Bellevue real estate brokerage Coldwell Banker Bain sells to national firm

In a significant shift for a nearly 50-year-old local company, a national firm has purchased Bellevue-based real estate brokerage Coldwell Banker Bain.

Owner and Chairman Bill Riss sold his majority interest in the company to US RES Holdco LLC, an affiliate of Houston-based title insurance company Stewart Information Services, Coldwell Banker Bain announced Tuesday. 

The company declined to provide the sale price.

The deal offers Coldwell Banker Bain “more resources and capital to expand its presence and increase its competitive position in an ever-changing real estate industry,” the company said in a statement, noting “day-to-day operations will remain the same.”

Among the region’s largest residential real estate firms, Coldwell Banker Bain reported more than $6 billion in sales volume last year. 

But traditional brokerages have faced increasing pressure from investment firms and startups such as Seattle-based Redfin and Zillow. Investors and startup house-flippers known as iBuyers vie for homes against individual buyers represented by traditional agents. Online platforms increasingly touch nearly every corner of the real estate market, and traditional agents pay to feature their own ads on sites like Zillow. 

Without naming specific competitors, Coldwell Banker Bain CEO Mike Grady wrote in an email to brokers Monday: “Over the last few years, our industry has been changing with non-real estate, venture capital companies looking to displace the broker from the center of [the] transaction. The most concerning are the type with significant funding behind them. This deep capital, and lack of the necessity for profit, allows these competitors to operate in a manner traditional real estate companies would find challenging.”

“Considering the industry change and to be effective against these new competitors, we needed to evolve,” Grady wrote. “We needed a strategic alliance.”

Coldwell Banker Bain “searched and investigated for a long time before the right alliance was found,” Grady wrote.

Coldwell Banker Bain officials said they did not expect any immediate changes for agents and staff. 

Some were skeptical. Ownership by a publicly traded company could drive more pressure to cut spending on training and marketing or increase fees, said one Coldwell Banker Bain agent who asked not to be named in order to speak about the announcement.

“From their perspective, they’re bringing in more technology to compete against Zillow and Redfin, but I think the way to compete against those folks is to bring in more humanity to the job. That requires much more investment in training,” the broker said.

John Deely, executive vice president of operations, said in an interview the company does not expect immediate technology changes but believes that as the real estate industry increasingly shifts operations online, “Stewart is a leader in that whole arena.”

“The fact is with the way the industry is changing it’s an advantage to our agents and our clients to have a partner that is very well versed in the real estate industry,” Deely said.

Stewart did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday.

Coldwell Banker Bain has been focused on the luxury market since its earliest days when founder Bill Bain “had a dream to build a real estate company that serviced the ‘carriage trade,’ or wealthy consumers,” according to an online company history. 

Riss joined in 1982 to manage the Bellevue office, then bought the company in 1993 and oversaw its evolution and expansion. Today, more than 1,200 Coldwell Banker Bain agents work in 36 offices in Oregon and Washington state, according to the company.

Coldwell Banker Bain, an independently owned franchise of the national firm Coldwell Banker, will continue its affiliation with Coldwell Banker for the foreseeable future. The company recently signed a new 12-year franchise agreement. However, Riss has “slowly and methodically started to turn over senior leadership of the company” to Grady, the company said.