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Meet the Man Leading Ebby Halliday Companies

Chris Kelly came aboard after Warren Buffett's HomeServices of America bought the residential real estate firm for $100 million in 2018.
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Chris Kelly, CEO and President of Ebby Halliday companies
Sean Berry

Why you need to know him: Because Chris Kelly is driving the growth of North Dallas residential real estate powerhouse Ebby Halliday Companies. After decades of being run by the late founder Ebby Halliday and her trusty sidekick Mary Frances Burleson, outsider Kelly uprooted his Kansas City life last October to take the reins of the iconic firm. The move followed Warren Buffett’s HomeServices of America’s rumored $100 million acquisition of the company, which operates the Ebby Halliday Realtors, Dave Perry-Miller Real Estate, and Williams Trew Real Estate brands. A year later, Kelly jokes that when his wife asks about his day, he responds, “Well, we didn’t burn it down today.”

Growing up in the Kansas City area, Kelly opted to attend Kansas State University, and began his undergraduate studies focused on architecture. But during his first semester, the self-proclaimed people person says he decided to change paths after realizing his future would be less about human interactions and more about lonely nights in the studio. His mother’s punchy words, “You like to argue so much, you should really be a lawyer,” persuaded Kelly to switch majors and, after graduating with an English degree, he went on to study law.

Kelly spent about seven years with a law firm in Kansas City before a trip to Cabo with his sister and her colleagues at ReeceNichols Real Estate led to an in-house position there. He served as corporate legal counsel and chief administrative officer at ReeceNichols, a HomeServices affiliate, before moving to the parent as senior counsel. In that role, he oversaw HomeServices’ technology initiatives and firm acquisitions, including Ebby Halliday Companies.

Kelly points to the insights he gained working with the team that acquired the company and the “good fortune” of being mentored by Jerry Reece–the Ebby Halliday of his hometown. But, walking into the firm as a newcomer tasked with making necessary changes to drive growth was still incredibly intimidating, he says. “I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t ever putting myself in a position of trying to be compared to the people that preceded me in the role.”

“I needed to be able to stand on my own and honor what they did and build upon that,” Kelly explains. “I think what I really zoomed in on was when I started thinking about Ebby herself. She got into real estate when it was very male-dominated. Everything she did was to advance and change the industry. If we took the attitude that we shouldn’t change, that we should just kind of rest on who we are right now, that would be a disservice to her legacy. Because she didn’t get into real estate to keep things the same. She shook it up. She changed it.”

“If we took the attitude that we shouldn’t change, we should just rest on who we are right now, that would be a disservice to Ebby’s legacy.”

When tasked with accelerating the growth of the largest real estate operation in the state, Kelly says he approached it in the same way that one might build a race car. “You have to focus on the engine first, and then you get to the racing stripes,” he says. 

What that meant for his first year on the job was getting to know the company’s employees and agents, making necessary hires to flatten out the leadership hierarchy, and focusing on technology improvements like new market analytics prospecting products and a flashy new website, which is expected to roll out early next year. “Now, we get to paint the racing stripes,” Kelly says. “A lot of that is going to be focused on growing our brands beyond the current footprint we serve.”

Ebby Halliday Companies claims a market share of 9 to 10 percent. Kelly aims to get it above 10 percent next year, a goal he says is very doable, as long as the company expands services to reach new people in the communities served. Beyond partnering with a London-based firm to cater to international clients, Kelly says he is drawing circles around local communities that surround Dallas-Fort Worth. “Beyond that, it would be communities outside of that area where our folks have ties to,” he says, like college towns and weekend living locales.

The driving force behind targeting communities outside of the current footprint is the growing wave of people working remotely. “As people are having more freedom to choose where they want to live, we want to be able to follow them to those new areas.”

Growing Ebby’s market share will also require diversifying the clients the company serves–and a staff that represents the broader community. Less concerned with industry disruptors catering to the iBuyers, Kelly says part of the company’s growth efforts—entering 15 to 20 new markets over the next two to five years–veer toward expanding brand awareness to be more reflective and inclusive of the diverse makeup of North Texas. “We want to make sure that we are expanding the opportunity for all members of our communities to live that American dream of being able to buy or sell a house.” 

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