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The ‘Bloomberg’ of real estate: Collins building info empire

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of August 31, 2023)

Vero Beach native Clayton Collins – Glendale Elementary, St. Helen Catholic School, John Carroll High School – is building a real estate information juggernaut.

His goal: to create a one-stop shop for real estate professionals across the board, from brokers to builders, bankers, insurance agents and title agents as they make business decisions.

“We operate at the intersection of media and data to break through the silos and provide essential information to all the professionals involved in the ecosystem of single-family housing,” Collins told Vero Beach 32963.

“We want to bring them all together to share knowledge, digitally and in person at our events, the way Bloomberg has done with finance.”

Collins’ chief publication, HousingWire, which he bought in 2016 at age 31, already is “the nation’s most influential source of news and information covering the multitrillion-dollar U.S. housing and mortgage markets … reaching more than 3 million industry professionals each year,” according to the company website.

“I think what he is doing is groundbreaking,” said Rennie Gibb, a broker associate at John’s Island Real Estate who has known the Collins family since she and her parents, JI broker Bob Gibb and Wheatie Gibb, moved to Vero in 1989.

“He is breaking through the clutter of the real estate world to simplify the flow of information in its entirety to all of the professionals, giving them more complete and readily available resources.”

“He has been doing great things over the past five years and I think he has a bright future,” said Alex “AMAC” MacWilliam IV, a broker and manager at his family’s venerable island real estate firm, Alex MacWilliam, Inc.

MacWilliam subscribes to HousingWire and reads the content avidly, extracting the essentials to share with his 60 agents.

“Altos is my secret weapon,” MacWilliam said, referring to detailed, zip-code level subscription housing market data provided by Altos Research, a company Collins acquired in December under the umbrella of his operating company HW Media. “Whoever has the best data wins!”

The acquisition illustrates the kind of synergy Collins has in mind as he works with a worldwide team of 55 to create a comprehensive source of information for the single-family home industry.

Two years earlier, in December 2020, HW Media acquired Real Trends, a long-established real estate information, education and ranking company best known for its annual lists of the most successful real estate agents and brokerages in the U.S.

Besides increased brand awareness – everyone in real estate knows the Real Trends rankings and top agents compete to move up the lists – Collins gained “an incredibly large database of brokers” in the Real Trends deal.

That came in handy when he brought Altos into the HW Media fold, since the company sells data by subscription to – you guessed it – real estate brokers and other housing professionals.

Collins, 38, said the synergistic acquisitions “fed into subscriptions” to both Altos and HousingWire, which publishes online and in a variety of print formats.

“We still have a successful advertising business [like a traditional media company],” Collins said, “but we are building around data and subscriptions,” to HousingWire itself and to streams of information curated by cloud-based engineers that target specific housing professionals. The company also makes money from events.

“We run events for profit,” Collins said, adding that the big, annual events also are a huge part of “our brand development and networking.”

Besides producing revenue, the events help Collins and his team stay in close touch with the pulse of the industry, hearing firsthand about what is happening in markets across the country at the same time as they disseminate the latest real estate information to participants.

And these meetings aren’t rubber chicken affairs at a tired hotel by an airport. In June, 400 brokers showed up for HousingWire’s Gathering of Eagles at the luxe Omni Barton Creek Resort in Austin, and in October hundreds of mortgage professionals will gather for three days at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort on the banks of the Lower Colorado River near Austin, where rooms were booking on Monday for between $450 and $650.

“Next April, both events will be joined into one in Scottdale, bringing mortgage brokers and real estate brokers together,” Collins said. “It is a big bet we are making on the value of integrating the entire e-housing economy, bringing people face to face.”

Collins is a fourth-generation Vero Beach native, a great grandson of Alexander MacWilliam Sr., the landscape architect and World War I hero from Ohio who helped lay out Riomar country club and golf course and later served three times as Vero mayor for a total of 18 years between 1927 and 1951.

He grew up in West Meadow subdivision on 4th Street just west of 43rd Avenue, attending Glendale Elementary before moving on to Saint Helen Catholic School for his middle school years and then to John Carroll for high school.

When not in school, he like many Vero kids hung out by the water.

“I was really into boating and being on the river,” he said. “My grandfather and I rebuilt a 15-foot john boat with a Johnson 15 HP motor when I was 12 or 13 and I roamed the river in my little boat, fishing and wake surfing, mostly between Gifford Cut and St. Ed’s.”

His parents – Jenae Collins, who taught at Glendale and St. Helen for a total of about 30 years, and Clay Collins Sr., a well-known Vero Beach mortgage broker – “bought a center console later on that extended my range,” Collins added, noting that he loved taking the boat to riverside restaurants like Mr. Manatee’s for dinner.

Collins was thinking about Wake Forest for college but a recruiter from Elon University in North Carolina who came to John Carroll on a college night convinced him Elon was a better choice.

The small, picturesque school located in the piedmont between Greensboro and Durham has been named the best undergraduate teaching university in the country multiple times by U.S. News and World Report and Collins learned enough studying finance to land a job with Citigroup.

“I graduated in 2007, shading into the financial crisis, which wasn’t all bad for me. Banks were looking for junior talent that was young and cheap [after laying off more expensive executives] and a lot of us did well during that period.”

Collins rotated through different parts of Citi’s business during management training and ended up managing a retail branch bank in Manhattan in 2009 in the darkest days of the Great Recession at age 23, which he called a career defining experience.

After three years with Citi, he went back to school, earning an MBA at Duke Fuqua Business School, which recently was ranked No. 11 in country, right behind Stanford, University of Chicago and the Ivys.

“After getting my MBA, I joined the Royal Bank of Canada in mergers and acquisitions,” Collins said.

“I fell in with some bankers who were doing media deals and I loved the advisory side but wanted to get into the operational side. I was fascinated by people who were doing things.”

In 2014, he left Royal Bank of Canada and founded Riomar Capital, a company name that was “a nod to my great grandfather Alexander MacWilliam. I always admired his path to come down and help develop the club and become mayor and be an important town leader.”

In 2016, with the backing of his investors, he bought HousingWire, then a fairly traditional media company, and moved to Dallas to take the helm.

“The only person I knew in town was Rennie Gibb, who was a friend of my sister’s,” Collin said. “She was nice enough to show us around town.”

Gibb, who was working in Dallas as an advertising executive at the time, said Collins was “young and freshly married, very driven and excited to get things started.”

HW Media and HousingWire thrived under Collins’ leadership, growing with the pandemic boom market.

“Our employee count has doubled in the past couple of years,” Collins said, “and I have learned to manage a geographically distributed global team. Real Trends is in Denver, Altos is out of San Francisco and most of our reporters are in New York.” Other employees are in London and India.

“I wanted to be focused on something that is a big part of the global economy,” Collins said. “And housing is an ecosystem on par with healthcare and international trade.”

Collins’ father attributes his son’s success to his personality and temperament as much as a high-octane education and business savvy.

“He is an extrovert and very likable. He listens and people realize he listens. He is very comfortable with meetings and podcasts and makes lots of good friends in the industry. It is amazing the information he gets from all the people he speaks to. He talks to people I only dream of talking to. He was a nice kid and has grown up to be a nice young man.”

Gibb, too, mentioned how “personable” Collins was when she knew him in Dallas.

But the ambition and drive are there, too, tangible when talking with Collins about his business.

“He will keep making acquisitions and adding things,” said Clay Collins Sr. “He is always looking at how tech can make things faster and easier for people in our industry.”

“It is a great success story with Clayton,” said Alex “AMAC” MacWilliams IV, who is Collins’ second cousin. “My guess is more good things are coming.”