This article is part 4 of a 4-part series honoring Black pioneers in commercial real estate.
Dallas Smith & Company is the largest African American-owned commercial real estate brokerage firm in the country focused exclusively on tenant and buyer representation.
That makes T. Dallas Smith himself a titan of the industry.
But it wasn’t a given that he would reach such heights. As a teenager in Atlanta, T. Dallas Smith didn’t know what he wanted to do in life, until he visited the home of two particularly ambitious brothers.
The brothers’ parents encouraged them to have big life goals, to the point that they each had vision boards – pictures on the wall of what they wanted to achieve.
“I left their house thinking that I gotta get my stuff together!“ Smith recalled.
He didn’t know what he wanted to become, “but I knew I wanted to make a lot of money. I got a Forbes magazine and studied what the richest people in the world did,” Smith said. Of all the wealth-building professions, Smith chose real estate because it would allow him to stay in Atlanta.
Breaking into what was in 1982 an almost exclusively white-dominated profession required some creative liberties, starting with his given name, which was Tonialo Smith.
“I knew that a resume with a name like Tonialo (wouldn’t work). So, I went through my resume and took out everything that would make me seem like a Black man.” A name that always stood out to Smith was T. Boone Pickens. He borrowed the format and put “T. Dallas” (as in the 80s TV show) on his resume. Then he added interests like squash, golf and chess. Smith admits now that “whitewashing” one’s resume is not advisable today, but was a necessary evil for him at the time.
The resume led to a phone interview during which Smith did his best Johnny Carson impression, again to make himself seem not Black. He got the interview. At the interview, he found common ground with the hiring boss, Thomas Tift.
After a wide-ranging conversation about common interests, including Ronald Reagan, and high-tech tennis rackets, Smith got the job and Tift became his first mentor.
In 1989, Smith became the first Black broker at Cushman & Wakefield. His first cold call was to Black real estate legend Herman Russell, Jr. Again, Smith was able to develop a deep relationship and Russel became a good friend and mentor. Ultimately, Smith was a pallbearer at Russell's funeral in 2014.
After years of working under Russell's tutelage, Smith started his own company in 2006. Today, T. Dallas Smith & Company has offices in Atlanta, New Jersey, Dallas and Los Angeles. The firm has done more than $15 billion in aggregate sales and lease deals since its founding in 2007.
Smith's heir apparent is the firm's principal and Senior Vice President, Leonte Benton, who started out at Smith's firm as a young intern. At the time, Smith didn't want to mentor up and coming employees, so he gave Benton menial tasks, hoping to scare him off.
One day, a case of water was delivered to the office and Smith asked Leonte to put the water away. "I saw him on his knees, in a very humble position, putting this water up on the shelf. Then this epiphany hit me. God said, 'Dallas, that was you when you were trying to get into the real estate business. But there was nobody who looked like you who could help you. You could help this kid.' "
That's when Smith realized that his success gave him a unique power to help other promising African Amercians. "My calling, at the end of the day, is to bring people who look like me into the commercial real estate space," he said.
Despite the success of Smith and other Black commercial real estate pioneers, only 2% of brokers are Black. To help diversify the profession, Smith often says yes when asked to speak to groups. As a guest on Stephen A. Hart’s podcast, he described returning to one of his first employers.
“I had the opportunity to go back and speak to Cushman & Wakefield. I was the first black broker they hired in 1989. I was asked to come back and speak to a group that (historically) wasn’t so welcoming. The whole conversation was around diversity and inclusion.” Noting the irony of the situation, Smith says that as he reflected on that fact, “ I got a little teary eyed. It was surreal.”