that its board of directors had decided not to sell its 25 percent ownership stake in ARMLS.

Through data sharing agreements, ARMLS already had listing data from 85 to 90 percent of Realtors in the state, and there were "just too many questions and … ‘what ifs’ that needed to be answered," including the state association’s ownership of forms, SEVRAR said in announcing the decision.

Although AAR Chief Executive Officer Tom Farley said at the time that the state association would continue to explore options for moving the deal forward, Bemis said nothing is imminent.

"I think that initiative has pretty much ground to a halt," Bemis said. "There’s been some wishful thinking and hopes out there, but no conversations of any substance. With inability to get all (four member associations) to agree to (a) sale, reality has set in that it’s not going to happen."

Farley was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

Bemis said that with the statewide MLS project on hold, he began looking for the next challenge. After 20 years in television broadcasting and production, Bemis embarked on a career in real estate that’s now spanned nearly 25 years. After working for two years as a Coldwell Banker sales agent in Glenview, Ill., Bemis moved on to serve in executive roles with the Chicago Association of Realtors’ MLS, Interealty Inc., and MRIS.

"l think I have done as much here in the four years I have been here as could reasonably be accomplished," Bemis said of his time at ARMLS. "The statewide MLS was the next big project that I would have loved to take on, and when that did not materialize, I started looking for some new challenges."

Although ARMLS’ board of directors won’t have to line up a replacement right away, it will be tough to fill Bemis’ shoes, said Phoenix-based broker and blogger Jay Thompson.

"Nobody is irreplaceable, but Bob is close to it," Thompson said. "That’s my concern as (an) ARMLS member — who the next guy or girl will be."

Thompson said that before Bemis took over as ARMLS CEO, they had only one choice as to the vendor that would power Internet Data Exchange (IDX) listings on their websites.

"Almost immediately when Bob became CEO that stuff opened up — there were more tools, more options" for brokers, Thompson said.

Thompson, who serves on a technology commission that makes recommendations on vendors and member services, said that while decisions are ultimately up to the board, the CEO "obviously influences things, and helps them move along."

He said he hopes the CEO who succeeds Bemis "will listen to the membership, and understands this is a constantly changing environment we are in."

What Thompson said he doesn’t want is an "old school" attitude that "We have to control the data because that’s our only value added to the transaction. I think the data control is crazy. It’s 2012 — I don’t want to see a CEO come in who feels that way."

ARMLS board member William Ashker said that no CEO candidates have been identified yet.

"I’m sure we’ll do a broad, national search for a candidate, as well as look within" and consider existing ARMLS staff, Ashker said.

"We’re sad that he’s leaving," Ashker said of Bemis’ departure. "He’s done a wonderful job, and he’s a great communicator. I’m sure he’ll continue to do a wonderful job until the day he leaves."


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