Lunch With D CEO: Emmitt Smith

The president and CEO of Emmitt Smith Enterprises is looking to score a Hall of Fame career in business.

Walking into Maguire’s Restaurant in North Dallas, there are whispers. They are hard to make out, except for a few words here and there: “Super Bowl” and “Cowboys” and, finally, “Emmitt.” That’s what it’s like to go anywhere with the most prolific running back in the history of professional football. That’s what it’s like when you’re having lunch with No. 22.

Soon we’re sitting in a corner, as shielded as possible from the stares and cellphone cameras. Aside from a few grey hairs in his goatee, Emmitt Smith looks just like he did when he was winning Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Except now he’s in business casual attire, carrying two oversized cellphones with him at all times. And he’s focusing the energy and intensity that went into training and playing for all those years into business. In the years since he retired, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was a commentator on both ESPN and the NFL Network, won “Dancing with the Stars,” wrote a book, and launched several businesses. Smith owns a construction company, a commercial real estate firm, and, with his wife, Pat, runs several local charities.

“It’s never an easy transition,” he tells me. “Especially when you go from making $10 million a year to making no money a year. You have to figure out how to manufacture a million dollars or two million dollars or whatever. And it’s hard to manufacture that kind of money unless you build a business and that business grows over time.”

Smith likes to tell people that business takes the same mentality he had playing football. “You’ve got to persevere,” he says. “You’ve got to have a vision, in terms of how you see yourself and how you see your company going. You’ve got to devise a game plan, an offensive game plan and defensive game plan. You’ve got to make half-time adjustments or in-game adjustments. When I look at the business playing field, I see a lot of things that make sense to me.”

He orders the maple-ginger salmon, served with steamed broccoli. But he’s excited to talk about business, so he’s slow to eat. The key element of success, he believes, is people. “Like it is in sports,” he says. “When you put great players around quality leadership, you can do a lot of good things.” One thing he’s realized about successful people: they are consistent over time. “They know what they want to do and they know how they want to go about doing it. They don’t fluctuate. They’re even-keel; never too high, never too low. And they maintain this sense of humility that I love.”

Smith’s day-to-day focus is commercial real estate. We don’t talk much about specific projects, but he makes it clear that he studies markets and trends the way he used to study game tapes. He’s learning how to interview people. He’s learning how to look past the résumés and see the character and work ethic. “People are your greatest liability, but they are also your greatest asset,” he says. “The biggest challenge is always human capital.”

Since he was in college, Smith has had people approaching him with business or investment ideas. The vast majority, he says, aren’t worth considering. He knows that with his name, his money, and his skills, he brings considerably more to the table than the average investor. “If you’re just coming to me for capital,” he says, “then you don’t really understand the asset that you’re talking to.”

Smith knows that 15 years in the NFL, then a slew of things he’s done off the field, have given him and his name a certain amount of credibility. He knows he can get in the door. He knows he will get into a room with the person he needs to talk to. From there, though, he says he has to work harder than most people to prove himself, and to prove that he’s more than a retired jersey number.

“When I call your secretary and come to meet you and bring my team, that costs money, and we are there to do business,” he says. “I don’t fly for photo-ops.”

After a few years as a full-time businessman, Smith has learned that a lot of guys in business do want to talk about football. They want to hear about the glory days, and sometimes they don’t respect the knowledge he’s acquired. And if someone thinks he’s just a famous name with no acumen—“well,” he says, “that’s when I have the advantage.”  

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