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Shari Davis had been at Compass for about two years when the grass started to look a little greener elsewhere.
A long-time industry veteran who also spent years working in title and escrow, San Diego-based Davis told Inman she was recruited late last year by a legacy franchise, saying “they promised me the world” when it came to technology and service.
But almost immediately, Davis became disillusioned.
“I soon discovered that their tools were terrible, I couldn’t function,” she said. “I had a lot of leads coming in and I just felt like I couldn’t take care of my clients. It was terrible.”
Among other things, Davis’ complaints also included having to pay for third party technology that was provided for free at Compass, and a culture that she described as “not good for me.” And so in March, after just three months, Davis took another big leap: She returned to Compass.
“I’ve been back about a month now and I will never leave again,” Davis said, adding that Compass welcomed her with open arms. Company CEO Robert Reffkin even “called and left me a voice mail.”
In jumping back to Compass, Davis joined the ranks of what might be called “boomerang agents,” or those industry professionals who left a brokerage only to return a short time later. Hard data on the number of such agents is sparse — more on that below — but as agent count growth loses steam in the face of a slowing market, high-profile and top-performing boomerangers at least appear to be gobbling up more mind share in the industry. And as lean times continue, that trend is likely to only intensify.
The battle for agent count, in other words, might be ending. But the battle for boomerang agents is only just beginning.
The headcount battle is running out of steam
To understand why boomerang agents are getting attention right now, it’s important grasp just how much overall agent count growth has slowed. As Inman has previously reported, agent headcount numbers have long been a major battleground among big firms, but that trend appears to have ground to a halt in recent months.
Once-fast-growing Compass, for example, has seen its headcount barely tick up over the last three quarters.
In fairness, Compass did manage to recruit and retain agents at rates outpacing the broader industry, and did so even after cutting lucrative incentives for which the company was historically known. Still, even with that accomplishment under its belt, Compass remained at the mercy of broader market forces over the last year that have made growing head counts considerably more difficult for everyone.
The same goes for eXp, which is probably the brokerage best-known for touting agent count numbers. Company founder Glenn Sanford has even suggested the company may eventually have hundreds of thousands more agents than it does today.
But the trend in recent quarters doesn’t suggest that will happen any time soon.
Legacy companies didn’t have the same stratospheric growth in recent years, but they too have seen their agent count numbers slow amid a cooler market. Keller Williams, for example, managed to post year-over-year gains in its agent head count numbers during the fourth quarter of last year. But the Q4 numbers were actually down relative to Q3.
Indeed, agent count trajectories are heading down across the board, with both legacies and new comers seeing growth grinding to a near-halt. The market is the obvious culprit here, but the graph below shows four of the industry’s biggest names converging at more or less the same point.
The takeaway then is that recent quarters have only reinforced the idea that the long-simmering battle for agent count among major real estate companies is slowing down.
Technology and culture are the big draws
It’s hard to find data for exactly how many agents have left a brokerage for a rival, then returned a short time later. However, Compass told Inman that agents who left the company and have now returned collectively did $920 million in transaction volume last year. The average sales volume of an agent who returns is $16 million, the company added.
Compass said it could not disclose specifically how many agents have come back. But a rough calculation done by dividing $920 million in volume by the average of $16 million per agent suggests that the number of recent Compass boomerang agents could be anywhere from 50 to 60 — though that number is essentially an educated guess.
Alternatively, the company did tell Inman that it is currently in discussions with more than four dozen former Compass agents who are considering a return to the brokerage.
Elsewhere, RE/MAX told Inman that annually since 2018 an average of 10 percent of the agents who join the company have previously worked at the firm. In 2022, RE/MAX experienced a net gain of 2,016 agents compared to 2021. Those numbers suggest the company might have gained about 200 boomerang agents last year.
Inman reached out to other companies, including Keller Williams and Anywhere, but had not received specific data about boomerang agents as of the time of publication. However, Keller Williams did point Inman to a number of specific cases, including a team and an indie brokerage that have both recently returned to the franchisor after stints elsewhere.
But anecdotally, boomerang agents are becoming a big deal. Aside from Davis, Compass’ recent returnees include Jenny Bustillo. A Chicago-based agent, Bustillo left Compass in 2020 and did stints at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Coldwell Banker, before finally returning to Compass this February.
“Their technology is just out of this world,” Bustillo recently told Inman of Compass. “That was the No. 1 draw to come back. Compass just has everything all in one area. It’s so easy to navigate, I can work all in my phone from one app.”
Bustillo is not alone; Compass told Inman it polls those who return to the company and has found that technology is the No. 1 draw, with respondents specifically citing the firm’s Collections product as well as the customer relationship manager (CRM).
Other agents who spoke with Inman made a similar point. Lori Abbey, for instance, left Compass last fall then returned earlier this month. The Denver-based agent and team leader told Inman that when she left the company she didn’t realize how unique Compass’ platform was.
“The tech platform is really beyond compare,” she said. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
There were other things that drew Abbey back to Compass as well. She said she missed some of the national exposure that being at Compass had afforded, and mentioned that after leaving she felt like she had less access to some high-end listings — a concern that was also shared by other Compass boomerangers. And she missed the culture at Compass, which she said the company actively worked to revive as pandemic-era social distancing requirements waned.
