Former Keller Williams CEO Mark Willis is poised to join eXp Realty in an undisclosed executive role, a major revelation from an 11-page bombshell countermotion eXp World Holdings filed on Monday to dissolve Keller Williams’ temporary restraining order against Willis. Willis helped grow the Texas-based behemoth from a regional firm in 1991 to a worldwide force with more than 112,000 at the time of his departure in 2014.
“I am a strong proponent for agent and leadership mobility in the real estate industry,” eXp World Holdings founder Glenn Sanford said of the decision to file a countermotion. “We are interested in engaging with Mark Willis because of his management experience and demonstrated leadership in the industry.”
He added, “EXp Realty has intervened in the lawsuit to protect its right to hire qualified real estate professionals and has no interest in any competitor’s confidential information.”
Keller Williams sent Willis and eXp a letter threatening legal action in January, after learning Willis’ plan to join the rival firm. Keller Williams said Willis’ ownership stake in a franchise and two regions gave him access to more than 150 confidential data reports that he would “inevitably” share with eXp to “cause irreparable damage to KWRI’s intellectual property, confidential information, goodwill, and system.”
In its motion, eXp said Keller Williams’ concerns about Willis’ access to confidential data could be alleviated if they allowed Willis to sell his remaining interests in the company. However, they claimed Keller Williams has prevented Willis from selling his interests, as they have the right of first refusal.
“On information and belief, in the weeks following January 6, Defendant Willis attempted to engage with KWRI to facilitate the divestiture of his Keller Williams investments,” the motion read. “KWRI refused to negotiate in good faith and interfered with prospective purchases of Willis’ interests, thus further impeding [eXp’s] right to hire Mr. Willis.”
A source familiar with the matter backed up eXp’s claims and told Inman kwx Founder Gary Keller “went ballistic” when Willis, who’d spent 25 years helping KW rise to the top of the industry, said he wanted to sell his interests and join eXp.
Despite Keller’s personal feelings, eXp said Keller Williams’ interference in its recruitment of Willis is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, as Keller Williams hired former eXp President of Operations Stacey Onnen on Feb. 4.
“KWRI’s position that Mr. Willis will inevitably disclose its confidential information to [eXp] by virtue of his past employment with KWRI and present passive investments in Keller Williams entities is fundamentally inconsistent with its hiring of Ms. Onnen,” the filing read. “If Mr. Willis would inevitably disclose KWRI’s confidential information to eXp if hired, it is beyond dispute that Ms. Onnen would inevitably disclose eXp’s confidential information to KWRI.
It continued, “The allegation that it is inevitable that eXp will obtain confidential KWRI information if it hires Willis is legally and factually baseless and eXp seeks to intervene to defend against those allegations.”
If their motion is approved, eXp could be listed as a co-defendant with Willis, and Keller Williams could be required to complete an expedited discovery in which they would have to provide documents proving “actual or threatened disclosure of KWRI’s confidential information.” EXp is also asking kwx Founder Gary Keller, former eXp President of Operations Stacey Onnen and a KW corporate representative to provide sworn, out-of-court oral testimonies before a scheduled hearing on Feb. 18.
“[We] pray that the Court renders judgment for [eXp], that injunctive relief is denied, that [Keller Williams] take nothing from [eXp], and the Court award [eXp’s] costs, interest and attorney’s fees,” the motion concluded.
KW Spokesperson Darryl Frost declined to give a detailed comment about eXp’s motion on Tuesday; however, he clarified the franchisor’s position in an emailed statement on Friday.
“Due to his current ownership interests, Mr. Willis has non-competition obligations in place with Keller Williams in which he agreed not to compete with his partners and Keller Williams while simultaneously profiting off them,” Frost said. “As a result, the company filed this lawsuit to enforce the agreements and protect the interests of his franchise partners and Keller Williams.”
This motion is the latest chapter in a longstanding rivalry between eXp and Keller Williams, which was thrust back into the spotlight with former eXp President of Operations Stacey Onnen’s announcement on Feb 4. that she was joining Keller Williams as the brokerage’s new head of business operations.
Onnen, like eXp World Holdings Founder Glenn Sanford, was a former Keller Williams team member who’d found immense success at the brokerage before leaving to pursue other interests. “I’m excited to be a part of Keller Williams, where the culture is second to none,” Onnen said in a written statement. “More so today than ever before, I believe that Keller Williams represents the real estate company of the future.”
However, Onnen’s hiring news was clouded by an ambiguous tweet Sanford made two days earlier about a competitor who“diminished” him in the past taking legal action “to try to keep former team members from joining the team.” EXp declined to say who the competitor was; however, Sanford’s followers quickly pointed toward Keller Williams.
It’s fun to have a competitor who diminished you in the past try to use the legal system to try to keep former team members from joining the team.
— Glenn Sanford (@ceoglenn) February 2, 2022
“You know, he told me on more than one occasion in person, that he ‘needs a fight’ and ‘If I don’t have one, typically I just go pick one,'” said Kevin Kauffman, the owner of Group 46:10 Network powered by eXp and former leading Keller Williams expansion team leader. “That’s one way to stay motivated, I suppose.”
Sanford and Keller’s relationship allegedly turned sour in the early 2000s when Keller reportedly snubbed Sanford, then a top-producing team leader, by not including him in an elite company group. The tension between the two remained in the background until 2018, when Keller dismissed Sanford’s earlier praise of his leadership.
“Love it, great. Good for him,” Keller told Inman Founder Brad Inman onstage. “I don’t care.”
Keller went on to seemingly suggest Sanford should return the money he earned via Keller Williams’ profit share program.
Sanford appeared at Inman Connect a day later and remained calm, but suggested Keller Williams’ technology was behind the curve. Sanford has also purportedly been motivated by a drive to beat Keller, his former mentor.
The simmering feud escalated further in 2019 when leaked audio from a Keller Williams meeting caught Keller criticizing eXp’s technology.
“It’s old game technology. That’s their digital cloud-based platform,” Keller said of eXp’s virtual world, VirBELA. “Old gaming technology. All you have to do is go look at your Sony PlayStation, or your Xbox, and then go look at that — it’s like you’re looking at Donkey Kong or Pac-Man technology.”
Although Keller and Sanford cooled off on direct attacks after 2019, both factions have been chipping at each other as dozens of Keller Williams’ standout teams move to eXp, and Keller Williams returns the favor by recruiting some of eXp’s leadership to lead their newest ventures.
Read the full motion below: