Venture Dallas: Emmitt Smith on Why Retirement is Overrated, Off-Season is Key, and DFW is the ‘Center of the Universe’

Here's how one man rose from hardscrabble beginnings to build a career in sports and real estate.

Emmitt Smith might be a Pro Football Hall of Fame Running Back and three-time Super Bowl Champion, but he also now runs several businesses spanning real estate, construction, and technology.

This week at Venture Dallas, Smith sat down with MVPindex CEO Stan Woodward to talk about his transition to the role of businessman and entrepreneur. Venture Dallas is North Texas’ newest tech conference that connected local founders with investors from around the country to display the wide variety of technology, ventures, and opportunities that happen in the region.

Here are key takeaways from Smith on how he launched a career in both sports and real estate. For more Venture Dallas recaps, go here.

[Photo: Courtesy Venture Dallas]

On growing up in humble beginnings and housing projects

“I’ve always been one of the kids that had aspirations of leaving school and going off to do great things because I saw people who never really returned. And when they did come back, they came back looking very successful. It’s amazing how looking very successful can equate to a vision of success.”

On his early interests in real estate and architecture

“[My father] taught me how to read blueprints and floorplans. And he owned his own construction company. He and I used to spend Friday nights together … All we did was talk and talk about business; talk about construction. He just kept downloading this information to me as this young, curious kid.”

“I spent summers back in Pensacola doing a little design work working with his architecture firm, learning more about infrastructure and how to put certain things together. Although I never pursued an architecture degree in college, it was definitely in my mind’s eye.”

“Then something happened where my career just started to take off and people started to take notice of my actual physical talent.”

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On Dallas and working with Jerry Jones

“When I came to Dallas, everything else is opened up to me. See, it’s amazing what you can do when you are exposed to the way the world truly operates.”

“I went to Jerry and asked, ‘Can I sit down in your office during my lunch break? I want to hear your conversations. I want to hear what you’re negotiating about.’ And he allowed that to happen.”

“I listened to [Jerry] negotiate with people from Home Depot, negotiate sponsorship packages, things like that. And then I started watching what he was doing. … So beyond just a game of football itself, I actually saw the power of being able to leverage not only your brand, but also the ability to infuse capital in projects and be able to do so many different things that’s far beyond the game itself. That’s all part of my process.”

On becoming an entrepreneur

“I have this vision—the same vision that I use on the football field—I can see certain things before they actually get there. Being able to see growth in a city and understanding the patterns of growth, and having this intuition that, you know what, that’s a pretty nice looking corner. And someday, it’s going to be more than what it is right now.”

“I did a very poor job of taking advantage of off-season. That’s one reason why I’m able to sit here and reflect back and say to every athlete, ‘Are you really taking advantage of your off-season?’”

“What I should have done, I should have went right to Roger [Staubach], working for free for almost five years to understand the intricacies of this business. But instead I did it the reverse way, I waited until I retired. … Then I went all in. I started doing some research prior to retiring and understanding what was going on, started taking classes, started feeding my brain with the terminology that is definitely useful.”

On what makes Dallas the best place to do business

“I think Dallas is the center of the universe.”

“Everyone knows speed the market is extremely important. … The one thing I love about Dallas, I can get anywhere in the continental United States on a direct flight, and I can get anywhere almost in the world, somewhat in a direct flight. … Not to mention the cost of living here, you get the biggest bang for your buck. The tax breaks here: Awesome. The infrastructure here: Great. It can be better and will be better. The business friendly environment that Texas offers is extremely huge for corporations. And now that we have these new things called “Opportunity Zones,” it’s even better.”

“When you talk about Texas—Texas, in my opinion, should be at the forefront of leading where everything should go because we have more landmass than anybody. And so we can start from scratch in certain areas and build the interior of Texas, the inner cities of Texas. Upgrade those, and then we have the right values that we actually need in order to facilitate any corporation that’s looking to come here.”

On who inspires him

“The guy that I look at, from a long term standpoint—and this is for a number of different reasons—is Warren Buffett, because he’s in his 90s. He’s still working, he stimulates his mind every day, he hasn’t quite retired. And I believe retirement is overrated. There’s only so many vacations you can take and so many days you can lounge around, so many golf swings we all have.”

“Roger Staubach and Magic Johnson are two of the people that I rely on the most, because they come from the field I come from—[we] have that connection. … Now they know how to manage a whole entire organization or department, because that’s the way they were groomed. I was groomed a little bit differently. And I’m starting a little bit later. So I can go ask the dumb questions to one of them and not feel uncomfortable.”

Comments are edited for brevity and clarity. Quincy Preston and Alex Edwards contributed to this report.

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