“I didn’t realize how special it was and how we stood out from the crowd,” she concluded.
Of course, not every agent who leaves quickly returns. Inman spoke, for example, with Kirby Gillon and Bryce Lowe, both of whom are part of Aaron Kirman’s team that recently left Compass. Gillon told Inman she was happy being part of a standalone company, rather than a team within a larger brokerage, while Lowe said that team members other than Kirman now get greater recognition at their new venture than they did at Compass. They were both happy with the move, and the comments highlight the fact that there is plenty of movement within the industry that isn’t part of any potential boomerang trend.
But the big names are clearly excited about their boomerangers. Compass, for example, helped Inman contact agents who have recently returned, another of whom was Genna Skolnik, who recently boomeranged back from The Agency.
“My book of business basically just stopped,” Skolnik said of her experience leaving Compass, adding that when she returned to the brokerage “it was amazing.”
Compass is of course not the only company to benefit from boomerang agents. When he brought his team back to Keller Williams, for example, Ken Pozek said at the time that he was drawn to the culture and community of his former home base.
“I saw what KW was doing with [agent] communities and it excited me,” he said. “Finally breaking down the behemoth of a company into interest groups that allow people to excel where they’re at. When I thought about where would best allow us to grow and thrive, KW was a clear choice.”
Keller Williams’ rival eXp has also seen agents boomerang back, one of whom is Tampa Bay-based Elizabeth Colon. She spent a little over a year at eXp before moving to LPT Realty with her six person team. After about six months, however, she began to feel like she “should not have moved” to a company that was “having a hard time keeping up with their growth.”
“EXp has been doing this for a while and they already have all the systems in place,” she told Inman. “When it comes to the back-end stuff, everything flows. It flows naturally. And it was kind of like, ‘I want to go back home.'”
Like the agents who returned to Compass, Colon mentioned wanting to go back to eXp for both the technology platforms and the culture, and said that ultimately four of the six team members who left the company recently returned with her.
Colon’s financial terms at both LPT and eXp are similar, but she is paying slightly more now at the latter firm due to her dues to the team. However, she said the opportunities she’s getting are well worth the tradeoff.
“I’m losing out a little bit, but it’s fine because I‘m with a quality company that will attract a lot more clients, a lot more buyers and a lot more sellers,” she concluded.
Colon’s point is a significant one. Though most of the agents who spoke with Inman said their financial situation will be similar after boomeranging back to their previous brokerage, no one mentioned better financials as the primary reason for their move. Indeed, no agents even mentioned money at all when asked about the reasons for their moves, at least until Inman specifically questioned them about compensation. And Colon’s point about being willing to accept a slightly less lucrative situation in exchange for greater opportunity was a recurring theme in Inman’s conversations for this story.
“It feels great to be back, I felt like I should have never left,” Colon added, expressing a sentiment shared by many boomerang agents.
A trend that’s likely to continue
Industry experts had different opinions about what exactly is going on. Chris Heller, the chief real estate officer for OJO and former CEO of Keller Williams, told Inman that boomeranging “happens, but it’s not as common as one would think.”
“It seems like it is more common than it is because we hear about the high profile ones that get reported as big wins for the brokerage to show that the grass isn’t always greener,” Heller added. “The high profile teams and agents are the ones that the brokerages really go after to bring back, so there is a disproportionate number of those compared to all teams.”
Heller’s comments suggest that the boomerang trend may at least partly be one of public relations; companies looking for publicity wins choose to tout their returning teams, and so attention gets focused on big names.
But there may also be a shift in how agents think about brokerages.
Russ Cofano, CEO of Collabra and former president of eXp, told Inman that “historically you leave and you do not come back” to the same brokerage. That’s because agents in the past typically left a company due to some systemic issue, be it the technology, the people, or something else.
“And those things typically don’t change,” he added.
But more recently, Cofano continued, agents have been willing to swap brokerages not because there is something wrong, but simply because the grass seems greener elsewhere. They have FOMO, or a fear of missing out.
“They didn’t have a rift with their previous manager or company, they didn’t fundamentally dislike what’s going on, it’s just that they’re looking for more,” Cofano said. “I think what’s happening, what they’re finding out is, they move and it’s not better. They’re realizing, ‘I left looking for greener pastures and the pastures aren’t greener.'”
Cofano suspects that real estate companies across the board are seeing the return of boomerang agents. And he thinks the market is potentially fueling the moves; in a bull market, the “last thing an agent wants to do is get in the way of revenue,” meaning they’re less willing to shake things up and move. But all bets are off when the housing market enters bear territory.
“I think it’s going to continue,” Cofano said of agents boomeranging back to previous brokerages. “I think we’re at a place right now where agents are looking because the market is really challenging. It’s slow. Listing counts are down. And when things are slow, agents are more apt to take calls and listen to the sales pitch and maybe make a move.”
Update: This post was updated after publication to clarify comments about Compass’ technology offerings.