NEW YORK — Chief executives from two high-profile brokerage companies with wildly divergent business models spoke candidly on Tuesday at Inman Connect New York about the travails of voicing public opinion in a fractured political climate.
Robert Reffkin, the outspoken chief executive of the private company Compass, and Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of publicly traded Redfin, agreed that navigating the land mines and pitfalls of public opinion in the age of Donald Trump can come with a risk to the bottom line.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with being publicly traded as much as … I feel like a coward often,” said Kelman in an emotional panel that unfolded Tuesday during a CEO Connect talk entitled “Leading a New Generation of Companies.”
“We took a public position on immigration,” Kelman continued. “It’s so central to housing, it’s central to our employees, we just had to do it … But I just have to ask myself, I have to remember, there are employees at Redfin who voted for Donald Trump, there are employees who voted for Hillary Clinton, and they all have helped build the platform that I stand on, and if I use that platform to espouse opinions that they don’t support, what am I doing?”
Following controversy surrounding a state law in 2016 that restricted transgender individuals’ use of public restrooms in North Carolina, Kelman said Redfin executives sent a private letter to then-Gov. Pat McCrory, threatening to pull out of a deal to launch a new mortgage business in Charlotte. After employees caught wind of the correspondence, and the company chose to relocate to Dallas instead, some staffers demanded Redfin make their views on the ban public, Kelman confirmed on Tuesday.
“We opened a mortgage business a year or two ago, and it was originally going to be in Charlotte, and then there was this silly bathroom law and we decided to do it in Dallas,” Kelman recounted to an audience at Carnegie Hall. “The employees who knew about that decision wanted us to publicly explain our rationale. We’d sent a private letter to the governor, saying it would have meant 200 or 300 jobs over a few years, and I didn’t, and members of my family feel very emotional about that issue. It’s a personal issue for our family.
“I felt like a coward about it,” said Kelman, who also acknowledged volunteering for one of the presidential candidates in 2016, but has thus far refused to reveal which one.
As for Reffkin, recent mandates on immigration, including a travel ban briefly instituted in early 2017, inspired the New York-based chief executive to protest at JFK airport along with his daughter and thousands of other demonstrators.
“It’s just my own personal viewpoint,” Reffkin said on Tuesday. “I love New York City because it’s a city of the most diversity in the country. Sixty percent of the people are not from New York City — 37 percent are immigrants, 23 percent are like myself that came from a different city.
“I believe that there is only one thing our country can do, even more than education, which I care deeply, deeply, deeply about, which is let the smartest people in the world come to our country, and that’s been the history of what’s made us successful so that matters a lot to me.
“And then on the most human level, you’re seeing families turned away and, to me, that’s an horrific moment, one of the lowest moments that I’ve been part of,” Reffkin added. “So I just felt that I had the responsibility to people, and to be clear it wasn’t my first instinct.”
Concluded Kelman: “Sometimes I think I should take a stand and sometimes I think I shouldn’t, but I also just want to respect the labor on both sides, and I often think that when you take an outspoken position you don’t persuade the people you’re trying to reach.”
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