- Robert Reffkin, the CEO of Compass has just hired his mother to work in his Upper East Side office.
- Ruth Reffkin was his inspiration for entering the field of real estate which needed a new approach, he said.
- Compass is opening new offices in San Francisco in the fall.
It was real estate agent Ruth Reffkin’s birthday on Wednesday. The active Manhattan agent turned 71. And rather than thinking about retirement to spend time with her grandchildren — whom she adores — she started a brand new job at her son’s company, Compass, a tech-driven real estate brokerage.
Why not when Robert Reffkin first set up Compass in 2013?
“We had a conversation when the company was still small when Robert was starting, but I wanted it to be his thing and for him not to have his mother around,” she said wisely.
But three years on, he and his team have built a business with 800 plus agents and 300 staff in cities including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C. — and in the fall, his birthplace, the San Francisco Bay Area.
Ruth, an agent at Rutenberg Realty NYC before this, felt it might be time to look for a new brokerage.
When your own mother’s name comes up
Ruth’s name had come up as a potential hire from some of his agents, so Robert didn’t feel any guilt about favoring family.
“Our agents started putting down my Mom’s name on the list. She had a great year last year,” he said.
Asked what her volumes were in 2015, Ruth is coy.
Good enough to make her of interest to Compass, she said.
Rather than buying companies to expand, the thinking at Compass is to hire one good agent at a time, according to a company spokeswoman.
“The way that we hire is we ask agents who they think we should hire. We don’t make it up ourselves,” said the CEO.
“We take on only agents who are likable, collaborative and experienced,” he added.
When he asks agents what type of people they want Compass to hire, they “only want to be around people that they are proud to sit next to,” he said.
Of course not everyone gets a photo taken with the boss on their first day as Ruth did.
Ruth said the onboarding experience has been smooth so far. “Usually they tell you where your desk is and you pretty much sink or swim,” said Ruth.
“One of the things that attracted me to Compass is it has a high level of collaboration,” she added.
And Ruth, unsurprisingly, is a techie.
“I’m all over Facebook,” she said. “I do Facebook — I don’t tweet a lot, but for my age I’m pretty tech-savvy,” she said.
Mother inspires son to improve the real estate industry for agents
It could be argued that Ruth was the inspiration for Robert going into real estate in the first place as he looked for an entrepreneurial opportunity after a glittering career working at Goldman Sachs as a VP (and which also included a stint as a White House Fellow).
An agent in New York since the late 1990s, Ruth had often talked to him about the problems that plagued the real estate industry — the lack of transparency, culture and technology.
“I worked with my mom when I was in college. My mom taught me that the agent is the client in the brokerage firm, that the brokerage’s key responsibility is to their support to the agent — business support, marketing support,” said Reffkin.
“There are 1.1 million agents in the country, it’s one of the top 10 professions in the country in terms of numbers of people,” he added.
And it’s the most entrepreneurial profession there is, he said.
But agents can be “burdened by all these non-core tasks” said Reffkin. “It became clear there was this opportunity there to give them the support for their ambitions and their careers,” he said.
“Robert and I are pretty high-energy people,” added Ruth. “One thing I always wanted for my son was something he had a passion for.”
“This is where he looks to have been heading all along — he’s picked up a lot of skills. What he’s always wanted was to build something that will help people, employ people, ” she said.
“We are in the business of empowering entrepreneurs — if there’s a theme I have liked, it’s entrepreneurship,” said Robert.
“What I love about this business is you get to help entrepreneurs that are serving people who are pursuing the American dream. I love what I do; I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Mother and son are undoubtedly close. Every two weeks they have dinner together and talk family matters. Robert and his wife have two children — one three years old and one six months old.
“I have got two lovely grandchildren; there’s plenty to talk about,” said Ruth.
“We see each other every week,” added Robert, who talked his mother into coming back to live in New York when he was an undergraduate at Columbia in 1998.
Robert’s father died when he was young, and Ruth set up and ran her own pre-school in Berkeley, California, which Robert attended.
Being brought up by his mother, a staunch Berkeley feminist, has had an effect on the culture he has built at Compass, said the former Goldman Sachs VP.
The 37-year-old father is quick to point out the strong numbers of senior women at the company, and his head of product, Christina Allen, has arguably the most important job in the firm, he said.
“My mom was a single mother, and as I built this company I did a lot to make sure it would work for women,” he said, pointing out the company’s lactation rooms and maternity program.
Compass arriving in San Francisco in the fall
The entrepreneur, meanwhile, talked about firm plans for Compass set up shop in the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall.
He would like to start off in the city itself, where he went to high school and has started meeting with people. He last lived in the Bay Area in 1997.
“We choose markets like most things; we ask our agents where they want us to go, where their clients are and where they are coming from,” he said.
Retiring makes you old
Ruth, though she knows the Bay Area very well, is content with her work in Manhattan.
“I’ll just be another agent like any other. I’m not going to be in the same office as Robert — I will be in the Upper East Side.”
Robert is based in the Fifth Avenue headquarters.
“I like to live a very balanced life,” Ruth said. “I tried to retire and got bored. People get older when they retire.”
“That’s why this is such a good business for women — because it has the flexibility to create work life balance,” she said.
The entrepreneurial side of real estate is not for everybody; it takes a combination of skills, she said.
“One of my best characteristics is a lot of patience. I want to develop relationships, and many of my clients become close friends,” she said.