Q&A: Dave Liniger, co-founder, RE/MAX, on work ethic and leadership

A powerful CEO for four decades, Dave Liniger woke up partially paralyzed one day. He talks about whether being dependent affected his leadership and what led to his success.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor on

In 1973, a Midwestern farm boy from Marion, Indiana, had an idea that transformed the real estate industry.

Dave Liniger looked at the way real estate agents made money and thought, “There’s got to be a better way.”

At that time, real estate brokerage companies split commissions with their agents on a 50/50 basis. The agent used their 50 percent for income and personal expenses. The company used their 50 percent for advertising, administration, office rent and to make a profit.

“I thought, why not organize offices like a group of doctors, lawyers, and architects? They share in the expenses of running a business and keep most of the profit for themselves,” Liniger says. The company RE/MAX was born, and by 1983, the entire industry was paying 70/30 or 80/20 commission splits.

I sat down with Liniger to talk about what it takes to run a game-changing business and his new book My Next Steps: An Extraordinary Journey of Healing and Hope.

When you started RE/MAX you experienced a lot of backlash from industry leaders. What made you persevere? What made you believe your model could be successful?

I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I’ve never been the smartest or the most handsome. But I’ve always been able to outwork anybody.

I grew up on a farm with a good work ethic. I understood what it was like to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and work until after dark. The consistency of sticking with a business plan over many years instead of just trying something for two or three months and giving up saved us.

We started in Colorado. If you look at our first year, we had 21 agents. The second year doubled to 42. The third doubled to 84. The fourth we didn’t make our goals but we got to 134. The next we got to 289. In five years we became the number one real estate organization in the state of Colorado. It wasn’t an overnight success. It was recruiting, opening offices, and training -- the same thing any other company does to be successful.

Let’s talk about your new book My Next Step. It’s been a year and three months since your battle with this illness. Tell me about the night you woke up to realize you were paralyzed from the neck down.

I was on a work-related trip. When I woke up I was looking at my legs and they wouldn’t move. I had some movement in my right arm so I sent a text to three of my friends that said, “Hey, when you get up can you come to my room. I think I may need to go to the hospital.”

My body had gone into septic shock. When I got back to Denver and went to the hospital my organs started to fail rapidly. It was a few days before they could figure out what it was: MRSA, a very nasty staph infection.

Basically, I went to sleep in the hospital and woke up four months later.

You were in a coma state for four months?

After the first eight weeks I started fading in and out. When I could speak, I asked the doctor, “What’s my thinking ability?” He said, “It’s about that of a kindergarten student.” A few weeks later I asked again and he said, “We have you up to about a high school level.” I said, “Doc, don’t go feeling too proud. That’s all I got!”

When did you go back to work and what was your impression walking back in? Did you feel like a different person?

I started going back to the office in October 2012. I was still in my wheelchair. By November I was using double crutches. By the end of Christmas I was using a cane. I’ve got about 300 people in my headquarters and they watched my progression.

Everybody asks me what was your eureka moment? What did you learn about yourself? What did you regret that you hadn’t done? It doesn’t make for a very good book, but basically, there wasn’t one. I lived the life I wanted to live before I got hurt. I drove racecars. I had a small jet that I did aerobatics and military maneuvers in. I hunted, fished and camped. I built several companies. I have a wonderful relationship with my kids. I’ve got people in my headquarters that have worked with me for 35 years or more. Power, prestige, money, that’s the world! I really had no bucket list.

Hearing your story, I was struck by your experiences of vulnerability. There’s this conventional outlook within corporate culture: to be successful you need a certain kind of aggression, extrovertedness, and competitive nature.  I wondered if going through this -- having to give up your control -- gave you insight into your professional approach?

It’s a good question. You know, I never minded helping other people. My wife was injured in a plane crash and suffers from paralysis. I’ve been a caregiver for 29 years. I never regretted anything. Never said anything bad about it.

Then all of a sudden I’m totally dependent. For eight weeks I was on drugs and unconscious. My bed was a toilet and people had to clean me. I couldn’t eat, they had a feeding tube down to my stomach, I couldn’t breath, so they had a ventilator down my throat.

When I regained consciousness, I was still paralyzed. They had to hand feed me. I couldn’t brush my own teeth. I couldn’t shave. Rachel, it’s very humiliating. To go from being this powerful figure who can do anything to not being able to do anything yourself. You accept it because you don’t have any choice.

Did it change me as an individual? Well, the biggest thing is, I didn’t resent it. I’ve helped people and now that people have helped me, I know what it’s like.

I don’t think it changed my management style. That evolved with maturity and age and experience. I was kind of young and dictatorial. I went through 40 years of making mistakes, of learning and watching, of being coached and mentored. If you’re going to be phenomenally successful, you make a natural evolutionary change. I made that change before I got hurt.

Throughout this evolution, how has your managerial style changed?

It’s changed dramatically. I was [a] ‘typical man’ when I was in my 20s. I was so sure of myself. “Here’s the orders and let’s get it done.” Over 40 years I morphed to what is characterized as today’s women’s leadership. It’s more inclusive. You ask everybody their opinion. You manage from consensus instead of just being a dictator. That’s a 40-year evolution.

How did you come to these realizations?

You start seeing what works. I have 40 years of education, not just on-the-job experience. I took every course I could: American Management Association, professional designations, leadership courses and seminars.

As I matured, I started giving up more responsibilities. When you start a business you’re the chef, cook, bottle washer and janitor. You have more time than money. You do it all yourself even if it’s 18-hour days. But what the heck do I know about bookkeeping?  If you’re a successful entrepreneur the money starts to come in and you hire talent that’s better than yourself.

Has this conversation led you to something you might want to add?

I wrote the book because I didn’t want to waste a year of my life. But more than that, when I tried to find people to talk to or experiences to relate to I didn’t find anything that made me feel others were going through the same struggle.

You go through this process and you think, “How could this possibly help someone else?” I’ve now received dozens and dozens of letters about how the book has affected other people. Everyday there are tens of thousands of people whose lives have changed. You band together and have a shared experience of recovery.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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