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Ex-CEO worked 3 jobs to buy a small fixer-upper house—flipping it launched a $265.2 million real estate empire

One of the world’s largest real estate companies started out as a side hustle.

Today, Denver-based Re/Max operates in more than 110 countries, and has a market value of $265.2 million [CAD note to self: update here and heds before pubbing]. But it began with a single, small house-flip in the late 1960s, co-founder and chairman Dave Liniger tells CNBC Make It.

At the time, Liniger was a U.S. Air Force enlisted airman and Indiana University dropout, based near Tucson, Arizona, looking for ways to supplement his $99 per month military salary.

In the early mornings, starting at 2 a.m., he had a newspaper route, he says. “In the evenings, I worked in a gasoline station — nobody had self-service at the time — and then I also worked in a movie theater,” Liniger, 77, adds. “Between the three part-time jobs, and the $99 I got from the service, I got up to $500 [each month]. And that wasn’t terrible.”

By living frugally, he saved enough to buy a small, “very inexpensive” fixer-upper home. He spent six months restoring it, and flipped it for a $5,000 profit, he says. Quickly, he wanted to do it again.

“The hook was set,” Liniger says. “I figured, working as hard as I did at four jobs, to make $5,000 on a six-month project was just the cat’s meow.”

He reinvested his profits, and spent the next few years buying and restoring fixer-upper homes to flip. Then, he acquired a real estate license to save money on commissions, and discovered he had some talent as a broker.

Liniger left the military in 1971, moved to Denver and worked for other real estate brokerages before co-founding Re/Max with his soon-to-be wife, Gail. They took on $300,000 of debt to hire employees and get it off the ground, but within five years, it was the largest real estate company in Colorado, Liniger says.

He served as CEO for nearly 45 years before stepping down in 2018, and is now chairman of Re/Max’s board of directors. Here are his top four leadership lessons, learned over the course of his long career.

Sell other people on your optimism

Surround yourself with positive influences

Associate yourself with people who share your goals, including the desire to succeed, Liniger advises. He cites motivational speaker Jim Rohn, who coined the phrase: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Research from as far back as the 1990s shows that who you associate with can influence your future success. Other successful executives, like Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, agree.

The two billionaires’ friendship taught Gates that friends have the power to “bring out the best in you,” Gates told students at Columbia University in 2017.

Buffett echoed the same concept in an interview with CNBC four years later: “It’s better to associate with people who are better than you are.”

Supplement your weaknesses

“I’m not an organized person,” says Liniger, adding that his desk is often a mess. “So, I hire talent that is much better than me at organizational skills.”

When you start a business, you typically need to fill a lot of roles within the company, simply because you don’t have the resources to bring in more specialized employees.

“Once you can make some profit, then you can hire somebody that’s better than you to do jobs that you don’t want to do, or that you don’t do well,” Liniger says. “Hire other people that have strengths you do not have to supplement the strengths that you’ve got.”

Liniger learned the same lesson through extra-curricular activities, like flying and jumping out of planes, competing in NASCAR races, and attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a helium balloon in 1998. He calls driving a racecar “an all-out team effort to try to win,” where the driver relies heavily on the skills of crew chiefs, mechanics and spotters to succeed.

“On the around-the-world balloon thing, I had 1,600 people who were volunteers on my project for three years,” he says. “These were people from NASA Johnson Space Center, U.S. Space Command … an unbelievable team of brilliant, brilliant people, all much smarter than me.”

Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes

“You just can’t get down on yourself for mistakes,” Liniger says.

He’s specifically referring to what he calls “the only blemish” on his reputation as Re/Max CEO. In 2018, an internal investigation found that he’d violated company policy by handing out a nearly $2.4 million personal loan to his eventual CEO successor, Adam Contos, without properly disclosing it.

“Adam had been with me for 15 years, he was my CEO successor,” Liniger says. “He and his wife found the perfect house. And I said, ‘You don’t need to go to the bank and borrow the money. I’ll give you a bridge loan … You’re good for it.'”

Liniger says others at the company were aware of the loan, and they’d discussed it openly at work, but it was a mistake to not properly disclose the transaction. He regrets that the incident resulted in headlines making it seem “like we’d done something crooked,” he says.

He wanted to make sure the mistake wouldn’t tarnish his record — decades of success and a strong reputation as an executive — in his own mind, he notes.

“The people that know me, know me. The people that don’t know me, I don’t care about,” says Liniger. “But we’re all going to make mistakes … Forgive yourself, because nobody’s perfect.”

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