Emmitt Smith: Cowboy, dancer, real estate tycoon

Emmitt Smith has covered a lot of real estate on the football field and the dance floor. Now he's developing it, says Fortune's Roy Johnson.

By Roy S. Johnson, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- On a chilly winter day in Dallas, the most prolific running back in National Football League history is being tackled at every turn. As Emmitt Smith climbs into his silver Hummer and heads to lunch, a young woman pulls alongside, powers open her passenger-side window, and, with a syrupy Texas drawl, yells, "I'm soooo proud of you." Minutes later in the restaurant, women of all ages greet him like a favorite son, and men shake his hand with Texas pride.

But none of this adulation has a thing to do with the many highlights Smith produced as a member of the Dallas Cowboys during his 15-year, sure-to-be-Hall-of-Fame career. "You sure did do some dancin'!" bellows one barrel-chested fellow in the oil business. Smith flashes that familiar killer smile and thanks the man, just as he does every well-wisher. Finally sitting down, he can only shake his head. "This is nothing," he says. "The ballroom dancing crowd? They're out of control."

emmitt_smith.03.jpg
Even as a star running back for Dallas, Smith had an eye on a business career.
smith_dancing.03.jpg
The NFL rushing champ won "Dancing with the Stars," a reality TV show.
CAREER STATS
255
Smith's highest value to fantasy football players, during the 1995 season.
175
Touchdown balls Smith collected during his career. Many have been donated to charity.
27 million
Viewers for "Dancing With the Stars" finale.

Being celebrated more for tango than for touchdowns isn't exactly how Smith, 37, envisioned life after pro football. But that's what happens when you win one of television's most popular reality-show competitions, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." Smith tapped and twirled his way to the surprise victory last fall, which only broadened his circle of admirers. "No one expected me to be able to move around on the dance floor," Smith says proudly, "including my wife."

A new ambition

But if you run into Smith these days, don't ask him to dance. His sights are now set on his true post-career ambition, one he has held for many years: becoming a real estate tycoon.

In rushing for an NFL-record 18,355 yards with Dallas and the Arizona Cardinals, Smith covered a lot of real estate. He also invested in the sector, and he has profited by buying and selling properties in and around Dallas and his hometown, Pensacola, Fla., since he was a rookie.

Last year Smith made his first move toward becoming a developer. He teamed with another Cowboy legend, Roger Staubach, the founder and CEO of Staubach Co., to form Smith/Cypress Partners LP, a real estate development enterprise specializing in transforming underutilized parcels in densely populated areas into commercially viable properties anchored by national retail giants.

In his first deal, Smith helped the firm sign Mervyn's, a California-based department store chain, to anchor a $45 million, 230,000-square-foot project in Phoenix, where he last played for the Cardinals two seasons ago.

With access to $50 million in capital, Smith has several other projects in the works. He has a letter of intent to develop a 65-acre site in a densely populated yet underserved area near northwest Fort Worth (it was formerly a college operated by a Masonic lodge), and he's haggling over another potential project in southeast Fort Worth.

On one of the sites, Smith plans to build a complex with as much as 600,000 square feet of retail space, more than double the size of the Phoenix property. "There's a huge need for top-quality retail in these areas, and I understand how the deals are cut," Smith said before lunch. "I'm not an engineer. I'm not a contractor. And I'm still learning the jargon. But I understand deals, and the only way to grow is to be in the middle of the deals."

If you're thinking Smith is following the path laid by former NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, whose Magic Johnson Enterprises has built movie theaters, restaurants and Starbucks franchises in urban areas, you're partly correct. Smith aims for Johnson's entrepreneurial success but is not restricting his projects to the inner city. "I love what Magic's doing," Smith says. "He's inspired all athletes to pursue successful business careers. But I'm not confining myself to urban areas. If there are rural areas with economic potential, I'm right there."

Smith/Cypress is a joint venture (Smith owns 51 percent) with Cypress Equities, the retail development arm of Staubach's real estate services company. Early in his own playing career, Smith approached the former Cowboy quarterback with an interest in learning more about real estate. Skeptical at first, Staubach told Smith to spend some time at his company's offices during the spring and summer if he was sincere.

"I was 27 with three kids when I was a rookie," Staubach says, sitting in an office with nary a trinket that would tell you its inhabitant is an NFL icon. "My motivation to work during the off-season was to make sure that if I got hurt I could take care of my kids. Today's athletes make so much money they don't have to work. You've got to pay the price to get anything in life."

Smith did just that, spending the off-season at Staubach Co.'s headquarters in Dallas. Staubach founded the company almost 30 years ago to locate and negotiate office and retail space for clients. Last year the privately held firm had transactions totaling $26 billion and 835 million square feet of space.

Just over a decade ago, Staubach launched Cypress Equities because clients were also looking for build-to-suit and other development services. "We were leaving money on the table," Staubach says. Today Staubach Co. has offices in 65 cities around the world, many of them joint ventures with local owners.