Former Keller Williams CEO Mark Willis was thrust into the spotlight on Tuesday after an eye-opening court filing by eXp World Holdings revealed its rival had spent more than a month blocking Willis’ plans to join eXp in an undisclosed executive role.
While much of the industry watches as the rival brokerages feud, California-based eXp broker Rick Geha said he doesn’t want Willis’ remarkable contribution to the industry to get overshadowed by a fight over talent.
“I’ve never worked under a more dynamic leader,” said Geha, who left Keller Williams in 2015 after 14 years. “[Mark] is just a man of extreme discipline and very hard work, and whatever comes out of his mouth is what happens.”
For Geha, a top faculty member at the brokerage who traveled across the U.S. and Canada on the teaching circuit before departing the company, the best example of Willis’ discipline had nothing to do with how he helped transform Keller Williams from a regional firm to a worldwide force in 25 years, or the many accolades Willis earned, including cracking the top 10 of the Swanepoel Power 200 in 2014.
“I can remember years back when I was starting to get healthier and take care of myself personally. I stopped just being all about my businesses,” he said. “I remember seeing Mark and being concerned that he was seeming to get heavier, as people sometimes do. Then all of a sudden, magically — I hadn’t seen him for two or three months — he was wearing a smaller suit.
“He got really fanatical about taking excellent care of himself, eating the right things and doing the right stuff,” he added. “I’ve always been impressed with his ability to take on what the challenges are around him, including challenging himself. He’s not a man that weakens under pressure.”
Willis has certainly faced his fair share of high-pressure moments throughout his 35 years in real estate, which began with a position as a Coldwell Banker branch manager in Austin, Texas. Willis jumped to Keller Williams in 1991 and took over the leadership of one of the brokerage’s many Austin-based teams. Within five years, he quadrupled his team’s production and catapulted them to one of the top outfits in the region.
After seeing his track record on the team level, Gary Keller pulled Willis into the C suite with an appointment to president in 2002 and an appointment to CEO in 2005. “As president and CEO, I will continue to drive the growth of this company,” Willis said in 2005 after taking the reins from Mo Anderson. “It’s my core competency; it’s what I love to do – figuring out how to take us to new heights.”
Willis made good on his promise and helped the franchisor go from a regional force of 18,888 associates in 2002 to the largest franchisor by agent count in 2014, with 112,000 agents. He also helped the brokerage gain its footing overseas with franchise agreements in the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Indonesia, southern Africa, Switzerland, Turkey and Vietnam.
Geha said Keller Williams’ explosive growth during Willis’ tenure was due to his grace and dedication to creating a force of agents and leaders who were dedicated to delivering the best real estate experience.
“During his leadership tenure, I saw him handle everything from industry politics to drama issues with grace and class and with a firm hand,” he said. “He wanted to stick by the standards and keep the company where it was associating with the very best in the business, and he wanted people to become the very best version of themselves.”
One of the agents Willis recruited was Chris Heller, a fellow former Keller Williams CEO who started his career with the franchisor in 2009 as its top-performing agent.
“He’s the one that ultimately recruited me to Keller Williams,” he said. “I was the one that took his seat as CEO of the company when he resigned, but the five years prior to that I worked very closely with him and I learned so much about leadership from him that prepared me for that role.”
Heller said he most admired Willis’ ability to wield his “big personality,” and how he helped Heller make the transition to CEO in 2015. “I mean, he is a high-integrity person. He cares and focuses on others,” he said. “He’s got a big personality and he’s charismatic, but not in a sales type of way. He has a more genuine and authentic type of approach.
“I wasn’t foolish enough to think that I was going to replace him or fill his shoes because we’re two very different people,” he added. “It’s natural to feel a pressure to compete, but that didn’t exist at all because he would not allow that. The transition was so graceful and respectful that there wasn’t any weirdness between us.”
Since leaving Keller Williams in 2014, Willis has kept his hand in real estate with Mark Willis Leadership, his coaching company that helps brokers and agents, as well as professionals outside of the industry become more effective leaders. He’s also ventured into the health and wellness industry with an ownership stake in Brain Juice, a multimillion-dollar supplements company.
Additionally, Willis operates the Willis Family Foundation in honor of his late wife, Cindy Willis, who died from advanced-stage metastatic breast cancer in 2019. The foundation advocates using canines for early cancer detection, as groundbreaking research suggests canines can “smell cancer” before it is detectable by scans or blood tests.
Geha and T3 Sixty CEO Stefan Swanepoel told Inman they’re not surprised eXp is battling for Willis, as his track record inside and outside of the office makes Willis the perfect pick to lead the cloud-based brokerage into the future.
“Mark is a charismatic and driven leader who has proven he is able to grow a real estate brand and company exponentially fast as he did with Keller Williams Realty in the late 2000s and early 2010s,” Swanepoel said. “He builds strong and lasting relationships effortlessly and is able to gather momentum and a large following quickly.”
Geha added, “I think [coming to eXp] would be an incredible thing for him as a person, and I think it’d be great for eXp as a company. He’s a good person and he elevates the people that are around him or that work with him. He’s the perfect person to pick eXp up and take it to the next level.”
Email Marian McPherson