Dave Liniger is the co-founder and chairman of RE/MAX, the Denver-based global real estate company franchise that he co-founded with his wife Gail in 1973. RE/MAX is the leading franchisor of real estate offices throughout the world and has expanded to more than 8,000 offices in over 100 countries, with 125,000+ sales agents. Liniger is highly respected internationally for his vast knowledge of the real estate and franchising industries. He retired as the CEO in 2018 but continues to lead the company as chairman of the board.
Russ Alan Prince: You and your wife, Gail Liniger, co-founded one of the world’s largest real estate franchises, RE/MAX. What are three traits couples looking to build a business together should have?
Dave Liniger: There are many qualities and traits to look for in your life partner, but if you are considering running a business together, the three most important characteristics that were successful for my wife and me throughout our RE/MAX expansion were: mutual respect of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, patience, and balance.
Mutual respect means learning how to best complement each other, not being jealous of each other’s abilities, and helping each other become better versions of ourselves. Patience means understanding that everyone moves at different speeds. Your partner may be slower or more introspective than you and you need to know how to handle it. By the same token, your partner must be patient with you. Balance means the same things that work for some people may not necessarily work for you.
My wife and I got really good at figuring out our strengths as a pair. For example, if you’re great at giving speeches, then don’t spend your time learning to become a great typist. It’s a far better use of your time to continue developing your strengths than trying to develop your weaknesses.
Our experience was unique. In the very beginning stages of RE/MAX, Gail and I were not together yet. I was looking for a VP of administration—someone who could do business and be the brains of the operation. I had entrepreneurial ambition and smarts, but I lacked a formal college education. In my search, I came across an exceptional woman, who knew what she was doing and had the right qualifications to help me with my plan; little did we know we would be together for the rest of our lives.
Looking back now at the success of RE/MAX, it was quite a journey. She ran the operations, handled hiring, managed locations regarding furnishing, and equipped the offices with technologies. I traveled nearly 250 days a year selling franchises worldwide, training agents, speaking publicly, running marketing campaigns and focusing on growing the business. We were the perfect dynamic, a true power team, and after working together for a few years, we fell in love.
Our marriage never affected the business. It empowered it. Once we entered the ’80s and ’90s, business was booming. Sometimes 1+1 is more than 2 if you have complementary skills, and Gail and I sure had a bucket full of talents. I credit our massive success to our synergy and our undeniable ambition and grit.
Prince: There’s a saying, “Don’t mix family and business.” How and why did this not pertain to you and your wife? What made your approach succeed?
Liniger: I’ve seen many business partners divorce within the first five years of involving their spouses in their work. It doesn’t pan out for everyone. Gail and I first worked together and built 10 years of mutual respect before we became family. So in our case, we first learned we worked well together and then fell in love. We’ve found that love and romance are magic; you win together. But for any relationship to succeed—marriage, business, friendships—there must be a give and take.
One key point in building an empire together was never assuming dominant or traditional gender roles. In our time, the man was usually the head of the house, and the woman was the homemaker, but that wasn’t the case for us. Gail and I divided responsibilities; we always saw each other as equal partners, kept our egos aside, and ran the business while running a family of four children. When our kids got older, we gave them menial tasks in the company, but I never intended to have them take over positions where my VPs had been working for 20 years to build the company. We wanted a close-knit family, but we never wanted to approach the family business in a dynasty way.
Prince: Real estate was predominantly run by white males in the early 1960s and ’70s, but in 1978, five years after you and your wife launched RE/MAX about 70% of agents were women and people of color. What steps did RE/MAX take to encourage diversity in real estate?
Liniger: The irony is that we never had a set initiative to encourage diversity in real estate. It happened organically. I never understood prejudice against anyone. I came from the military world, and our perspective was that it didn’t matter where you’re from, your ethnicity, your status or your background; you simply fought together to make it back home.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, our competitors were indeed run by prominently white males, so we had the advantage of employing half of the population of talented individuals other companies refused to consider. It worked in our favor, actually. We never hired based on color, gender or sexual preference. We hired based on talent and ambition, and that’s why we saw so much success globally. More than half of our directors were women, which is still true today.
Prince: What advice would you give young business leaders looking to establish a franchise?
Liniger: I love to see the new generations’ inventions and contributions to the business industry, particularly in franchising. Over the past 50 years, franchising has evolved into one of the world’s most dynamic, transformative business strategies. However, franchising is a very complex business.
On the surface, it seems simple: create concepts and authorize others to imitate. But on average, about 80% of franchisors fail. I recently launched a course at the University of Denver called Franchise Business Model Mastery for this very reason to break down how to approach a franchise model to maximize your chances of success. For example, McDonald’s franchises always work because they have it so systemized, it’s nearly impossible for one to fail. They’ve invested billions of dollars in advertising, perfecting their formula and replicating their model worldwide.
My advice is to proceed with caution. Study, do your research and truly examine every step. Understand the manual, technology, trademarks, training programs, management systems, products and services, advertising and marketing, federal and state regulations, and anything else the franchise entails. It is also imperative to understand the financial investment. In regulations alone, it will cost more than $100,000, and the profit doesn’t come immediately. Lastly, do not go in thinking you can handle it alone. Seek franchising experts that are trusted advisors to show you the way. It takes a strong team to make a franchise work.
Russ Alan Prince is the executive director of Private Wealth magazine and chief content officer for High-Net-Worth Genius. He consults with family offices, the wealthy, fast-tracking entrepreneurs and select professionals.