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“I’m excited to remain partnered with our KW agents, leaders, owners, and Gary Keller, a once-in-a-generation business leader,” Willis said in a prepared statement on Wednesday. “Only together can we drive our vision to be the real estate company of choice for agents and customers.”
“Keller Williams has the best success models for agents and brokerages to thrive no matter the economic, industry, or business challenges,” he added. “We face headwinds and change, and that’s nothing new. As an innovative force since 1983, we remain optimistically forward-thinking and focused on serving our agents and brokerage partners as they provide powerful customer and business experiences.”
Willis has a lengthy history with Keller Williams, which included an 11-year stretch as the preeminent KW team leader in Austin from 1991 to 2002, and a 13-year tenure as president then CEO. Willis left KW in 2015 to focus on thought leadership and philanthropy through Mark Willis Leadership and the Willis Family Foundation.
“We are excited to announce that Mark Willis has joined our leadership team as CEO,” Keller Williams co-founder and Executive Chairman Gary Keller said in a written statement. “With a deep knowledge of our company and our culture, Mark is well-suited to lead us through our next growth phase.”
In a brief interview with Inman, Willis said he was “thrilled to be in a leadership role again” while noting his eight-year stint outside of the c-suite has prepared him to take on the CEO title again with a “fresh perspective.”
“I don’t think I could be a CEO right now had I not had an [eight-year gap] where I was deeply entrenched in the industry [and] continued to be a KW franchisee with a regional interest and Market Center interest,” he said. “During that gap, I had an opportunity to get a fresh perspective and even see outside the KW ecosystem.”
Willis said he believes in Keller Williams’ value proposition now more than ever, as a wily market, artificial intelligence, and a growing lineup of explosive antitrust suits hurl the real estate industry toward an unsure future.
“The one thing that I learned is that as consultants, we teach people how to think, and we help them with their issues and challenges,” he said. “And I can tell you that teaching people how to think will be our strategy and that has always been our strategy. It’s how we define leadership.”
The CEO said he’s focused on mentally preparing Keller Williams franchisees, brokers and agents for a tough year, which includes slowing sales growth and the fallout from the Sitzer|Burnett buyer-broker commission lawsuit.
“The first thing is mastering the market at the moment, having absolute clarity and gearing up for a tough year. I think we’ll see no more than 4 million existing-home sales in 2024. The most important thing for agents to focus on is their business,” he said. “The temptation in a chaotic market is to retreat and focus on taking care of business rather than growing it.”
“Agents need to focus on clearly articulating their value, he added. “The one thing we know is that commissions have always been negotiable and nothing about that has changed. We have to know that, yes, the rules will likely change. But we will continue to thrive.”
Wednesday’s announcement officially closes the chapter on Willis’ triumphant, yet controversial, return to Keller Williams.
In January 2022, Keller Williams and eXp Realty’s longtime rivalry came to a rolling boil when the latter attempted to recruit Willis for an undisclosed executive position. However, Keller Williams filed a temporary restraining order, temporary injunction and permanent injunction against Willis that brought eXp’s plans to a grinding halt.
Keller Williams’ legal counsel 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.”
EXp World Holdings requested to be listed as a co-defendant in February 2022 with an 11-page countermotion saying the company’s interest in Willis had nothing to do with accessing intellectual property or confidential information. The motion also claimed Keller Williams blocked Willis from selling his interests — thus preventing Willis and eXp from resolving the conflict of interest.
For several months, the two real estate giants were locked in a soap-worthy drama as people exchanged stories about Keller’s alleged backroom blowups and sly tit-for-tat battles between Keller and Sanford, whose relationship soured in the early 2000s when Keller reportedly snubbed Sanford, then a top-producing KW team leader, by not including him in an elite company group.
The short-lived legal battle even sparked a Twitter movement, #FreeMarkWillis. Then, in May 2022, both companies agreed to settle the case under confidential terms.
“We recognize Mark’s value to the industry and wish him success in his new role,” eXp World Holdings founder and eXp Realty CEO Sanford told Inman in July of Willis’ return to Keller Williams as a strategic consultant.
Willis’ return to the CEO chair is a significant win for Keller Williams, which has experienced a tumultuous year filled with legal drama including two marketing-related class action lawsuits, a continued battle with former CEO John Davis, two lawsuits from former franchisees about Gary Keller‘s alleged “illicit” business tactics, and involvement in several buyer-broker commission lawsuits.
However, the Texas-based franchisor has been successful in reclaiming multi-million and billion-dollar team leaders who’d left during the market heyday, expanding its international reach with a handful of Market Center launches in Europe and Asia, and another major update to KW Command.
“With so much uncertainty surrounding the real estate industry today, it’s never been more important to have a leader who thoroughly knows us and understands business at the highest level,” Keller said. “That’s Mark Willis.”