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Amber Montanio’s managing broker didn’t believe in her.

Montanio has worked in real estate since 2002, doing stints in some of the bigger name brokerages including eXp Realty and Keller Williams. But in 2019, she finally decided to branch out on her own. She got her broker’s license and rented an office space. Then she received a visit at her new office from the managing broker of the company she was leaving.

Amber Montanio

“He told me I would not make it a year as a boutique brokerage,” Montanio recently told Inman. “That I would be swallowed up.”

Montanio said the broker was apparently trying to “intimidate me” into backing off, and he made an offer that would’ve allowed her to start her own brand within the confines of the bigger company. But Montanio would not be deterred. In fact, she said the comments only steeled her resolve to make her own company work — even in a market dominated by mega firms.

“I’m a natural born redhead,” she said with a chuckle, “so I’m a little more stubborn than most.”

Today, Montanio’s company, Black Label Real Estate Advisors, is a thriving small brokerage in Texas with 12 members. Montanio said her brokerage functions as a team and concentrates mostly on luxury sales. When the firm made it through its first year, Montanio sent a box of cookies to her old managing broker — the skeptic who paid her a visit — to mark the occasion.

The details of Montanio’s story are unique, but the broad arcs about an underdog defying the odds are actually characteristic of the real estate industry. Though headlines routinely chart the rise and fall of massive companies with thousands of agents, the reality is those firms are the exception rather than the rule. In fact, real estate today remains dominated by smaller brokerages.

And so as we say goodbye to 2023, Inman has chosen for its Person of the Year the small broker-owner. This year, we’re honoring people like Montanio who through sheer force of will and raw grit have managed to build something out of nothing, and who make real estate a unique and quintessentially entrepreneurial enterprise.

By the numbers

Though many real estate professionals intuitively understand that the industry is filled with smaller operators, the actual numbers are striking. For example, according to a late 2023 report from the National Association of Realtors, 81 percent of real estate firms have just a single office. Moreover, those single-office companies typically have just three real estate license holders.

Companies with just one office also do an average of 15 transaction sides per year and bring in an average of $5.3 million in sales volume, according to the report.

The report additionally shows that 86 percent of real estate companies are independent non-franchised firms, while 12 percent are independent franchises. Among the smallest firms, with only one office, 91 percent are independent and not affiliated with a franchise. That number drops to 48 percent for firms with four or more offices, but when factoring in independently owned franchises, the indies still overwhelmingly dominate the industry.

Credit: NAR

The takeaway from these numbers is obvious: Though big companies such as Compass and eXp Realty gobble up a significant amount of attention, and do play a role in shaping the industry’s trajectory, real estate is overwhelmingly still the domain of the small broker. What has taken place in other industries such as retail, with mega corporations such as Walmart and Amazon virtually eliminating smaller stores in many communities, has not happened to the same extent in real estate.

Lean years and pops of color

Though small brokers are widespread, that doesn’t mean they have an easy time cutting through the noise — as Lindsay Dreyer’s experience shows.

Dreyer runs City Chic Real Estate in the Washington, D.C., area and told Inman she started her company in 2011 — in the wake of the Great Recession — after broker-hopping between a few different bigger-name firms.

“I realized none of them knew how to support a top producing millennial agent,” she told Inman.

Dreyer said it was “scary AF” to start a company in hard economic times, and to make matters even more challenging — and at odds with today’s buzziest real estate startups — she didn’t have any big source of funding to get the ball rolling. So she bet on herself.

“I took $40,000 out of my retirement account, that was basically my venture capital,” she recalled, adding a moment later that “everything I sold got put back into my brokerage.”

Dreyer’s company wasn’t profitable for two years, and she said that early period was the hardest — and definitely not the happiest — of her life. But she persevered. Today, the company has 21 agents, one full time staffer, and three part-time employees. In 2023, a year dominated by punishing rates and sparse inventory, City Chic Real Estate actually managed to have a net increase of five agents. It was hard, Dreyer acknowledged, but worth it.

Lindsay Dreyer, center front in a grey jacket, and members of City Chic Real Estate. Credit: City Chic Real Estate

Dreyer’s reward for perseverance isn’t just a growing business, it’s also control. She explained that in her highly competitive market, for instance, most other real estate companies’ identities feature muted colors apparently in an attempt to attract luxury clients. But Dreyer opted to zig when her competitors zagged.

“So much of our branding is color,” she said. “We are really into being colorful.”

Dreyer also has the freedom to create whatever corporate culture she sees fit.

“One of the things is we don’t emphasize production and production awards because I feel like that really alienates some of the new agents who are trying to ramp up their business,” she explained. “Every agent is equal at City Chic, and all valuable in their own right.”

