No Pain, No Gain

NFL Hall of Famer-turned-real estate entrepreneur Emmitt Smith says you have to be a responsible risk-taker to get what you want.

September 1, 2015

Emmitt Smith, CCIM, is well-acquainted with risk — and its potential payoffs. The NFL Hall of Famer chanced failure in front of millions when he joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1990, at a time when the top-ranked team was suffering from a string of embarrassing losses. And he knew he could be publicly humiliated when he took a spin on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” in 2006 without any prior ballroom training. But Smith conquered both experiences, which gave him greater confidence to go out on another limb and try his hand at another risky business: real estate.

As co-founder and CEO of Emmitt Smith Enterprises — which includes a commercial real estate brokerage, a property investment and development firm, a capital-strategy solutions business, and a construction company — the pro running back–turned–real estate businessman says success in any activity involves an element of risk. Smith’s huge successes, leading the Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships in 13 years and waltzing to the winning spot on the third season of “Dancing with the Stars,” would never have happened without his ability to embrace the multitude of risks associated with those endeavors. As most practitioners know, the real estate business is also teeming with uncertainty, and you have to risk losing every day in order to position yourself to win.

Ahead of his keynote address at the 2015 REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Diego this November, we caught up with Smith in an interview to learn how risk has been a driving motivator in his career and what role it should play in a successful real estate business.

You take a lot of chances when you step onto a football field. You risk injury as well as letting down fans if your team loses a game. How have the risks you took in your NFL career informed the way you operate your real estate businesses?

The way it’s helped me is by knowing that preparation plus performance should equal success. What we try to do in the real estate business is mitigate risk by ensuring that we’re pretty accurate in terms of our site selection, understanding of the demographic, the trade area, and then putting together the right tenant mix for the commercial properties that my company is involved in, whether it’s office, retail, or even industrial.

Why did you get into real estate, and what’s been the biggest triumph for you so far?

I got into the business because I had people like [fellow athletes] Roger Staubach and Ervin “Magic” Johnson who showed me how to transition from the game and leverage the brand I had established through sports. I’m a CCIM designee, and I studied, went to real estate school, invested in real estate, and learned how to put together projects. What has worked in my favor is that I have a brand that other brands want to be associated with. I can leverage that brand into developing other opportunities.

“Go big or go home” is a phrase we often apply to sports. Is that the best attitude to have in real estate?

No, you have to take one step at a time. The way I see it, real estate is about service just like football was about service. As an athlete, you’ve got coaches, fans, and teammates, and you’re serving a purpose in their lives in some form. Fans are happy when you win and sad when you lose. If I could bring joy to them through my performance, I gain their respect. It’s the same way in real estate. We service our clients, and they give us an opportunity to work with them. We provide them with great service, and they come back.

How do you determine when something may not be worth the risk? Has there been a time in your real estate career when you’ve decided a deal isn’t worth it?

There’s always a “go/no go” decision that must be made. You go through your development criteria, risk profiles, and determine the best answer. The numbers don’t lie — I trust the numbers. In some cases, you have to peel beneath the numbers to get the full story, especially in certain trade areas. But when it comes down to finances, the numbers are what they are. Construction prices, land prices, tenant improvement allowances, legal costs — all are what they are. Either the project supports [proceeding] or it doesn’t.

You also put a lot on the line when you became a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” being crowned the season three winner in 2006 and returning to the dance floor in 2012 for an All-Stars edition. How was that experience a risk for you? Did it influence how you set goals for yourself or how you approach other aspects of your life?

That experience helped me gain confidence that I can do more outside of sports. It’s about executing a game plan in unfamiliar territory and having the confidence to put together the right structure and processes to excel in that next arena. Whether it’s related to preparation, discipline, or communication, what I learned is that the processes that I utilized in sports are some of the same processes that I used in “Dancing with the Stars” and now apply to my real estate businesses.

Emmitt Smith will be the General Session keynote speaker at the 2015 REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Diego on Sat., Nov. 14, at 4 p.m.

Graham Wood
Senior editor

Graham Wood is senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine. He can be reached at