David Liniger: Co-Founder & Chairman of RE/MAX

Episode 376

David Liniger, Co-Founder & Chairman of RE/MAX, might not have known he would build a global company that sells more real estate than anyone in the world, but he was determined to make it happen. Hear what this entrepreneur did to create the leading franchisor of real estate offices throughout the world, all his stories and lessons along the way plus what he sees in the future of real estate. You don’t want to miss this episode for sure! Now on #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am so excited to have my next guest here we have David liniger, who is the co founder and chairman of a brand that I know you have heard of called RE max and a fascinating, fascinating story. As you know, on the Kara Goldin show, we speak with founders and disruptors, entrepreneurs and authors with all the stories and learnings that you are most interested in from super inspiring people. And I have to tell you, I did not know the backstory of REMAX. And I am obsessed now with the story because there are so many different things that Dave did. And along the way that was just so so incredible. So as I mentioned, he is the co founder and chairman he was the CEO up until recently and decided to pass the reins after many, many years, which he’ll talk about that but REMAX for those who might not be that familiar with it is a global real estate company franchise that he co founded with his wife, Gail, and REMAX is the leading franchisor of real estate offices throughout the world and has expanded to more than 8000 offices in over 100 countries with over 125,000 plus sales agents. He retired as a CEO and 20 tene. And he continues to lead the company as chairman or lead the board as chairman, I should say. And nobody in the world sells more real estate than REMAX. I’m excited to hear all about his journey. And I’m certain there will be plenty of learnings and lessons that David can share. So welcome, David.

David Liniger 2:30
Thank you Kara.

Kara Goldin 2:31
So great to have you here. And as I mentioned, your story is just absolutely incredible. It was the 70s when the early 70s When you were a real estate agent, and Denver and I’d love to kind of hear the backstory of how you decided to start your incredible company, ReMax.

David Liniger 2:55
The real estate industry in the 60s and 70s was far different than it is today. Especially in the 60s, it was vast majority of the people were men, white, white hair, and older. The industry does not pay salaries or advances. So the ideal person to start in the business was somebody that had retired had been in military civil service a teacher, and now they were too young to quit working and not enough retirement money. And so that worked. In the early 70s. The the baby boom generation had started becoming married, having children and getting divorce. And so women started flooding into the real estate industry. Unfortunately, the old line companies are almost always on percent white male, and they did not like the thought of a woman coming in. They call them part time housewives or whatever and they felt that they would not be serious. So when we started REMAX the commission split for everybody was 5050 and the brokerage got half the agent got half the agent used theirs to pay their living expenses. An automobile insurance, entertainment, the profit. The company used it to pay for salaries, assistant secretaries, rent signs and advertising. Turnover was tremendous. Nine out of every 10 REMAX I’m sorry, nine out of 10 real estate agents fail the first year. They have to learn the business and just getting a license doesn’t teach them the business. It teaches them the legal aspect of the business. They have to learn property appraisal, they have learned how to sell how to find prospects, how to close deals, how to get a mortgage. And so it’s a very difficult job coming in with no salary. And so the vast majority of the people just give up. And so the turnover in the companies is pretty significant. And those that do succeed, get tired of only getting half the commission. And they think it can’t cost that much to go out and start a one or two person company. And at that time, it was not much at all, three or 400 square feet, an answering machine, Secretary, a few ads, and you’re making almost old mission, we decided to take on the industry. And we want to run our office, like a co op of doctors, lawyers, architects, dentists, that would pay their pro rata share of running the business, though, but keep most of the fees for themselves. And so it was less expensive than going into business by yourself. And you had other people around you that share the overhead. And so quite controversial, professional company said, Oh, that’s rented desk, it’ll never work. You’re not going to train you’re not going to supervise. That was incorrect. We ran just like any other well managed company. We had additional problems getting started. The industry not only hated us, our investors backed out, we went into the first oil embargo in 1973, first recession, and we were having a double time convincing agents to come to work for us. Everybody would say, this sounds great. I’m gonna wait and see if it works. If it does, I’ll join you. Well, if nobody joins you and everybody waits, you can’t get started. Our pattern of growth. The first month, I got calls from 1000 people 10% of them told me they’re gonna put me out of business. I was a crook goes rent a desk I was this or that? Oh 900 were interested agents and said, How’s this really work? I did 204 face to face interviews. And I signed up for interesting to note, three of the four were women. They were experienced, they tried to go to work for the two biggest companies in town that did not hire women, and did not hire women for almost eight or nine years after that. So as we struggled, made every mistake you could make. We managed to hang on. First year 21 agents doubled to 42. The next double daily for the next 130/4, the fourth and 289, the fifth at 289 agents. We had number one market share highest earnings per agent, highest number of listings highest number sales, our agents were taking home, approximately 80 to 82% of their commission, after all their expenses. So significant. The most interesting aspect was over 70% of our sales force was multicultural or female. Wow. That year, we declared we were number one. In the sixth year, we had 200 men from the all male top two companies in town that left those companies and joined the merry band of ladies that had kicked their butts.

