The roots behind this week’s sale of the region’s most successful real estate firm, Houlihan Lawrence, traces back 129 years to New York City where William Lawrence ran a successful pharmaceutical business.
Since then, Houlihan Lawrence’s reach extended to Bronxville, where Lawrence started his real estate investment company, Greenwich and the entire Hudson Valley in New York. It finally touched down in Nebraska, the home of billionaire Warren Buffett. The business magnate owns Home Services of America, Inc., which purchased Houlihan Lawrence on Tuesday.
Buffett made his motive clear in a story published last year in Fortune. “I don’t see a nationwide bubble in real estate right now,’’ Buffett said. In 2015, Buffett’s company purchased another real estate powerhouse, Allie Beth Allman & Associates of Dallas. While Buffett divested other holdings, he has made clear his affinity for real estate and has gobbled up companies all over the U.S.
Buffett might be the new real estate tycoon in the United States, but Lawrence held that role in Bronxville when he launched the business. Lawrence established Lawrence Investments in 1888 in Bronxville, which was the forerunner to the real estate empire. He also founded Lawrence Hospital and Sarah Lawrence College.
He was the driving force behind Lawrence Park, a 20-acre parcel in Bronxville with some of the most architecturally and historically significant homes in the region. The Park is primarily residential,and attracted as residents many prominent artists and writers when it was first established. The Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and homes in the area are still among the most exclusive and priciest in Westchester.
The Houlihan Lawrence office at 4 Valley Road in Bronxville is the firm’s original headquarters and is the gatehouse to Lawrence Park and its predecessor, Prescott Farm.
The Lawrence family continued to hold the real estate firm until 1990 when it was purchased by Peter Bailey Seaman and his wife, Nancy. Peter died in 1994 and Nancy, a Greenwich resident, has spearheaded the company since along with her brothers, Stephen and Chris Meyers, who is also a resident of Greenwich.
When Peter and Nancy purchased Houlihan Lawrence, the business had no longer been profitable, according to a New York Times story in 1998. But by 1997, HL topped $1 billion in sales for the first time and its market share in Westchester and Putnam Counties was twice that of the next two leading realtors, according to the story.
In a 1995 New York Times story , Nancy said the company’s growth was a direct result of the groundwork laid out by Peter before he died of a brain tumor. Volume increased from $400 million in 1993 to $900 million in 1994. “Peter had a three-year plan that had been completed," she said in The Times story. "He restructured the company and turned it into a profit center. So when the economy improved we had all our ducks in a row and could take advantage of it."
Houlihan Lawrence expanded its influence cautiously under Nancy Seaman and her brothers. In the 1998 New York Times story, she even said the firm was uninterested in expanding into Connecticut. In the past two years, it has opened offices in Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien.
“What I look for are traits compatible with our own mode of operating,’’ Seaman said in that story. “And geography is very important. We tend to stick to familiar territory. I'm not interested in expanding into Connecticut or New Jersey. My favorite boast is that we're big enough to know every town, yet small enough to know every house in town.''
Nancy continued to lead the company until earlier this week. Now married to Alan Schwartz, executive chairman of Guggenheim Partners and the former chief executive of Bear Stearns, she said she will now focus on her philanthropy work for children’s advocacy. She will also continue to serve on the Board of HELP USA, which benefits veterans and victims of domestic abuse.
“If not for my departure, you wouldn’t know there was a change in ownership,” Seaman said when the sale was announced. “I truly love and believe in this company, and am confident this decision guarantees Houlihan Lawrence as we know it — and the extraordinary culture we’ve built over the past 125 years — will be around for the next 125 years.”
Houlihan Lawrence’s reach now extends into Dutchess, Putnam, Orange and Ulster, along with Westchester and Fairfield. It has 30 offices, approximately 600 agents and sold $6.7 billion in 2016.
Houlihan Lawrence is also one of the most progressive real estate companies in terms of technology as well, and has been at the forefront in using social media and online resources.
The Meyers brothers will continue to lead the company. Interestingly, Houlihan Lawrence will be competing against Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in New York and Connecticut, another real estate company owned by Buffett.
Buffett also moved into New York City earlier this month with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New York Properties.
From its beginnings in Bronxville 129 years ago, Houlihan Lawrence has had a huge influence on the real estate market. Under its new owner, it’s a sure thing the company figures to be a key player for decades to come.