Emmitt Smith: Cowboy, dancer, real estate tycoon (cont.)

By Roy S. Johnson, Fortune

A quick study

Smith typically arrives in his office just down the hall before 9 A.M., but he convinced Staubach long ago that he brings more than star power to the job. "He has the leadership skills to build a real business," Staubach says. "Someday he may come in here and say 'I'm buying you guys out.'"

Staubach says it was important to him that Smith be the majority owner of the entity, and not just because the venture would thus be able to bid for projects as a minority-owned enterprise. "We've got a wonderful country, but we have a disease that's cancer: It's discrimination. There are some positive things happening in business today for minorities, some real opportunities. But not enough. The idea of a minority-owned business was appealing to Emmitt, and it was especially appealing to me."

Smith's interest in real estate began during his days in Pop Warner football in Pensacola, when he sometimes stayed at the home of his coach the night before a game. The 3,500-square-foot house was no mansion, but it was enough to impress a young man who lived in a public housing project, the Courts, with his mother and four siblings.

The coach owned a small construction firm, and he began to teach Smith how to use drawing boards and read floor plans. Smith was enthralled by the thought of a profession that might let him move his family into a home similar to his coach's.

When he went to the University of Florida, Smith wanted to major in architecture. But as sometimes happens to student athletes, a university advisor persuaded him to sign up for a less rigorous major, public recreation, instead.

"It made sense at the time because it looked like I was going to leave after my junior year, and they said it was something that would be easier for me to come back and finish at a later time," says Smith. The future eight-time Pro Bowler did leave school after his third year, and was selected in the first round of the 1990 NFL draft. Six years later he obtained his degree.

Smith was pondering the endgame of his career while other young players were still discussing their next extravagant purchase. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who made his own fortune (estimated to be about $1 billion, give or take) in real estate, recalls Smith approaching him early during the player's career with a unique request: Could he observe Jones "doing business" in order to see how a successful entrepreneur conducted himself?

"During breaks in practice he'd sit on a couch in my office and just watch me talk on the phone," Jones recalls. "He was soaking it all up and figuring out ways he could put what he heard to work." Jones says Smith's request reminded him of, well, himself, when as a young man he traveled to the now defunct American Football League meetings and sat in the lobby in hopes he'd "brush into" Lamar Hunt, one of the league's founders (who died in December). "I was 23, 24 years old and was starting to think the opportunity to get into pro football had passed me by. But you've got to have the vision. More than any player I've had, Emmitt has always had a vision."

Smith recalls another encounter with Jones in which he wrote down a list of all the goals he wanted the owner to help him achieve. He handed the list to Jones and asked him to check the ones he thought were doable. "He looked at the list and checked every one," Smith recalls. "He said, 'We'll get to some of these now, and some of these later, but we'll get to all of them.' I'll always appreciate that."

Smith still walks with the swagger of a successful athlete. Yet he is fully aware that he's a rookie in this arena. Smith/Cypress's day-to-day operations are handled by Cypress Equities CEO Chris Maguire, who built the retail entity that now supports Smith with research, financing and economic projections.

Maguire confirms that Smith's value, even at this nascent stage of his new career, goes beyond a high recognition factor and popularity that opens doors. "He's a smart guy," Maguire says. "He has a sense for knowing when to push buttons and when to sit back. And when he speaks, he's like E.F. Hutton: People listen."

As he drives back to the office from lunch, Smith spies an empty retail "box" on a prominent corner. His eyes light up, as I'm sure they did when he saw an opening wedged by his offensive line. He likes its location, its visibility. And he has a client for whom it just might be perfect.

"My job," he says as he turns the corner, "is to work as hard as I can to maximize the gifts I've been blessed with, whether physical, mental or otherwise. I've worked hard to maximize my physical gifts - even on the dance floor. Now my focus is on maximizing my other gifts to the fullest possible extent."

Quickly, the big silver Hummer turns the corner and speeds away, its driver eager to get in the middle of yet another deal.

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