Back in the mid-1990s, Emmitt Smith began to think about life after football. A star running back for the Dallas Cowboys, Smith always knew he loved the game. Now it was time to discover another passion. He spoke with former pro athletes about what they were doing, how they had achieved success 2.0. One player had gotten into commercial real estate out east. “He broke down the development business for me, and how it translated into dollars,” Smith says. “He was making some significant capital—more than he ever did in football.”

At the same time, Smith was approached by Cypress Equities, the retail development arm of The Staubach Co., about investing in some of its funds, which he did. A few years later, it was time to really get serious; Smith gave “The Legend” a call. That’s his name for Roger Staubach, the former Cowboys quarterback who parlayed football fame—and a lot of hard work—into what would become the largest tenant representation firm in the country. 

Smith had interned at The Staubach Co. during the off-season, with the goal of learning the business and proving to others that he was serious about it. “Seeing what Roger was able to build told me I could do it, too,” he says. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why could I not do it?’ I have a brand. I think I am trustworthy. I just needed to make sure I provided my clients with excellent service. Roger said, ‘I can help you with that.’ And that’s how I ended up in the development business.”

Smith’s empire has since expanded to include construction, building materials, and, now, real estate services. In August, he formed E Smith Realty Partners with veteran Dallas brokers Sharon Morrison and Brant Landry. Along with tenant representation for the office, industrial, and retail sectors, the firm will evolve to provide agency leasing, property management, investment sales, and construction management services. In mid-October, two months after start-up, the company had 15 people on board. It expects to double that within a year, Landry says. 

Landry and Morrison first began working together at The Staubach Co. When the firm was sold to Jones Lang LaSalle in 2008, they became business partners and joined Transwestern, taking the helm of its Dallas industrial group. “We had a great five years there, but our entrepreneurial sprit overcame us,” Morrison says. “We decided that instead of building a division or a region for a company, we could grow our own business.” What they were looking for, Landry says, was unlimited potential. 

Real estate has always been a part of Landry’s life. His father, Ronny, worked for Hank Dickerson Co. in Dallas, then spent 12 years as a partner at Lincoln Property Co. before opening his own shop in Austin. At Texas Tech, Landry interned at some law firms and thought he’d become an attorney. He also looked at going to veterinary school. But the allure of real estate proved to be too strong, and Landry joined The Staubach Co. after graduating from Tech in 2000.

Morrison’s reasons for getting into the real estate were less sentimental, more pragmatic. “I had a friend at Henry S. Miller, and I needed a job.” She majored in government and Spanish at The University of Texas, working at Miller as an intern during summer breaks. Along the way, Morrison discovered a love for real estate. “It’s a people business, and you’re never dealing with the same thing,” she says. “Every day is different, jack of many trades.” She joined Miller full-time after graduating, then moved over to The Staubach Co. in 1994, specializing in industrial tenant representation.

THE POWER OF LEVERAGE
Smith made his career change official in 2005, forming Smith/Cypress Equities. Learning a new industry was challenging, he says, especially one as complicated and multifaceted as real estate. But Smith soon saw how his carefully crafted image could open doors. “I learned all about the power of leverage from Jerry Jones,” Smith says of the Cowboys owner and brand maestro. 

Seeing his first development project come to fruition was exhilarating. “It was like crossing a goal line, scoring a touchdown,” he says.

Tamela Thornton joined Smith in the business in 2007. Soon after, around the time of the JLL acquisition, they and five other partners broke off from Cypress Equities to form ESmith Legacy, a 100-percent minority- and woman-owned development firm. Thornton, who heads operations, got her start on the corporate side, managing a regional real estate and construction team for Starbucks Coffee Co. and handling site selection for the international division of Pepsico, now YUM! Brands. 

ESmith Legacy has been most active on the East Coast. One of its largest current projects is a biotech park it’s developing next to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The affiliation with E Smith Realty Partners could lead to more work closer to home, Thornton says.

“So much about the development business involves having relationships that come to you early in the process,” she says. “This will allow us to really service a client at full capacity, versus coming in at the back end of a project.”

The synergy between development and brokerage was a key factor in the decision to align with Morrison and Landry, Smith says. Growing into a full-service operation has long been a goal. “It was just a matter of figuring out how do you get there, when do you get there, and with whom do you get there,” he says.” It’s important to pick the right partners, so you don’t hook your wagon to a car that might start heading in a different direction. I knew [Morrison and Landry] from The Staubach Co. I know them even better now.” 

E Smith Realty Partners will move into its new home off the Dallas North Tollway in late November. Meantime, the team is focusing on servicing current clients, lining up new ones, and recruiting top producers. Already on board are John Pelletier and David Cochran, office tenant reps from Dominus Commercial. Landry’s father has joined as well. 

The group is ready for battle in a crowded field, Morrison says. “Emmitt has a great book calledGame On,” she says. A lot of the principles he’s guided by, we’re like-minded, with our team. We’re pretty competitive, too.”

The company is looking at expanding into Houston and areas where ESmith Legacy already has a presence. “We’re not in a huge hurry,” Morrison says. “We don’t want to screw it up. We want to get Dallas right. At the same time, recruiting is like a marriage. You have to court for a while.”

Landry says “the brand” is opening doors, and that it doesn’t take long for people to see that Smith—who has earned the CCIM designation, which recognizes expertise in the real estate field—is as engaged as anyone else at the table. The Legend, Staubach, says his former intern proved that to him long ago. “Emmitt has had a real commitment to the business over a number of years, and that’s what you have to show,” Staubach says. “He’s smart, and he’s putting good people around him. He has proven that real estate is his passion. I think he’ll be a superstar in the business.”