Former KW CEO Mark Willis ‘home’ 18 months after eXp recruit drama

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Keller Williams and eXp Realty’s 18-month legal battle has ended, with former KW CEO Mark Willis ultimately rejecting an undisclosed executive role at eXp for a strategic consulting role with the Texas-based franchisor.

Gary Keller

Keller Williams co-founder and Executive Chairman Gary Keller celebrated Willis’ homecoming, saying the former CEO will be integral in helping agents and market center leaders grow their businesses through the ultimate market shift.

“For over 32 years, Mark has served across all levels of leadership within KW,” Keller said. “We’re excited to continue on our successful path together.”

Willis’ return builds upon an illustrious 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. Since leaving KW in 2015, Willis focused on thought leadership and philanthropy through Mark Willis Leadership and the Willis Family Foundation.

Willis said he looks forward to recreating the magic of his first 24 years with the company, where he helped grow Keller Williams from a regional firm to a worldwide force with more than 112,000 at the time of his departure.

Mark Willis | Credit: Mark Willis Leadership

“No one cares more about the agent than Keller Williams,” Willis said in a prepared statement on Wednesday. “I have a long-term appreciation for the culture and the leadership across this great company. I’m home at Keller Williams and there’s no better place to be in this industry.”

“It’s where I belong, with the people and the relationships I cherish,” he added. “We’re going to build on the strong foundational relationships within the company and deepen them.”

“I’m excited about the future, as the opportunity for entrepreneurs to thrive has never been better, and we’re leaning into it.”

Although triumphant, Willis’ return to the industry has been mired in controversy.

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.

Glenn Sanford | eXp Realty

“I am a strong proponent for agent and leadership mobility in the real estate industry,” Sanford said in the motion. “We are interested in engaging with Mark Willis because of his management experience and demonstrated leadership in the industry. EXp Realty has intervened in the lawsuit to protect its right to hire qualified real estate professionals and has no interest in any competitor’s confidential information.”

EXp World Holdings’ legal counsel also highlighted Keller Williams’ February 2022 recruitment of former eXp President of Operations Stacey Onnen as a reason why eXp’s hiring of Willis should be allowed to continue.

“KWRI’s position that Mr. Willis will inevitably disclose its confidential information to [eXp] by virtue of his past employment with KWRI and present passive investments in Keller Williams entities is fundamentally inconsistent with its hiring of Ms. Onnen,” the filing read. “If Mr. Willis would inevitably disclose KWRI’s confidential information to eXp if hired, it is beyond dispute that Ms. Onnen would inevitably disclose eXp’s confidential information to KWRI.”

After eXp World Holdings’ February 2022 countermotion, the industry was thrown into 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.

“You know, [Keller] told me on more than one occasion in person, that he ‘needs a fight’ and ‘If I don’t have one, typically I just go pick one,’” said Kevin Kauffman, the owner of Group 46:10 Network powered by eXp and former leading Keller Williams expansion team leader, in February 2022. “That’s one way to stay motivated, I suppose.”

#FreeMarkWillis briefly trended on Twitter, with Real Estate Webmasters founder and CEO Morgan Carey describing Willis as Keller Williams’ “secret sauce.”

A month into the drama, Inman’s comments section revealed a growing annoyance with Keller Williams and eXp Realty, with readers calling the spat “silly” as Keller and Sanford acted like “children fighting over toys.”

Over the next several months, the lawsuit continued to simmer in the background, with Willis and Keller Williams agreeing to extend the temporary restraining order in several filings throughout April 2022. The last publicly-available update happened in May 2022 with a joint motion to stay (i.e. pause) the case.

Keller Williams and eXp World Holdings were tight-lipped about what happened after May 2022.

KW spokesperson Darryl Frost said both parties resolved the lawsuit “some time ago” under “confidential” terms, and “Mark’s new role within KW is unrelated to the previous lawsuit regarding Mark’s obligations as a franchise owner.”

Meanwhile, eXp World Holdings founder and eXp Realty CEO Glenn Sanford simply offered well wishes.

“We recognize Mark’s value to the industry and wish him success in his new role,” Sanford told Inman.

Willis’ return is a significant win for Keller Williams, which experienced a tumultuous first and second quarter 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 the bombshell commission lawsuit.

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.

KW President Marc King said Willis will be key in helping the company navigate the short and long-term future, as he’s already a trusted figure within the company.

“In an industry that has changed so dramatically in the last five to 10 years, it is great to have someone who knows our systems, culture, and people so well,” he said.

Email Marian McPherson

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