Another realty ghost

Marquee name: For the first time in 42 years, real estate executive James P. O'Conor's name will no longer appear on local real estate signs.

March 17, 2002|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

Arthur Davis grabbed a newspaper he still possesses from 1952 and began spitting out name after name of firms appearing in the real estate classified section.

He might as well have been reading the obituaries.

"Twenty-fifth Street was real estate row," recalled Davis, president of Chase Fitzgerald & Co., a small Roland Park company that traces its roots to the old Roland Park Co.

Then, one by one, he summoned from memory the powerhouses of a time gone by:

W. Burton Guy Co.

Stackhouse.

Temple H. Pierce Co.

Russell T. Baker.

Layne & Latshawe.

W.H.C. Wilson.

Eno Dubuys.

Charles H. Steffy.

Wyman Park Co.

Albert P. Strobel & Co.

And now another ghost enters the graveyard of Baltimore real estate companies: O'Conor, Piper & Flynn - 1984 to 2002.

Last week, NRT Inc. merged two subsidiaries, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn and Pardoe Real Estate, with two companies it recently purchased - Coldwell Banker Stevens, Realtors of Vienna, Va., and Coldwell Banker Realty Pros Ltd. of Bethesda.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, receptionists at 90 offices from the Atlantic beaches to Capitol Hill to the Shenandoah Mountains were instructed to begin answering the phones by adding Coldwell Banker to their greeting. Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, the name of the new company, was in. OPF, Pardoe, Stevens and Realty Pros in time would be a memory.

Even after almost a week, local agents and managers, as well as competing brokers and industry analysts, are trying to digest the consequences of the merger and the impact it will have.

Will agents profit more under the Coldwell Banker flag than under the locally respected names of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn or, in Washington, Pardoe, which dealt in prestige properties?

Will there be a backlash from consumers now that corporate America has absorbed another Baltimore business institution? Or will they care?

Will smaller brokerages come under even more pressure to survive against a new company that is twice the size of the old OPF?

Who benefited the most by the merger?

And can longtime rival Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., be displaced as the region's top real estate company?

Everyone agrees it's a new day for residential real estate in Baltimore.

Most consumers have heard of Coldwell Banker, Century 21 and ERA, probably the three most recognizable names in real estate - in addition to Re/Max - in the country. Few consumers, however, are familiar with the owner of those names, Parsippany, N.J.-based NRT Inc. (NRT stands for National Realty Trust.)

NRT is a joint venture formed in 1997 between Cendant Corp., a huge consumer conglomerate that deals in rental cars, hotels and various forms of entertainment, and Apollo Management LP.

Financed by Cendant and Apollo, NRT has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past five years to buy more than 200 independent brokers such as OPF and Pardoe, which it placed under its ERA name.

NRT's strategy recently has been to regionalize its adjacent companies under the Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage name, so that someone moving from San Diego will be familiar with the name when he arrives in Baltimore.

There are 22 regional Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerages and two under the ERA name. According to Bruce Zipf, NRT's East Coast senior vice president, the newly formed mid-Atlantic region would be ranked within the top five and rival its metropolitan New York, Boston, Florida, Los Angeles and Northern California markets.

NRT has benefited most from five years of increasing home sales nationwide, resulting in highly successful years for its brokerages.

"They have been blessed. I'll give them credit for timing," said Stephen H. Murray, a consultant who advises real estate brokers in acquisitions and publishes Real Trends, an industry newsletter.

Times have been good for NRT, Murray said, "but they don't know how quick it can turn and tough it can be, because it's been a while since we've seen a downturn in this business."

When the real estate market bogs down, "NRT will start bleeding red ink just like everybody else, and then we get to see how good their management team is," Murray said.

He acknowledged that NRT has talented people running its business, but when "they are going to have to make the calls to start cutting payroll, cutting expenses, closing offices, that kind of stuff, they aren't really good at it. The reason why they are successful is not because they are great operations guys. They are really good growers and builders."

O'Conor told of merger

James P. O'Conor has always been a good grower and builder.

When he was informed three weeks ago by NRT executives that the merger wheels were in motion, the realization began to sink in that for the first time in 42 years, since he started O'Conor & Flynn, his name would not dot the Baltimore landscape.

Four years ago, when he and his partners - James Piper, Ramsey "Bill" Flynn and John Evans - sold their Timonium company to NRT, O'Conor declined to disclose how much he was paid for the company.

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