Beverly Hills-based brokerage Hilton & Hyland, which has dominated the prime residential real estate market since its founding nearly 30 years ago, recently lost some big-name talent.
Linda May, Mark Noah, Susan Smith, Bjorn Farrugia and Jonah Wilson are among the agents who have left Hilton & Hyland in recent months. The agency also lost its general manager, Billy Jack Carter, who had been with Hilton & Hyland for eight years.
And then there’s Drew Fenton, formerly one of Hilton & Hyland’s top producers and No. 6 on the Business Journal’s list of LA’s top real estate agents based on sales volume for 2021.
He left the brokerage to start Carolwood, a new boutique firm based in Beverly Hills, with Nick Segal and Ed Layson. Layson serves as Carolwood’s Chief Marketing Officer. Prior to that, he led Hilton & Hyland’s marketing department for over 18 years.
Noah Weinberg, manager of content and communications at Hilton & Hyland, said the exodus of agents is not unusual.
“This is not the first time we’ve had high-profile agent departures,” Weinberg said, pointing to departures in recent years such as Mauricio Umansky, who formed the Agency; Josh and Matthew Altman of the Altman Brothers; and Rainey Romito Williams and Branden Williams of Beverly Hills Estates.
“At Hilton & Hyland, we encourage individuality with our agents,” Weinberg said. “We try to provide them with pathways to success. The fact that we are able to elevate and promote so many agents so that they can start these successful brokerages of their own shows you how successful Hilton & Hyland is.”
“What’s happening this year with so many agents leaving is not unusual,” Weinberg continued. “Over the years, this has not diminished Hilton & Hyland’s stature in the luxury real estate market.”
The recent departures may be different in that they come as Hilton & Hyland navigates the industry after the February loss of co-founder Jeff Hyland. In March, a few weeks after Hyland’s death, the Business Journal reported that Hilton & Hyland had 140 agents under its roof. Today, Hilton & Hyland employs approximately 80 agents.
Weinberg said the size of the staff was intentional, adding that Hilton & Hyland cleaned house internally and pared it down to a leaner machine.
“As we researched and vetted potential options for Hilton & Hyland, given the changing market, we decided to shape our business model and return to our boutique roots,” Weinberg said. Fenton, Segal and Layson created Carolwood — located in a 10,000-square-foot penthouse at 9440 Santa Monica Blvd. — without the help of outside investors.
Fenton, who has $6.5 billion in sales to date, felt the time was right to leave Hilton and Hyland and start his own boutique firm.
“After Jeff Hyland’s passing, it felt natural to bring everything I had learned during my 15 years at Hilton & Hyland into my own firm,” said Fenton. “Now more than ever, it is imperative that our elite clientele is well informed and well represented.”
His vision for Carolwood “is designed to facilitate the best agents and ultimately their clients in the spirit of private banking and family offices.”
Having made outrageous deals such as the sale of the Playboy mansion in Holmby Hills for $195 million and the Chartwell estate in Bel-Air for $200 million, Fenton proved to be one of the industry’s most prolific dealmakers while at Hilton & Hyland.
“I’ve been with Hilton & Hyland for 15 years, many of them formative,” he said. “During these years, I managed to sell several of the most important properties in the city – five over 100 million dollars. I signed on when I was 24 and had already sold over $150 million that year, so joining was a natural extension. I have a lot of respect for Jeff (Hyland) and his encyclopedic knowledge.”
Fenton said the late Hyland was a key reason Hilton & Hyland attracted and cultivated so many of Los Angeles’ top real estate agents.
“Jeff Hyland loved to help and guide,” Fenton said. “He was patient and literally wrote the book on the high-end market. Agents who start out in a highly productive office surrounded by top producers learn how to close deals at this level. The support there has been excellent and has helped many new agents become bigger names.”
Layson also has fond memories of his time at Hilton & Hyland.
“The past 18 years have provided me with invaluable experience as I have had the incredible opportunity to learn the business first-hand under the expert guidance of Jeff Hyland,” Layson said. “By providing the highest level of service to an elite clientele of agents and sellers, we have achieved great things, broken records and built a true family environment. I hope to achieve the same with Carolwood.”
Segal, who did not work at Hilton & Hyland, launched real estate startups DBL Realtors in 2004 and Beverly Hills-based Partners Trust in 2009. He still has a stake in Avenue 8, a residential brokerage that is mobile for the first time, where he started as managing director in September last year.
While Carolwood may be the latest brokerage founded by a Hilton & Hyland veteran, others have already launched with great success, including The Agency and, most recently, The Beverly Hills Estates. The latter, founded by Williams and Romito Williams in 2020, is already performing well.
“In our first year, we did over $1 billion in sales and $1.5 billion last year,” Williams said. “We’re approaching the $2 billion mark this year.”
The Williams family began their professional collaboration before their marriage in 2006 at Nourmand and Associates as Williams & Romito. In 2010, they moved to Hilton & Hyland. The couple married in 2013 and changed the name of their team to Williams & Williams.
While at Hilton & Hyland, Williams and Romito Williams became two of the firm’s top agents, brokering several record-breaking deals. In 2017, they transferred the Cecil B. DeMille mansion in Los Feliz to Angelina Jolie for $24.5 million. In 2018, they sold Peter Morton’s Malibu home in an off-market deal for $110 million.
“We could have our own TV show if we wanted to,” Williams said. “We were offered. Netflix called us, ‘Million Dollar Listings’ called us. But when you work with such a large clientele and do these large deals, they don’t want their business out there and they don’t want their brokers trying to be more famous than they are. That’s why we’ve stayed under the radar, even though we’re selling the best properties in town.”
The Williams family had no qualms about opening Beverly Hills Estates in April 2020 in the midst of Covid. “I love tough markets,” Williams said. “We really built our brand and our reputation (during the Great Recession) when the market was really tough.”
Williams added that he wants to establish his own rules.
“(While I was still at Hilton & Hyland), I wanted to go to the office and they wouldn’t let anyone in the office (because of) Covid,” Williams said. “I was still out there showing properties, there were no cars on the streets, but I was still doing deals when the market was completely dead. I just didn’t want to be told we can’t come into the office, we can’t do this or that.
Major markets for Williams & Williams include Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Los Feliz, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Calabasas, Encino, Hidden Hills and Montecito.
“We’re done,” said Williams, who noted they achieved their success without outside help. “We grew organically. We have not taken the investors’ money. We put in all our own money.
As for their reasons for leaving Hilton & Hyland rather than staying with the respected brokerage, the couple said they could do more running their own office. One thing that makes the brokerage company part? In addition to being brokers, their offices are also home to a private members’ club with guest speakers appearing twice a month. Discoveryland CEO Michael Meldman, architect Paul McClean and interior designer Jamie Bush are among the industry names who have lectured at the Beverly Hills Estates headquarters, which even has its own barista.
“We wanted to give back to this amazing profession that has given us such a great life by really making it great and inspiring and opening up our Rolodex that took us 16 years to perfect,” said Romito Williams. “We wanted to pay homage to what this area really encompasses. We always say you enter this social club with an idea and leave with five.”
The brokerage now has 60 agents and 15 support staff.
Meanwhile, at Hilton & Hyland, the firm is preparing for the next chapter in its history. Weinberg said Hilton & Hyland isn’t ignoring all the competition it’s generated.
“We really wish them well,” Weinberg said. “We want them to succeed on their own and we hope they do. We don’t like to burn bridges, we want to build them.