LAND RUSH FOR REALTY AGENTS Coldwell Banker spinoff prompts eager recruiting


Baltimore-area real estate executives are delighted by the decision of Sears Roebuck and Co. to spin off its Coldwell Banker real estate chain -- anticipating the chance to pick up agents and possibly also offices from the chain as a result.

"I've been waiting for it [the sale] for a long time. I'll try to buy all their offices in the metropolitan Baltimore area," declared Mary Bell Grempler, chairman of the board of Grempler Realty Inc., the Towson-based chain with 16 offices in the region.

At the Timonium headquarters of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, the message from Chairman James P. O'Conor was the same: "We'd like to buy some of the Coldwell Banker offices." He said his firm would be interested in looking at the purchase of all nine of the Coldwell Banker offices in the Baltimore area.

To sharpen its focus on retailing, Sears announced last week a sweeping plan to break up its merchandising and financial operations. Although it expects to divest itself of its California-based Coldwell Banker Residential Services real estate business as a whole, local real estate executives are skeptical that Sears will find one buyer for the entire property.

"There's no one big enough to buy the whole company," Ms. Grempler said.

Also convinced that the odds are high that the national Coldwell Banker chain would be broken up rather than sold as a whole was Wesley Foster, chairman and chief executive of Long & Foster of Fairfax, Va., a realty firm that ranks No. 1 in the Washington market and No. 2 in the Baltimore market, after O'Conor, Piper & Flynn.

Mr. Foster was skeptical about reports that the Coldwell Banker real estate offices could picked up by a company such as General Electric Capital, General Motors Acceptance Corp. (GMAC) or Ford Motor Co. Mr. Foster said he doubted that such big corporations would want to enter the real estate business, difficult as the field has become.

Even if Sears manages to sell Coldwell Banker in its entirety, the transition should present opportunities for Baltimore-Washington realty businesses to pick up agents that would enhance their own firms, realty executives say.

"The agents get nervous about a change of ownership in their company," says George Eastment, a senior vice president at Long & Foster. el,.5l Since the Sears announcement was made, Long & Foster has intensified its recruiting. The Virginia company's three recruiters have stepped up their efforts and all the sales managers throughout the chain have been told to seek out the best Coldwell Banker agents from their areas, Mr. Eastment said.

"We're out beating the bushes -- trying to exploit the situation," he said.

So far, said Mr. Foster, Long & Foster has had no luck.

"The company is circling the wagons -- waiting to see who buys them," he said.

Dick Purvis, who heads the Baltimore-Washington regional office Coldwell Banker, based in Vienna, Va., said he and the 1,350 agents who work for the chain throughout the Baltimore-Washington region areconfident that the transition to the new ownership will be a smooth and successful one. (Six hundred agents work for Coldwell Banker in the Baltimore area.)

"I feel Coldwell Banker is such a strong company -- both locally and nationally -- that it wouldn't make any difference who is our parent -- whether it be Sears or another company," Mr. Purvis said.

Agents who work for the Coldwell Banker chain seem to agree with Mr. Purvis' assessment of the future.

"This sale will really not have any impact on our office at all. We're looking forward to who the new owners will be," said Lynn Creager, an agent with the Phoenix-Hunt Valley office of Coldwell Banker. She has worked for the company for eight years.

Still, her husband, Robert Creager, said he worries that as a result of the sale, Coldwell Banker could lose its current name, which has been heavily stressed in the couple's advertising.

"Name recognition is very important in real estate," he noted.

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