With the final contracts being signed in a white Chevy SUV parked outside its training center on Security Boulevard, a 40-year-old Baltimore real estate institution came to an end early yesterday morning.
Grempler Realty Inc., with 22 offices and 800 sales associates, was purchased for about $10 million by Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., giving the Fairfax, Va.-based company a stronger foothold in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
The acquisition turns a three-way competition for the real estate dollar in the Baltimore area into a neck-and-neck race between O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA and Long & Foster, the largest brokerage in Maryland and the fourth-largest in the nation.
The purchase raises the number of Long & Foster offices in the area from 28 to 50, with a total of 1,900 agents. Timonium-based O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA has 47 offices and 2,300 agents.
Through the first half of this year, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA had a Baltimore area market share of 26.9 percent. Long & Foster stood at 18.0 percent, and Grempler had 6.4.
The transaction came less than 12 hours after the seven-year franchise agreement between Towson-based Grempler and Coldwell Banker expired at midnight Thursday. Hours after the agreement was signed, the Coldwell Banker Grempler name on storefronts throughout the area was being blacked out by painters, and lawn signs were being switched.
It also ends the four-decade presence of a company started by Mary Bell Grempler, a brash businesswoman who proved that a woman could succeed in a male-dominated industry.
"We've been wanting to do this for a long time," said P. Wesley Foster, president of Long & Foster. "I think it will help us dramatically to gain market share."
Foster said that all offices will remain open for the time being, but added, "We may merge some into our existing offices. ... The offices that are strong and carrying themselves and have the potential to do so, we'll keep open."
He also said there were no immediate plans for staff layoffs.
Handling the transition
D.R. Grempler, Mary Bell Grempler's eldest son and president and chief executive officer of the company, will help oversee the transition before becoming a branch manager. Mary Bell Grempler and her ex-husband, Donald, who oversaw the technology side of the company, will also serve as consultants in the switch.
"Could we stay competitive another seven years as part of Coldwell Banker or any other franchise, competing against an independent like Long & Foster that didn't have franchise fees? To me, it just didn't seem possible to stay competitive," D.R. Grempler said. "We could have survived, sure, but would we have been doing great? I don't think so. I don't think we would have been doing as well."
Negotiations had heated up in recent weeks, with D.R. Grempler holding talks primarily with Long & Foster, Coldwell Banker Stevens, based in Vienna, Va., and O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA.
Thomas Stevens, president of the fourth-largest Coldwell Banker franchise in the country with 30 offices and 1,300 associates, said that at one point he thought he had a deal with Grempler.
"As recently as a week ago, hands were shaken on our agreement," Stevens said. But as that deal disintegrated, Stevens hired away a key Grempler executive, Patrick J. Kane, who will oversee Stevens' Maryland operation as senior vice president. "We are going to be there [in Baltimore] within days with offices open, and I think there is a major loyal allegiance on the agents [and] managers to Coldwell Banker," said Stevens, who operates three offices in Anne Arundel County.
According to D.R. Grempler, a sale to O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA would have created more office duplication, and thus an increased chance of those offices' being closed. "That is why I chose these guys, because that was their plan - to run with the current setup and bring it into their operation," Grempler said of Long & Foster.
John Evans, president of OPF ERA, was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Mary Bell Grempler said the sale to Long & Foster was a "perfect" way to conclude a business she had built into one of Baltimore's strongest brokerages.
She started selling real estate in the mid-1950s and, five years later, opened her own office. At first, reflecting the belief that a woman owner wouldn't be taken seriously, the company was named Donald E. Grempler Realty, though her husband worked as a manager of flight research with the Bendix Corp. in Towson.
After three successful years, she convinced her husband to leave his job and join her in real estate. He put his technical savvy and knowledge of computers to work, devising a punch-hole card system that would sort and select properties by price and location. It was a predecessor of today's multiple listing system, which he helped to create for the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.
Peak years in '70s
As the company became more successful, Donald's name was dropped from the business, and at its height in 1973, Grempler Realty was responsible for about 15 percent of all home sales in the Baltimore market.
Though the company was thriving, the Gremplers' personal lives were strained. In 1983, Mary Bell separated from her husband, and the two divorced in 1991. They continued to work together.
However, competition from national companies, the entry of Long & Foster into the Baltimore market in the mid-1980s and the merger of five area brokerages, creating O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in 1984, cut deeply into Grempler's market share, pushing it into the single digits.
In 1991, D.R. Grempler became president of the company, and Mary Bell remained chairman. However, the two have had a sometimes tense relationship over how the company should be run.
Grempler Realty joined the Coldwell Banker franchise network on Sept. 1, 1993. In a transaction valued at more than $2 million, Grempler purchased eight company-owned Coldwell Banker offices in the Baltimore area. As part of the deal, Grempler converted its 15 offices into Coldwell Banker offices.