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From Silicon to Steers

By Sarah Lacy A few years back, Roger and Cynthia Lang found themselves with a lot of money and even more free time. Roger's software company, Infinity Financial Technology, went public in 1996, and just two years later was acquired by SunGard Data Systems (SDS) for a reported $313 million, leaving them millionaires many times over.

Like stereotypical Californians, the Langs love the outdoors and are passionate about conservation. So, with all that cash, they decided to put their principles into practice. That same year, they bought ponytailed actor Steven Segal's ranch in Cameron, Mont., and set out to prove that raising cattle could go hand-in-hand with environmental ideals.

"RIGHT THING TO DO." Using some of their Silicon Valley business acumen, they also aim to make a pretty penny. "There are all kinds of conflict in the Western landscape," Roger says. "I don't know that resolving them is going to be the outcome of this experiment, but I can try. And I can make a difference at a local level."

Today the Langs preside over a miniature empire in the Treasure State. Sun Ranch is an 18,000-acre spread that raises grass-fed organic beef. Adjacent Papoose Creek Lodge is a luxury travel outpost, and their Madison Bend complex a mile down the road includes a general store and lower-price cabins.

On top of all that, the Langs have donated almost 7,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy of Montana and are doing several ecologically friendly side projects -- like building a hatchery for indigenous trout. "I don't think we'll make money on that, but I also think it's the right thing to do," Roger says. "Some of our projects are more philanthropic than business-related."

COWGIRL CUTICLES. Green Acres it's not, and Roger isn't exactly the Marlboro Man either. He doesn't wear a cowboy hat, chaps, or anything with a fringe, and he's uncomfortable on a horse. And like any effective CEO, he delegates much of the day-to-day activities to his ranch manager.

He's part of the local ranching group but is very upfront that he's a techie at heart. He even talks about his love of ranching in geekspeak. "I'm intrigued by finding sustainable equations," he says, describing how to reach compromise among ranchers, hunters, and environmentalists.

Cindy blends in a bit more. Unlike Roger, she's very comfortable in the saddle, and once she had settled into Montana, the longtime urbanite found herself dressing the part. She remembers picking up her sister at the airport the first time she visited. "I was driving a big pickup truck with filthy jeans and dirt under my nails," Cindy recalls. "She said, 'I never thought I'd see you like this!'"

WORK IN PROGRESS. It may be rare for tech CEOs to become ranchers, but it's not uncommon for "retired" entrepreneurs to find themselves running a company again. John Nesheim, who teaches entrepreneurship at Cornell University and is the author of High Tech Startup, likens that unquenchable entrepreneurial instinct to a young man who has just noticed girls for the first time and "is never the same again."

Most entrepreneurs are visionaries, Nesheim notes, and that quality doesn't go away simply because they cash out. "You can be at the opera, in the shower, or fishing, and -- Bing! Bing! Bing! -- ideas are popping into your head, and it doesn't seem to stop," he says.

For the Langs, the goal isn't to subsidize the Sun Ranch businesses, but to turn them into profitable, thriving operations -- and do so without compromising ecological standards. It's still a work in progress. The couple purchased the local general store two years ago and have made it profitable, Roger says. The 5-year-old Papoose Creek Lodge should break even this year or next.

And the ranch? It's adding a consulting division to pass on eco-friendly pointers. For example, instead of shooting wolves, his head rancher intimidates them by sleeping alongside the cattle.

The Langs are hoping the consulting takes off, otherwise, the ranch alone isn't likely to turn a profit. It's hard to make it as a rancher these days, and Sun Ranch is no exception. Margins are thin, tracking commodity prices has become essential, and most Montana ranches simply aren't big enough to make the economies of scale work. That's why you'll often hear spokespeople for conservation groups lamenting that much of the West is disappearing beneath subdivisions and resorts.

BRAZIL RETREAT. Lang has seen ranchers exacerbate this trend by borrowing money to run more cattle, in the hope of a big year, only to see themselves wiped out when prices crash.

Add to that the hidden costs of being eco-friendly. Because the Langs don't want to overgraze the land, they run fewer cattle than others might choose to do on the same acreage. And they have installed a pricey, collapsible fencing system that allows migrating elk to pass through their property. These are projects many other ranchers in the area couldn't afford to try, even if they wanted to, Roger says.

The sprawling Montana spread isn't the only project on the Langs' plate. In 2000, Roger founded Transaria, now a 50-employee business based about an hour away in Bozeman, Mont., that provides high-speed Internet access to rural communities. And once their 15-year-old son goes off to college, Cindy plans to set up a foundation for funding dance programs in California.

When they aren't in Silicon Valley or home on the range, the Langs escape to their vacation retreat in Brazil. "There are three very different Cindys," Cindy explains about her lifestyle. "The sophisticated California board member, the cowgirl, and the fun-loving, open-to-everything one in Brazil."

FAMILY VALUES. Lest they sound like superheroes, Cindy admits the many hobbies and business ventures come at a price. The two shuttle back and forth between Montana and California, where their primary home is located, making sure someone is there to drive the youngest son to school everyday. And when at the ranch or lodge, they work long days.

"My friends describe me as such a jet-setter," says Cindy. "But when I go to Montana, my day starts at six in the morning, and I don't come in until 11:30 at night. One of the challenges you face is definitely keeping a family together." As most entrepreneurs know, that's a whole different kind of conservation. Lacyis a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in the Silicon Valley bureau

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