Brothers Steven, left, and Hans Wydler, outside a home listed for sale under the Wydler Brothers Real Estate company. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Reporter

Hans Wydler's life-changing event was when he awoke on a stretcher while being pulled from a derailed Amtrak train near Philadelphia more than two years ago.

Eight passengers died, and more than 200 were injured. Wydler suffered a concussion that lasted six months.

"It scared the crap out of me," the 51-year-old businessman said. "When you have an experience like that, you examine where you are. You look at your life."

Wydler quit his job selling residential real estate for Long & Foster and started his own company with his brother. The goal was to exert greater control over his life. Spend more time with his wife and two children.

"I really wanted to change a couple of things," Wydler said.

When he told me this, I thought back to something my resident adviser told me in college. We all eventually get knocked by a crisis. It could come as a health scare. Death of a loved one. Divorce. You get fired. Maybe it's just a miraculous moment like Wydler's.


Emergency workers and Amtrak personnel inspect a derailed Amtrak train outside Philadelphia on May 13, 2015. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Wydler's epiphany included a determination to make enough money to be independent.

"Making money was never my goal in life," he said, reflecting on his motivation. "But I never wanted to be in the position of making critical family decisions without having sufficient resources."

He also knew from family experience and education that the best way to get there is owning stuff. Stock. Real estate. Patents. A business.

So Wydler and his brother Steven formed a boutique real estate brokerage two years ago.

Wydler Brothers Real Estate, with offices in McLean and Chevy Chase, sold more than $400 million in Washington-area luxury homes last year.

The firm employs 70, including 18 full-timers. The rest are mostly real estate agents.

Here is the business by the numbers: The $400 million in homes sold in 2017 by everyone at Wydler Brothers results in $10 million or $11 million in commissions to the company and its agents.

Real estate agents take about 75 percent of that $10 million-plus in commissions. Wydler Brothers LLC takes the rest. That's about $2.5 million. After expenses — labor, rent, insurance, technology, you name it — Wydler Brothers LLC will net around $500,000 for 2017. Hans and Steven split most of that.

But the Wydlers aren't just owners. They are salesman, too. The brothers will have sold about $100 million in homes, or about 25 percent of sales, during the year.

Between the sales and ownership of the business — and income from personal real estate investments — I estimated the brothers each earn about $1 million a year.

That's great money. But how does that free up Hans to spend more time with his family?

It doesn't. Not yet, anyway.

The Wydlers' plan is to eventually raise that $400 million a year in sales to $2 billion a year. Do the math, and the brothers might earn high six figures — each — from the business alone, without having to get out and sell homes.

I could live on that.

"We want to be the next Wes Foster," Hans said, referring to his former boss and mentor. Foster is a presence in Washington real estate circles, having built one of the largest independent real estate brokerages in the country.

"My brother and I want our sales to be a smaller and smaller percentage of the company," he said.

After speaking with Hans, it's no surprise the brothers are in business. They grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Manhattan.

Both their mother and father worked from home. Their German-born dad was a lawyer who advised business clients on taxes. Their 77-year-old mom is a former schoolteacher who runs a successful business selling imported flower pots.

"We just assumed we would work for ourselves," Hans said.

It wasn't all easy street. The family struggled occasionally, but they did well enough so that the brothers got great educations. Hans attended Andover, Yale (where he was co-president of the Yale Daily News) and Harvard Business School. Steven went to Dartmouth and Vanderbilt University Law School.

After graduating from Harvard in 1993, Hans worked for The Washington Post for three years and helped launch the newspaper's digital arm.

He worked at three Internet start-ups through the 1990s. All of them failed, including his own online picture-framing business.

By 2000, Wydler was in his mid-30s with a wife and his first child. Along the way, he had bought a condominium in Manhattan for $270,000 that doubled to $560,000 in five years, turning a nice profit for him. He used the money to buy a small D.C. apartment building in Dupont Circle. (It's worth about $2 million.)

"I saved more money with that condominium than I had saved all those years for all those start-ups," he said.

As he delved deeper into the real estate business, he was surprised by the number of agents who were unhelpful about simple things involving the properties, such as renovation costs, trash pickup and utility connections.

He got his real estate license toward the end of 2000 and starting selling within days as an agent for Long & Foster. His specialty was offering advice to break through the clutter in the highly competitive real estate industry, where 1.2 million Realtors are chasing 5 million annual transactions.

Wydler's outgoing personality and his willingness to simply ask people for their business made him a natural fit for real estate sales.

As he put it: "You have to have a natural ability to be a connector, the person who livens up a room and whom people are attracted to and will trust."

He made $140,000 selling $7 million worth of homes that first year and was named rookie of the year in Long & Foster's Bethesda office. His brother left a job as an attorney to join him the second year.

The Washington real estate market is one of the nation's richest, and the Wydlers found themselves in a sweet spot; their average home sale price is about $800,000, catering to the working affluent.

As Long & Foster agents, the brothers were able to build up a reliable stable of contacts throughout the region that filled the pipeline. They sold for Long & Foster for 15 years, amassing hundreds of sales of homes and high, six-figure incomes.

In May 2015, Wydler's close high school friend called to tell Hans that his father had died.

Wydler drove to Baltimore-Washington International Marshal Airport to pick up the Amtrak Northeast Regional train bound for New York City so he could attend the services for his friend's dad.

As he boarded the crowded train, he headed to the cafe car to take a nap.

The next thing he knew, he was staring at some firemen from a stretcher as they hauled him through a window of the overturned cafe car.

Wydler Brothers Real Estate opened for business the following January.