Long Doan will never forget the night he fled his home and family in Vietnam and crossed the ocean in a crowded boat before landing on a Malaysian beach filled with strangers — and uncertainty.

As the other refugees slept, he found a quiet spot on the beach and the reality of the situation took hold. Just 13 at the time, he looked across the ocean toward the home and family he left behind and realized he might never see either again.

As the sun rose he made a decision: He was a "victor, not a victim." And he decided he'd help others avoid that same feeling of helplessness, especially those seeking home.

"I never wanted anyone to feel the way I felt that night," he said.

During more than three decades in the real estate business, Doan said he's been guided by that commitment. It's one of the reasons why after 15 years in the mortgage business and then several years focusing on bank-owned listings, he decided in 2009 to open Realty Group.

Today, the company is by at least one measure the largest independent brokerage in the state, according to RealTrends, which tracks real estate brokerages and trends across the country. It said that in 2020, Realty Group recorded 4,155 transaction sides (sales in which one of its agents represented the buyer or seller), making it the 74th-largest independent brokerage in the country.

And the company is expanding. Realty Group now has more than 600 agents and seven offices, including new offices in White Bear Lake and Woodbury. Doan said he's planning new offices in Rochester and St. Cloud and a national expansion that includes Florida and Arizona.

Unlike most traditional brokerages, Realty Group and other independents are typically locally owned and not affiliated with a franchise. And while those independents are growing quickly, Real Trends ranks Edina Realty as the top-ranking brokerage based on both total volume and transaction sides in the Twin Cities. Edina Realty is owned by Twin Cities-based HomeServices of America.

Steve Murray, founder and senior advisor of Real Trends, said Realty Group's expansion comes as independent brokerages across the country are quickly gaining market share as buyers, sellers and their agents embrace new ways of buying and selling homes, including technology that is constantly evolving.

"My view is that the whole marketplace for agents and teams is fragmenting," said Murray. "There's a brokerage for everybody's production level style and personal preference."

While most consumers might not know — or care — about the distinction between the various brokerage models, it matters a lot to the agents who work for them. Their access to marketing, education and technological support is critical. Compensation is also a factor. While standard agent commissions can vary depending on the region and brokerage, compensation to the broker varies dramatically depending on the business model.

Agents who work for traditional brokers typically share, or split, their commission in exchange for access to a full suite of ancillary services and support including office space, marketing, education and technology, and the power of a big regional or national brand.

Many independent brokers charge their agents a flat monthly fee, a transaction fee with the option to purchase other services a la carte. At Realty Group, agents pay a $100 monthly fee and a transaction fee, but they buy additional services as needed. That approach, Doan said, enables agents to operate as independently — or dependently — as they'd like.

According to Real Trends, independent brokerages now account for about one out of five transactions reported among the top 500 brokers in the country and they're growing quickly. Though the third-largest broker last year was an independent broker (eXp Realty in Bellingham, Wash.) HomeServices of America was the largest brokerage in the nation in 2020 based on transaction sides.

Murray said eXp and Compass, the top-two independents nationwide, have made it onto the list of the top-five brokerages in the nation within less than a decade after experiencing rapid growth.

"Agents now have more choices than ever from well-financed, well-capitalized companies," he said. "They say, 'What [model] fits me the best?'"

Realty Group co-owner, Mike Bernier, said the company tends to attract experienced agents who want to run their business independently and promote their own brand using whatever marketing tools they want, including a suite of options they can buy from the company.

"We didn't set out to brand ourselves too heavily," he said "We always want agents to be the brand."

Bernier worked with Doan when he specialized in bank-owned properties, and has partnered with Doan at Realty Group since 2014. Unlike Doan, Bernier had worked for several real estate companies.

"Every brokerage I was at had things that were good and bad," he said. "We took bits and pieces of all models and picked the parts we liked and threw out the rest."

Kris Lindahl Real Estate is considered an independent but it's structured as a very large and growing "team." That approach, founder Kris Lindahl said, enables agents to focus on the customer rather than having to promote their own brand.

Lindahl is known for his high-profile social media and billboard marketing campaigns that promote his name and his image.

"Our agents are associated with the most well-known person in the industry locally," he said.

It's an approach that's paid off, Lindahl said. Last year, according to Real Trends, KLRE was the largest real estate team in the Twin Cities last year and the 120th largest independent brokerage in the country. The company now has more than 400 agents with plans to expand beyond the metro and into other states. The company now has two offices, but Lindahl expects to have a dozen by the end of the year and is on pace to add 50 to 60 agents to his team every month.

Doan said the dizzying array of options for both agents and buyers and sellers alike is a sign of just how quickly the industry is changing. The pandemic, for example, was just another reminder that in the real estate business nothing lasts forever, he said. And his experience as a refugee has taught him to always embrace change.

"This business changes by the hours and the minutes and anything can go wrong," he said. "I am not only the true American dream, but owning a home is an American dream and I want to help people do a better job of it."