Training the competition

Even after small brokers become entrenched in their markets, the challenges persist.

Like Dreyer, Courtney Poulos hopped around to different bigger-name brokerages years ago before finally deciding to set out on her own. She ultimately founded Acme Real Estate in Los Angeles in 2011, but she started small.

“It was just me,” she told Inman of her early days as a broker-owner. “And then I had one assistant. Then two agents. Then six, then eight.”

Today, Acme has 35 agents. The company started as what Poulos described as an “anti brand” that was meant to put its clients identities above that of the brokerage, though the strategy ended up helping the firm build its own respected reputation. And like Dreyer Poulos said one of the biggest benefits to having her own company is the freedom to be agile and try new things at a pace that wouldn’t work beneath layers of mega corporation bureaucracy.

“We control the marketing so we don’t have to ask corporate for permission,” she explained. “We’ve done all sorts of messaging that probably wouldn’t fly at a big corporate brokerage.”

Acme Real Estate Broker-Owner Courtney Poulos, standing and third from left, with other members of the brokerage. Credit: Mariya Stangl

That sentiment was common among the broker-owners who spoke with Inman. It is, evidently, one of the biggest selling points of running one’s own brokerage.

But independence doesn’t mean smaller-scale brokers can simply declare mission accomplished. In 2023, Poulos said, much bigger companies have begun recruiting aggressively — which is a trend Inman has documented and sometimes refers to as the “battle for agent count.” The idea is that amid a tightening market, big companies are under pressure to add top agents, and can offer rich incentives to boot.

Poulos has seen this play out first hand, lamenting that “brokerage recruiting has gotten aggressive with our agents” lately. In some cases, the offers have become too sweet to resist and Poulos’ agents have made the leap to other companies — despite already having gone through a custom-built, 11-week training program that has long been a core part of Acme’s identity.

“One big shift that’s happened this year is I’ve trained some of our competition,” Poulos said. “People who were recruited by big teams. Which sucks because I feel like we’ve invested so much time and love.”

Poulos is adjusting her training and recruiting offerings to deal with the competition from the big teams. But the experience highlights the fact that small brokers’ David-and-Goliath struggles really never end. Everyday, they have to show up and do battle with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Pandemic meet ups

Sometimes smaller broker-owners’ challenges start even before their companies exist.

Natalie Clayton, Chanda Johnson and Jess Martin used to worked alongside each other at a big-name brokerage, and eventually they started meeting regularly to collaborate.

“As we continued with those meetings, we kind of initially jokingly talked about how nice it would be to work together some day,” Johnson told Inman, adding that all three women “were craving that smaller feel where we more intimately knew our colleagues.”

Finally, in late 2020, the trio decided to take the plunge and move forward with their own business. There was just one problem: That was right at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. So the team adapted.

“We met on each other’s porches,” Martin recalled of what happened in October 2020. “And we were in zoom meetings hashing out how we were doing this.”

Today, the three women run Maywright Property Co. in Indianapolis. Despite its founding in uncertain times, Martin said the company has tended to grow by three or four agents per year. Today, there are 18 agents and three staff members, and the company is in the process of opening a second office.

Members of Maywright Property Co. Credit: Maywright Property Co

The company’s leaders have also managed to achieve their goal of having better, deeper relationships. Johnson said the brokerage holds a weekly meeting to discuss business, but also has a social gathering each week where attendees can chat about their personal lives and work-life balance. The entire company participates in boating days and holiday parties and other events. And the result is that everyone knows the names of the agents’ significant others, kids, and even pets.

“We have a good sense of people’s personal lives,” Johnson said.

Of course many companies do the same, but Johnson argued that the scale of the company enhances these efforts, bringing everyone closer together.

“Keeping it small does allow us to keep track more easily,” she said, echoing a sentiment that many brought up in conversations for this story.

The list of stories small broker-owners shared with Inman could go on. But the ultimate takeaway here is not complicated: These entrepreneurs faced major challenges — skepticism, funding, and more — even before they started their companies, but pushed forward. And today their enterprises are not only hanging on, they’re thriving.

As NAR’s numbers suggest, these types of stories are widespread. In fact, they’re the story of real estate.

Despite massive change and disruption, despite the rise of new players and the entrance of venture capital, real estate is still a place for optimists and dreamers. It’s an industry for people who, when told they won’t succeed, make sure they do. It’s an industry of people who know how to hustle, how to pivot, and how to experiment. It’s an industry filled with people who don’t accept failure.

All of which is really just another way to say, it’s an industry of small broker-owners.

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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