Kara Goldin 8:24
That’s awesome. Now what’s this just in terms of territory? Where were you focused on?

David Liniger 8:30
It was Colorado to begin with? We saw one franchise in Kansas City in 1975. Two and 76. One I’m in Calgary, Washington, Washington, DC, in December of 76. The eight managers that work for Gail and I in the stores that we own came to us at Christmas time and said you want a franchise. We want to own our own offices, sell us our offices. And I said well, we spent a fortune. I can’t just give them to you. I can’t sell them to you for a franchise fee. And they said we just need time to pay it. Well. We’ll make money. We’re all making money right now. And they did give us the cashflow we needed and 77 We sold 30 Major master franchises and 100 franchises and the rest was history. Wow. That’s

Kara Goldin 9:24
That’s amazing. Where did you get the idea for a franchise? Was anybody doing this in the real estate industry?

David Liniger 9:31
Yeah, in 1966 red carpet was the first franchise that was out of Walnut Creek, California. They eventually went out of business, but in 72 and 73 century 21 era, and a couple of dozen others started franchising. Within two or three years, three public companies came in which Sears bought Coldwell Banker and changed it Residential Prudential came in. And Merrill Lynch came in by 1978. At the National realtor convention trade show, there were 178, so called national real estate chains. Some had one office, cardboard box, Xerox page to give you about the company. People like see 21, they bought 20, booths spent a half million dollars on the furnishings. And they were a go getter. The fascinating aspect was all franchise salesmen were walking around and saying, in five years, five or six companies, we have 80% of the market, join ours, because we’re going to be there. That never could happen. Interestingly, enough, of those 178 companies, there’s only seven of us still round. And the rest of them came in when, and we didn’t get 80% of the market. But at this point, we have nearly 60% of the market combined.

Kara Goldin 11:03
So interesting. So obviously, you’re really different, and how you how your company what it was made up of right in terms of not only that demographics, but do you believe like that, that’s sort of how the word of mouth started in terms from the, you know, the consumer how they were thinking about using you. I mean, did do you believe that that kind of got the word out about the people that worked for your company really got the word out about it initially, or

David Liniger 11:33
yes, because we couldn’t hire beginners. You had to pay $500,000 a month to be with us. And then you got your commissions when you made some commissions. So we had only full time people, we have people that are very serious. And the within five years, we were selling twice the number of properties of the rest of the average realtors in the country, we were earning three times as much. And we had three times the experience. And so we started building a reputation on the basis of quality, full time people, no part timers, no beginners, very experienced people. I think right now the average experience levels 16 years. And many of our people have over 50 years experience. And so that was a defining competitive advantage that we had.

Kara Goldin 12:30
It’s interesting in the in the 70s, when you started I, I always talk about my my dad had started a brand within a large company, a brand called Healthy Choice. So he was a frustrated entrepreneur, though working inside of a large company, initially armour food company, but which soon became they got acquired by ConAgra. But actually being an entrepreneur in the 70s was not necessarily something that you wanted to brag about. I feel like did you did you think about yourself as an entrepreneur? Or how did you? At what point did you say you’re an entrepreneur, because obviously, you were in real estate, and you’re a realtor, but I mean, clearly what you’ve done to disrupt a market is is very entrepreneurial.

