The Dallas Cowboys: America’s Team, five-time Super Bowl champions, breeding ground for real estate honchos.
Emmitt Smith, following in the footsteps of fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame member Roger Staubach, is planning a nationwide expansion for his Dallas-based property-services firm, which isn’t even a year old. The former Cowboys running back and top executives from his company spent several days in New York last month meeting with potential local clients and developing a “draft board” of prospects to head up an office in the city to serve New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Smith is one of a growing number of former professional athletes pursuing second acts in commercial real estate. They include ex-Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn, former tennis champion Andre Agassi, one-time New York Jets wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, ex-Los Angeles Laker Shaquille OâNeal and Basketball Hall of Fame member Magic Johnson, who parlayed his property-investment success into a stake in the Dodgers baseball team.
“We have a chance to raise the bar,” Smith, 45, said in an interview late last month at a Flatiron District hotel bar. “I know New York is pretty much a homegrown city, and I’ve heard it’s hard to penetrate this market. But at the same time, I just say is all we look for is an opportunity, and we want to be part of the family.”
Smith said the New York market is lacking what his firm, E Smith Realty Partners, specializes in: highly personalized attention and a non-corporate approach to corporate clients, be they small or Fortune 100-sized. One of the reasons, Smith said, is the departure of his mentor’s firm, Staubach & Co., which specialized in representing tenants. Staubach’s company was acquired in 2008 by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. (JLL:US), the second-biggest publicly traded commercial-property brokerage.
“We don’t necessarily chase rent rolls -- we like relationships,” Smith said. “We pay a lot more attention to the service aspect of what we do.”
Through a Jones Lang LaSalle spokeswoman, Staubach -- now executive chairman for the Americas at the brokerage -- declined to comment on E Smith Realty.
Given that the firm was established only last August, a move into New York might be seen as daring, like a running back throwing a pass. Smith, for the record, threw just one pass in his pro career, in his last year, 2004, as an Arizona Cardinal. He completed it for a 21-yard touchdown.
He’s better known for his 18,355 lifetime rushing yards, a National Football League record; 175 touchdowns, placing him behind only Jerry Rice in NFL history; and helping take the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories. The franchise was called “America’s Team” in a highlight film for its 1978 season, and the nickname stuck.
In New York, Smith said he’s looking for someone who shares his team philosophy while bringing instant credibility and a lot of clients to the firm. Recent developments -- including the acquisition of the market’s biggest tenants-only brokerage, Studley Inc., by London-based Savills Plc (SVS) -- are signs that Smith’s timing is right, he and his colleagues said.
“Any time there’s change and major consolidations and acquisitions, I think it’s good for us,” said Brant Landry, E Smith Realty’s president and chief operating officer. “Change always causes your employees to re-evaluate what’s going on.”
While “going national is quite a trick, and coming into New York is really hard,” there are probably opportunities in the city for Smith and his colleagues, said Barry Hersh, associate professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
“The nature of the beast is if people work really hard and are competitive, it’s a pretty low barrier to entry,” Hersh said. “You need an office, you need some licensed people. And it sounds like they have some clients who want to be in New York and they can represent.”
Commercial real estate leasing in New York is dominated by four companies: CBRE Group Inc. (CBG:US), the world’s largest property-services firm; Newmark Grubb Knight Frank; Cushman & Wakefield Inc. and Jones Lang LaSalle. As of June 30, they represented almost 40 percent of New York’s office space, according to Washington-based researcher CoStar Group Inc. (CSGP:US)
Of the top 50 Manhattan office leases of 2013, the big four represented tenants on 39 of them, according to a CoStar list published by Crain’s New York Business. The next tier includes Cassidy Turley and Colliers International, Hersh said. Brokerages that have entered the market more recently include Houston-based Transwestern and Canadian brokerage Avison Young.
In a promotional video for E Smith Realty, the announcer seeks to differentiate the firm from its competitors: “The world of commercial real estate brokerage is broken. It’s an industry dominated by a few large firms that has devolved into a me-first-and-fee-first environment.”
E Smith is seeking a leading New York office broker who can bring the company “instant credibility,” said Landry, who isn’t related to the late Cowboys coach Tom Landry. The company won’t rule out retail or industrial brokers, he said.
In its 11 months of operation, E Smith has built up a clientele that includes United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS:US), Bon-Ton Stores Inc. (BONT:US), Houston-based air-conditioning firm Goodman Distribution Inc. and Oak Brook, Illinois-based retail chain Ace Hardware Corp. Smith declined to disclose any financial information about the company, where his title is chairman.
E Smith also plans to open offices in Houston and Austin, Texas, later this year, Landry said. The firm plans to expand into an average of two major markets a year, which Smith calls “controlled growth.”
Smith started in real estate while his football career was winding down. Upon Smith’s retirement, Staubach -- a Cowboys quarterback from 1969 to 1979 -- took him on at his company, where Smith helped guide commercial-development projects. There he met Landry and Dallas broker Sharon Morrison, now E Smith Realty’s chief executive officer. Smith’s Staubach & Co. experience led to the 2005 formation of Smith/Cypress Partners, a development firm in which he and Staubach were partners.
That same year, Smith went independent, forming a company called ESmith Legacy Inc., which remains his vehicle for real estate development and investment. It has developed mixed-use properties in Dallas, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Smith is “smart, and he’s putting good people around him,” Staubach said in a December article in D CEO magazine, which covers the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “I think he’ll be a superstar in the business.”
Staubach is “the legend,” Smith said. “He had a major role in inspiring what we do.”
(An earlier version of this story corrected the location of Transwestern's headquarters.)
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