The Final Frontier

In the deadly race to circle the globe in a balloon, team Re/Max plans to rise above the crowd. But can a bold ego go where no man has gone before?

But is it logical to include a novice balloonist on such a daring flight? Other members of the team say that Liniger brings more to the mission than simply cash and enthusiasm, including his considerable organizational skills.

"Certainly, it's a very forbidding place to go," says co-pilot Bob Martin. "There are mistakes you can make there that are immediately fatal. But Dave is a quick study in technical issues. He already knows navigation, meteorology, principles of flight--with just a few flights, he'll be very proficient in ballooning. I have absolute confidence that he's going to understand the workings of that balloon just as well as John and I."

The potential rewards of the project are as formidable as the risks. Anheuser-Busch has offered a $1 million prize to the balloon team that first makes it around the world, half of which must be donated to charity, but that's chump change compared to the value of the worldwide media attention Re/Max stands to reap from a successful flight. And, of course, the first pilot or pilots to circle the world will have gained a place in the aviation record books, right up there with the Wright brothers and Lucky Lindy.

But in Liniger's case, it would be a mistake to regard the flight as a mere exercise in canny sponsorship or a bid for fame. Behind the bravado is the kind of executive grit, the drive to be first in everything, that used to figure large in the annals of corporate America but now is rarely mentioned. Liniger's resolve and hunger for achievement, his towering confidence in his own instincts, and his ability to assemble the resources to make something happen are the same qualities that have made his real-estate franchising scheme a much-studied success story. Those closest to him in his company say that the chairman's announcement that he was going to send himself into the stratosphere didn't surprise them at all.

"For those of us who know him, it wasn't that startling," says Daryl Jesperson, president of Re/Max International, who's worked with Liniger for 25 years. "Dave's a real adventurous guy. He's not the kind of person who will sit and read a book on a beach. You'd get tired following him around for two days."

Jesperson says his boss has a love of big projects--the more challenging, the better. "When he gets an interest in something," he says, "he totally immerses himself in it. Dave never undertakes anything unless he can put everything he's got into it."

If flying around the world in a balloon was as easy as a round of golf, then Dave Liniger would have nothing to worry about. Still, how Liniger became a golf nut--and wound up as the proprietor of the most exclusive golf course in the country--says something about his approach to the Team Re/Max flight, too.

Unlike most other corporate honchos, Liniger came late to the links. It wasn't until he and his wife, Gail, the co-founder of Re/Max, moved into their dream house in Castle Pines a few years ago that Liniger began to notice the duffers on the course next door.

"I thought golf was for sissies," he recalls. "I walk a lot to try to lose a little weight, and I kept watching these fools banging this ball around."

Finally he decided to try his hand at it, just to see what the fuss was about. After nine holes he was hooked. Learning the game, he says, was "the toughest thing I've ever done." He loaded up on books and videos, laboring to improve his stroke. Over time he shaved his handicap and regularly breaks 100. And from that first day, he says, he never stopped thinking about a piece of property he'd previously tried to buy in Douglas County for his Arabian horse operations--an unspoiled parcel of 220 acres surrounded by thousands of acres of open space, park land and a private wildlife sanctuary. That land, he told himself, would make one hell of a golf course.

After years of effort and an investment of millions, Liniger got the land and the course of his dreams, called Sanctuary. Designed by local architect Jim Engh, the highly private course features waterfalls, massive pines and jaw-dropping views of the Front Range, but it has none of the moneymaking features one might expect--no adjacent subdivisions and no country-clubbers other than Dave and Gail Liniger. The Linigers open Sanctuary to only a handful of charity tournaments each year; naturally, the owners can play through any time they want. Last year Golf Digest named Sanctuary the best new private course in the country, and Liniger plans to keep it that way.

"I'm never going to put houses on it," he says. Although he's thought about selling memberships, he says he'll probably price them high--around $200,000 a pop--in order to keep the numbers down and preserve fast play. Besides, Dave Liniger, the garrulous leader who cheerleads at conventions attended by thousands of Re/Max agents, the marketing whiz who motivates legions to go out there and clobber the competition, is a guy who likes his privacy.

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