David Liniger 13:20
I probably didn’t even know the meaning of entrepreneur. I just knew I wanted to own my own brand. I had a cause. And that was improved the life of the real estate agents make sure they made more money. When they pay their own bill, they make their own decisions. In the company where the company pays the bills. If you want to advertise a property twice a week, the boss has to tell you, Okay, if you want to charge a 5% commission, instead of a 6%, Commission, the company has to say, okay, it doesn’t matter if it’s your mother, or it’s your own personal price, or bought property you’re buying. And the company always want their name and big letters on the sign. They want the jerseys on a local writer that says call Dave. And so by giving the permission to the agent to make all the decisions for themselves. It gave them the ultimate in entrepreneurial values. They paid their own way. They made their own decisions. And that was actually a bigger drawing point for many of them than was the higher Commission’s that they were making.

Kara Goldin 14:30
So interesting. So where did the name REMAX come from?

David Liniger 14:34
No, I wanted to call it Dave liniger Realty. And that sounded to to small hometown stuff. Exxon had just changed their name. And I read an article on it. We didn’t have the money for ad agencies or anything. My investors and myself were Vietnam veterans. So we came up with the red white and blue sign. We were going to call it Real Estate maximums, maximum service for the customer, no beginners are part timers, maximum recruiting ability for the broker and maximum earnings for the agent. We shorten that down to our E max. And then we were afraid somebody to think there was a Mr. or Mrs. Or emacs took out the periods, threw in a slice like Exxon had done. And we came up with REMAX.

Kara Goldin 15:23
I love it. That’s great. So you started REMAX with with your wife, Gail or Gail was working with the company it wasn’t I wasn’t sure on the story. Exactly. I’d love to hear from you.

David Liniger 15:38
She had just gotten married. And her husband was with the median F company in St. Louis. And so she was a trailing spouse, she had worked in a management position for Ralston Purina. So she thought she would get a startup job for maybe six months or a year, I interviewed 27 people to be an administrative vice president for the company. I did not have a formal education. And I needed somebody that can figure out how do you lease space? How do you buy the furniture? How do you hire secretaries, administrators, bookkeepers, how do you set up contracts and systems. And of course, she had all those abilities. I said no to the first 27. And she was 28. I knew within five minutes of interviewing her that I think she could run my companies on day. So I sold that I sold I sold took a 50% pay cut. As she came on board, we struggled through the startup phases, skipped her paychecks, made sure the agents got paid, fought the battles. Finally, one day she told me with unbelievable number of bills and short term debt, and said, Dave, you’re excellent at recruiting and sales management. You’re trying to be the person negotiating with creditors, and trying to run the company. Let me run the company, I’ll handle the creditors, and we’re never gonna get out of this hole. If you can’t go out and recruit hundreds of agents. She took all the responsibility. So by the 10th year, we were at 3000 agents. And she was president of the company by that time. Within a year or so she was CEO. I was traveling over 200 to 250 days a year for setting up offices all over the United States that eventually starting an ad in Canada than after that honored in some countries. So we needed a professional manager to run it. I never really gave a damn about what’s I called a CEO or founder, chairman of the board. And so, unfortunately, we were supposed to be married. All my officers got divorced. The first year or two that we started the company, we fell in love with building this magical dream. And when you go from one agent to 1000s in an audience, that’s what he got. It’s almost adrenaline rush. So Gail and I had started dating around the 10th year that we were together. And then we had set a wedding date had not told anybody and we flew to Canada for a Canadian conference. She went for a ride and seaplane the franchisee crashed it killed himself put her in the hospital for a year traumatic brain injury, lots of broken bones. And the other two passengers were badly hurt to so she came out and had to go through traumatic brain injury rehab, basically spinal injury. And then she came back to work. And she stayed as CEO probably for another 10 years that one of my other first employees of the first year became CEO. Then eight years later, he retired. And we had one other woman had been with us for 20 some years. And she had done a great job. She became a CEO. And then when we went public, she became very wealthy. She had been with us 28 years. And so she resigned. And I took over as CEO for the first five years as a public company.

