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Get ready, say MLS leaders — change is coming 

CEOs from five of the country's largest MLSs discussed the challenges (and progress) in making MLS organizations more efficient and collaborative.

May 12, 2023
4 minutes

Key points:

  • MLS leaders talked about the changes they see coming during a panel discussion at the recent T3 Leadership Summit.
  • Some transformation of the MLS landscape is already happening, as evidenced by new collaborative products like REdistribute and Nestfully.
  • It still can be slow going, however, due to entrenched bureaucracy and the "herding cats" nature of decision-making.

On the whole, Multiple Listing Services don't have a reputation for embracing change — at least not quickly.

With more than 500 local and regional MLSs of vastly varying sizes throughout the country, instituting industry-wide change is a challenge. Still, a long-awaited transformation toward a more efficient system is coming — but it's hard, and time-consuming.

That was one key takeaway from a panel discussion with CEOs from five of the country's largest MLSs representing nearly 300,000 subscribers: Matthew Consalvo of ARMLS, Merri Jo Cowen of Stellar MLS, Jeremy Crawford of FMLS, Brian Donnellan of Bright MLS and Shelley Specchio of MIBOR.

The leaders, who spoke at the recent T3 Leadership Summit, said that consolidation, along with greater cooperation (in the form of data sharing or partnerships), is something many in the MLS industry have strived for, but movement has been slow. At the beginning of 2023, there were 522 MLS organizations across the country, 14 fewer than a year prior, and down 43 since 2020. Seven years ago, there were more than 800 MLSs, according to the Real Estate Almanac

Today, the 20 largest MLSs serve more than half of all MLS subscribers nationwide.

Bureaucracy — and ANTS — create bottlenecks

MLSs can get bogged down by industry politics and bureaucracy at the local level. One way to cut through some of that red tape is to eliminate the "committee junkies" that Jeremy Crawford of FMLS in Georgia refers to as "ANTS" — Agents Not Transacting Sales.

"Committee junkies end up going through the ranks, so the next thing you know, an agent who's not successful in real estate is on your board. And they know nothing about running an MLS," Crawford said. "MLS is not a trade organization. We're a product, data and technology company. We need to talk about customer satisfaction."

Slow and steady progress

Matthew Consalvo's organization, Arizona-based ARMLS, has been working on two initiatives to improve efficiency for its members, but he said the process has been harder than expected.

"But with good efforts and good intentions, you'll make it. And when you make it, you create things you never dreamed were possible, especially from an efficiency standpoint," Consalvo said.

On a national level, change is happening, but it's still too slow for Brian Donnellan of Bright MLS, which serves several Northeastern states. Bright helped spearhead REdistribute — a data- and revenue-sharing initiative — and Nestfully, a consumer search portal that allows agents to add listings and receive leads for free.

Even with the successful launch of the two initiatives, Donnellan said the process has been slow, with too many cooks in the kitchen. But he says that's somewhat inevitable for organizations that aren't used to big changes.

"It still feels a bit like herding cats in order to get to a good place… but that's just part of the early stage of transformation," he said.

Innovation is coming

Despite the challenges, Merri Jo Cowen of Stellar MLS in Central Florida believes transformation lies ahead. "Start planning and start thinking ahead. The technology itself is escalating, and other changes are coming," Cowen said, referring to the commissions lawsuits making their way through the courts.

Shelley Specchio of Indiana-based MIBOR agreed that MLSs are starting to focus more on innovation, noting that some of the current outside-the-box thinking — and the products it has led to — is in response to what is happening to the industry as a whole. 

In recent years, Specchio said she's seen "a new way of competitors coming together to collaborate and cooperate on a whole other level that we haven't seen before," adding, "there seems to be no limit."

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