Prudential loses Pikesville staff to competitors A BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL

October 23, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

The memory of getting burned still lingers with D. R. Grempler, head of one of the four largest real estate companies in metropolitan Baltimore.

"We had this happen a long time ago," said Mr. Grempler, president of Coldwell Banker Grempler Realty Inc., recalling an industrious branch manager who left years ago to start his own company, then snatched away the agents he had managed.

The loss prompted the company to institute non-compete contracts, which in some cases bar former managers from competing with the agency for six months. But the loss didn't stop Mr. Grempler from swooping in on his own competitors to siphon off their best agents. He's especially proud of those gained from some of the bigger competitors.

"We've done a fairly good job of recruiting from some of these agencies in the last 60 days, and we're working on the smaller brokers, taking their agents," Mr. Grempler said.

All's fair, it seems, in the battle of the agencies, especially the four top ones in metropolitan Baltimore -- O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., Coldwell Banker Grempler and The Prudential Preferred Properties.

For them, victories are measured in agents recruited, offices acquired and gains in market share, all of which translates into improved sales figures and ultimate survival.

And in an industry becoming ever more complex, revolutionized by new regulations and technology, agents say their choice of agency has become a matter of survival as well.

A glaring example of maneuvering between companies and agents occurred early this month when 45 agents left Prudential's Pikesville office for two competitors, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn and Long & Foster, ranked first and second.

By all accounts, Long & Foster instigated the exodus by luring the manager of the $100-million-sales-producing office to head Long & Foster's months-old Greenspring office. The Pikesville branch is now closed.

"We've been working a long time to catch OPF, and we're trying very hard to do that," said Alice Burch, Long & Foster's Baltimore regional manager.

"This should boost our market share considerably, at least in Baltimore, and it should increase in the region, too."

In some cases, the fight to the top is spurred by a drive to regain a lost position; in others, to maintain a hard-fought spot.

There was a time when Mr. Grempler's family ran the biggest agency around. Over the years, competing brokers had grown through mergers and by luring agents with bigger splits of sales commissions; Grempler foundered. Then, a year ago, 33-year-old Grempler Realty bought Coldwell Banker's eight Baltimore-area offices, doubling its market share to 15 percent and increasing its agents to about 1,000.

Before making the move, Mr. Grempler said, "It was getting more and more difficult to compete and tougher to make a profit. Now, whatever the competition does, we match it and then figure out how to make it work."

And there was a time when O'Conor, Piper & Flynn's sales didn't dominate the marketplace. Ten years ago, James P. O'Conor, then an executive of O'Conor, Flynn & Skirven Inc., watched national companies such as Merrill Lynch and Coldwell Banker descend on Baltimore, for years a patchwork of local brokers who had carved out geographic niches.

"My company was a medium-sized company and we felt threatened," said Mr. O'Conor, who merged his company with four others to become the biggest home seller in the Baltimore region, a coveted spot the firm has retained by merging with or acquiring 32 other companies since then.

"There were a lot of skeptics who didn't think it would work -- five companies with five different owners and five different ways of doing business," he recalled. "Now, it's almost getting to the point where it's big or small and not many midsized left."

Agents say it has become crucial to hook up with agencies that have the financial stability and muscle to offer the training, advertising and name recognition that they say can clinch a sale.

Even with experience managing residential and commercial properties in Manhattan, real estate agent Steve Nash felt lost when he joined a small Baltimore company with four agents.

"I needed to have a full-time manager who I could bring all my concerns to, whether they be legal or contract situations," said -- Mr. Nash, adding that he gets that support with Prudential Preferred Properties.

"Real estate now is very much involved, and one needs to be aware of all the legal ramifications," he said.

"When you're working as an independent contractor, you don't have all these resources at your fingertips."

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