Kara Goldin 19:43
Wow, incredible. Well, one of the things that I was reading about back in the very early days that you were $300,000 in debt investors had backed out. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who listen to this podcast who have had that kind The situation really scary, right? When you are depending on cash flow coming in? What would you say to that? I mean, you, you obviously were just relentless and figuring it out. I think that the best entrepreneurs, that’s what they do they, they figure it out. So when you think back on that time, what would you say about that,

David Liniger 20:25
we actually went all the way down to over 600,000. But by the third year, we’d started making a profit. And we were able to show we are paying down our debt. And every week or every month, she would give the report to the creditors. And we paid them all off, by the way, within the first four years, many of them were suppliers to us, that became suppliers to the whole network, and many of them became multimillionaires, just off the REMAX brand. So they stuck with us, kept us alive. We kept communicating with them tell you, it’s humiliating to be broke, it’s humiliating to have your power turned off, or your phone’s turned off. And you have to have the persistence, the stick to itiveness. And I guaranteed every person I talked to, I will not file bankruptcy, I will not quit, I will pay every single dime we own. And we did. And so I think one of the things you have to understand about leadership, and mine was on the job training. Unfortunately, I got leadership in the military. That’s quite a bit different from leadership in a business, all great leaders so hope, period. And that’s a common attribute. If it’s politics, you can look at Obama, his slogan was hope. Hillary slogan was get stronger with Hillary. That’s not selling hope. While Reagan was make America great, Donald Trump, make America great again. If you look at religion, Jesus Christ, he was selling hope. And many of the people were very broken, destitute, and were living in poverty. And they saw hope, maybe there’s going to be life after death and a better life. If you look at somebody, a genius like Martin Luther King, he was very nonviolent, he was selling hope, to an entire population in the United States. He wasn’t just selling hope, to black people, or people of color, or to women, because many of his followers were liberal people. And they believed in equal rights. And that on the marches, you have the 20 30% of the marches are white, so true. And so they had the hope that they too, could live side by side, and have a better life together. Yeah. So if you’re an entrepreneur, of use your water company, you are selling the hope that this is better than just pure water.

Kara Goldin 23:16
Definitely. So and showing people and rolling up their sleeves. And I think that that’s another aspect of leading to you can’t just, you can’t just sell the hope you actually have to show them how, and I think that you’re such a great, inspiring entrepreneur that definitely has has done that. So you expanded outside of the US and to Canada and across the world. Thinking back, was there any super difficult parts about that? I know that, you know, the the desire to go big and and no matter what industry you’re in, is, is a big one. But it’s always, you know, should you shouldn’t you I mean, any thoughts there? What was kind of the hardest part of doing that?

David Liniger 24:05
The problem we had was we sold throughout the United States, based on the success of Colorado. And the comment was, if I could build a company like that when I was 26 or 27 years old, think what you could do in Chicago, or Atlanta or Dallas. But every place we went to, we encountered the same thing. We’re different. In Colorado, you’re a bunch of Colorado, Yahoo’s you’re cowboys. Here we were a coat and tie. Here in Georgia, we’re very Genteel. We would never recruit agents from other brokers agents we get along too well. Once we moved from there, we went to Quebec and they said, you can even speak French and then state by state, country by country and everybody was different. When we went to Europe, there were a couple of countries that are and none of them had multiple listing services. None of them had boards of Realtors, none of them had trade associations. And we would go in and tell them, Yes, but those things were possible. Look what we have. And little by little, it succeeded everyplace. And people would say, we’re in a communist country, we’re in a socialist country, we’re, we’re in a dictatorship. We only charge 2% Commission in our country. It will never work here. Yeah. And yet, we didn’t sell commission concept. We sold a leadership concept. And the leadership concept was, if you can create the best possible environment, for somebody to be as successful as they want to be, they will work for you. And cheer. You can go over the world. People’s colors are different, the religions are different, governments are different. All these things are different. But succeeds, because human beings have many commonalities. We all would like to make more money. We’d like to be able to provide for our children, and our elder care better than we currently do. We would like to have more independence. Everybody wants love and respect. And everybody wants to raise their family in their home to their religious and moral values that have been established and their country’s culture over however long it’s been. They don’t want America to come in and say, look at America do it our way. What we’re able to say is, it worked in the United States, it worked in Canada, we had a buyer for South Africa. And we told them we would not buy as long as apartheid was in the day, apartheid ended. It was a couple of white people. They came in and said, we’re ready to buy, we sold to them. Within nine to 10 years, they were the leading real estate company in the country. And 70% of their company, at that time was black. And so all of a sudden, you started to see that this worked for everybody.

