Longtime MLS leader 'still passionate,' sees big changes ahead
Stellar MLS CEO Merri Jo Cowen reflects on 40 years in the industry, what consumers don’t know about MLSs, and the need for a thoughtful approach to AI.
- Cowen has led the third-largest MLS in the country for 15 years and made a big jump in the SP 200 rankings for 2024.
- As an industry veteran, Cowen can see changes coming — and much of it may be spurred by the commission lawsuits.
- Her biggest concern? The lack of understanding about how MLSs help homebuyers and sellers.
When Merri Jo Cowen took a job doing data entry for a Multiple Listing Service 40 years ago, she never imagined she would eventually become a CEO — much less a recognized industry leader.
"When you're five years old and your mom asks what you want to be… no one says they want to be a CEO for an MLS," Cowen said with a chuckle. "But having a career this long is based on still being passionate about this. I think that passion and growing future leaders as well as working closely with your volunteers helps your organization grow."
Cowen, CEO of Stellar MLS in Florida, recently celebrated her 15th year leading the organization. And in January, she was recognized as one of the industry's most influential leaders, rising 34 spots in the 2024 Swanepoel Power 200 to No. 52.
With the unexpected resignation of former NAR President Tracy Kasper, that also makes Cowen the highest-ranking active female MLS or association leader on this year's list.
"It's very humbling, and I'm just really honored," Cowen said.
The recognition comes at a time of change for multiple listings services, as MLS organizations tackle topics ranging from consolidation to technology to the buyer agent commission lawsuits. Cowen spoke with Real Estate News about her years in the industry — and where she sees it going.
Commission lawsuits underscore the importance of showing value
From the beginning, Cowen said her biggest concern with the buyer agent commission lawsuits was the lack of consumer understanding about organized real estate. Fundamentally, she said, the juries, judges and attorneys involved in the cases haven't grasped the value MLSs provide when it comes to accurate listing data.
As CEO of the third-largest MLS in the country, one of Cowen's main goals for Stellar is to find ways to communicate the value of the organization and its customers: agents and brokers.
While still in the early stages, Cowen is looking into building a consumer-facing portal similar to what the Houston Association of Realtors has developed. It wouldn't compete with national home search portals like Zillow, but Stellar is assessing whether it could be helpful on a local level.
"That's a big one for us. How do we demonstrate our value and give our brokers the confidence to say, 'Here's a part of my value proposition because I'm part of the MLS, and I have access to all this great data,'" Cowen said.
Taking a rigorous approach to AI
Over the past year, Cowen has shared her thoughts about the big changes coming in the industry through technology. That includes Artificial Intelligence, which is transforming real estate along with many other industries.
Cowen said the leadership team at Stellar is looking at various AI-powered tools, but they want to evaluate the options carefully rather than jump on the latest product and risk damaging their ability to provide accurate information.
"I think it's a year or two away," Cowen said, noting that some AI tools, such as those that analyze photos or fill in listing fields, could mature more quickly.
Embracing leadership opportunities
Looking back over her career, Cowen said she's benefited from being in the right place at the right time — and from being seen as someone with knowledge and expertise, which motivated others to give her a chance. Those factors, she said, helped elevate her into leadership positions.
"I have never felt that I had missed out on opportunities because I'm a woman in this industry," Cowen said, noting that both her male and female peers have always been respectful to her. "I've never felt like I was 'less than' because I was a woman."