Be Intentional About Relationships
T. Dallas Smith Founder and CEO
T. Dallas Smith & Co., Atlanta
At age 19, T. Dallas Smith set his sights on a career in real estate. He knew nothing about it, except that it was a top category among Forbes’ 1982 ranking of the 400 richest Americans. “I wanted to make money,” says Smith, who pursued a job in the commercial market with hard work and an unbreakable belief in himself.
A call to a local commissioner led to one contact that led to another, and soon he was asked to provide a resume to Thomas W. Tift Jr., a renowned Georgia developer. Aware that his first name (Tonialo) and other details would identify him as Black, Smith made some changes. “I ‘whitewashed’ my resume,” he says, removing basketball from his hobbies but leaving golf. He even changed his name, adopting “Dallas” from the popular TV show. The strategy worked, leading to a face-to-face interview.
“When I gave the receptionist my name, she nearly fell out of her chair,” recounts Smith. He later learned that when she told Tift that Smith was here for the interview and that he was Black, Tift responded it would be “the shortest interview in history.” That turned out not to be the case.
Tift hired Smith in 1982 as a leasing and management representative for Atlanta Air Center Realty. In 1989, Smith became the first African American broker at Cushman & Wakefield of Georgia, helping open doors for many Black brokers. He pioneered the brokerage division for H.J. Russell & Co. and, in 2007, opened T. Dallas Smith & Co., specializing in tenant representation in office, industrial and land. His team has completed transactions with an aggregate value of over $16 billion.
Initially, Smith didn’t want to mentor others. “People would ask me, and I’d say, ‘Go get your license and then come back,’ but they never did—until Leonte Benton, who returned three weeks later with a license,” says Smith. It was 2007, and Benton was a sophomore at Morehouse College. “I had him doing ridiculous things—hoping he’d quit. One day I asked him to store some bottled water. I watched him willingly do it in his suit and tie, which was my epiphany. He was me in 1982.” Smith realized his life’s purpose was to help other people of color enter the business. Benton is now president of T. Dallas Smith & Co.
Smith’s impact is exponential. “Whatever number I’ve mentored is multiplied because it exposes their children and their friends’ children to real estate as a career. I’m not finished yet,” says Smith, noting less than 5% of commercial brokers are Black. “We’ve got a whole lot more work to do.”
He advises those new in the business to be intentional about relationships. “Engage in local commercial boards to rub shoulders with those you want to be like,” says Smith. “You might find a mentor or someone who will bring you into their business.”
Intentionality is also critical for increasing diversity. “People with power need to be intentional about bringing people of color into the business,” says Smith. “Until you adopt that mindset, we’re just kicking the can down the road.”
“Whatever number I’ve mentored is multiplied because it exposes their children and their friends’ children to real estate as a career.”
—T. Dallas Smith