Kara Goldin 27:24
You know, you touched on the fact that you were definitely selling hope, right to too many, but you were also leading an industry and whenever you lead and do things differently, your dream franchises throughout the world, right, your online listings, MLS all of this. It’s different. And you probably had doubters who were saying, Oh, that guy Dave doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He lives in Colorado, and he has no idea. We’re just different. And and what would you say, is probably the most difficult part like, how did you think about that? I mean, did you ever feel like maybe they’re right, or or not

David Liniger 28:08
worked. I said people’s lives change. Let me use Argentina as an example. We had a young couple that bought Argentina from us. Gail and I flew down there to set them up. And we helped them sell their first few franchises. We went back a couple years later, and they had 30 franchises. And the average number of agents was two to two and a half. And I emphasize to them, you have to have 1520 30 people offices. I proved it. And they said we’re different. Nobody has more than five agents in an office. And that was the third year and a Argentinian citizen that had lived in Miami, and worked for REMAX flew down and bought a franchise. And in four months, he had 40 agents working for him. A year later, those 30 brokers almost all had gone from one or two agents to 30 or 40 agents. They wouldn’t believe me because I was an American. But they believe what that Argentinian did in their country, bringing his knowledge to the people. And so a lot of times the discouraging thing is you can prove beyond a doubt that it works. But they still doubt.

Kara Goldin 29:35
And how long do you ask them to? To trust you? I guess and and see if it works. Is it a year? I mean, have you ever had to give them like some kind of timeline along the way.

David Liniger 29:47
We have quotas in our contracts and we insist that they stick to them. We’re not going to kick them out of the company if they’re encountering a lot of resistance. Argentinians are still Fighting 12 years later with their association of realtors who don’t like our business practices, because they want to keep every agent under their thumb. And so you set to persevere. I think one of the most important tenants, I always said that we succeeded because of the quality of our agents, quality of our leaders quality of repair company. I’ve really decided in the last 10 years, it was true quality of agents. When Darwin had his theory of evolution, he’s been quoted as saying, the strongest of the species survives. That’s a misquote. He never said that. And so if you look at the strongest, the dinosaurs were the strongest, they’re dead. The mosquito is still around 500 million years later, what he said was the most adaptable of the species survives. And what we had to do in REMAX was adapt, we had to adapt to the fact that nobody would join us had to adapt to the fact that we had a lot of bills and bill collectors. Once we started moving, we had to adapt everything else. We’ve lived through nine presidencies, two or three are outright crooks, two or three are stupid, two or three word rates, we made money in every one of those presidencies. We’re in our eighth recession. And we made money and every recession, including the worst one in 2008, and including in the current one. And so you have to adapt to the circumstances, when they tried to end inflation. That was back in 2000, maybe 2001, or 2000 2002, yep, the SNL is collapsed, they changed the home rate on an FHA, VA, to 16 and a half percent a year before it was seven. We had to adapt, we would go to sellers and tell them, you can’t get this thing sold, you got to have an assumable loan. And you’re gonna have to carry a big second for two or three years, until the interest rates come back down, and they can refinance and give you the rest of the cash. But we sold and then that’s what happens. You, you look at the circumstances, and you’ve got to change, you got to embrace change.

Kara Goldin 32:29
So today, we have all kinds of financial craziness, obviously with Silicon Valley Bank and and sort of leading the efforts of in the news over the last few weeks. How does this affect the real estate market? As you see it,

David Liniger 32:46
it mostly affects the newer people to the industry. The first year or two, you’re trying to learn the business, you’re not going to most people are not going to set the world on fire. And you’re trying to find customers, you don’t really know what you’re doing. But people have been around for 1015 years, you’ve learned the business, you understand mortgages, appraisals, you’ve seen good markets, you’ve seen bad markets, the most important of all, if you’ve been around a while you have referrals. You ever meet customers, do you have people that said, Go to Dave, he gives excellent service, et cetera. And once you have the referral base, and the repeat business, then you don’t have to struggle to get new business as much. And so in the United States, it’s basically 8020 rule 20% of the realtors are doing 80% of the sales. And you literally NAR has theoretically 1,000,005 people in the business. There’s another million not in the National Association of Realtors. In reality, the average top producer is doing 13 to 20 deals a year. And the average non top producer is doing less than one deal a year. And they’re just literally hundreds of 1000s of part time licenses sitting on the wall. And they’re just waiting. Maybe the mother has to sell their house someday. And so it’s the lack of barriers to entry. And as the lack of professionalism. The good people figure it out.

Kara Goldin 34:24
Yeah, I definitely agree. So you’ve seen a ton. You’ve grown an incredible company, you’ve helped a lot of people grow their own wealth over the years and find homes and I mean so many different angles, that you should be very, very proud of what’s the best advice that you’ve ever received. If you’re sitting there as a new entrepreneur, you’re thinking, Okay, how do I do what Dave did and what’s kind of the best advice that you can and maybe think of that people have told you or Or also, what would you give to those new entrepreneurs out there?

David Liniger 35:07
Easy. Early on in my career, I became fairly wealthy. And I owned all the toys, boats, Skylar’s ski resort, airplanes, sports cars, etc. And I had a t shirt, my friends made up for me with a lot of my toys. And it says, He who dies with the most toys wins. Maybe 2025 years later, I matured to the point. And it came up with he who dies with the most memories wins, because I now had a lifetime of memories of all kinds of different businesses, and accomplishments. Then finally, as I aged, they gave me another t shirt, and said, He who dies with the most friends is the richest. And what has happened to me is the stick to itiveness. And the ability to adapt. And never quitting means that I still have affected the lives of 10s of 1000s of people. And at the 50th anniversary, I had a five minute ovation when I started my presentation. When Gail came out, she had a five minute ovation, 10,000 people insight, we received letters constantly, that people passed away, people retired. And when they retire, we get these letters, you’ve changed my life. That was your company, 20 years. Wealthy, I respect you. Thanks for making my life better. Thanks for my family. And I think maybe that’s what entrepreneurs really have to understand is you do affect the lives, you’re the leader. And if you lead positively, and you grow your skills, nobody’s born with them. And you’re gonna make a lot of mistakes, just don’t make the same one twice. And when you start being able to prove to people, how much you care. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. And so what is the relationship you have, as the mentor to all these people that you bring in, people are going to turn over. And I think right now we have 150,000 people and REMAX plus 50,000 support people. If you look back 50 years, we were the youngest people in the company, the first five years, and so many of our people have passed on. Many have died. This company was not built by David Gail liniger. Were footnote. We are lucky enough to be the first to and we couldn’t be fired. This company was built by 500,000. top producers and among them left companies joined ours retired passed away. This this conquest, it was 500,000 people that built this concept.

Kara Goldin 38:29
Absolutely incredible. Well Dave, thank you so much for all of your wisdom and inspiration. And we’ll have all the info for you and REMAX and everything else in the show notes. But appreciate you and appreciate all you’ve done and your time this morning. Thank you.

David Liniger 38:49
Thank you, Kara.

Kara Goldin 38:50
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