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The Innovators: T. Dallas Smith & Co. CEO Dallas Smith

In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.

Even though he's been in the business since 1982, it took until last year, and working with a giant like Microsoft, for Dallas Smith to become a household name in Atlanta's commercial real estate circles.

Smith, T. Dallas Smith & Co.'s CEO, earned the fame when, during the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, he and his team ushered Microsoft into one of the largest corporate expansions in recent Atlanta history.

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T. Dallas Smith & Co. CEO T. Dallas Smith

In February, Microsoft revealed that it purchased 90 acres on the Westside of Atlanta next to the new Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry for a future corporate campus. It also revealed that Smith and his firm represented the tech giant in all its recent real estate transactions in Atlanta, including its 500K SF office lease at Hines' Atlantic Yards project in Midtown.

Smith began his career as a landlord representative in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport area, working with Thomas W. Tift at his 80-acre Atlanta Air Center commercial property. Smith said his first deal was with a taxicab company on the property. The company didn't stay very long — it closed overnight soon after signing its lease — but the deal convinced him the industry was where he belonged.

“This was something I was able to do by using my wits and my skill. This was the business for me,” Smith said.

Smith traveled through the industry with such firms as H.J. Russell & Co. and Cushman & Wakefield — becoming the Atlanta branch's first Black broker in 1989 — before striking out on his own. 

Smith said some of his greater successes were during economic downturns. He formed T. Dallas Smith & Co. in March 2007, just before the onset of the Great Financial Crisis. But even through that, Smith said he managed to grow his firm. Today, the firm is staffed by nearly 20 brokers who have leased or sold a combined $15B in commercial real estate.

In addition to representing Microsoft in its transformational plans for Westside Atlanta, Smith is also working with Airbnb to find a location for a planned Atlanta Technical Hub. When West Coast tech giants look to Atlanta to tap into the city's rich talent base, Smith is the person helping to guide their path. For that reason, Smith is a Bisnow innovator. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bisnow: What is your philosophy on the growth of your firm?

Smith: You know, that's my perspective. We've got a group that's very talented, and we're continuing to grow. When I started this company, quite frankly and unapologetically, I felt like I'd been called to do this. And God's word to me on how I grow this firm was through exposure. The more I was talking to guys like you, speaking around town and exposing people to the industry, the more people who look like me can get exposed to an industry they don't know much about.

What I tell people is it's a fact that commercial real estate guys make more money than football, baseball and basketball combined. And so, cream always rises to the top. People hear about that, jobs are made. And that's how it happens.

I continue, and I've been doing this for a while, I talk to strangers every other Friday about the industry. People reach out, and that's how we grow the firm. I've never recruited. We've got 19 people here as a result of this philosophy. And that's what we'll continue to do.

And my whole thing is to make sure people are much smarter, much better at this than I am. But, being part of a team, part of a family is critical. [Other brokerage firms] want to bring the spirit of internal strife, people in the same firm competing for deals. You know, I came out of that shop, I saw that. I didn't like that. And I didn't want to live like that.

So I'm very proud of what we're doing. And we will continue to do this because for me it's about diversifying this industry. And before they put me in the box, I want to be able to say that I helped them do that.

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T. Dallas Smith & Co. Chief Operating Officer Dexter Warrior, principal Corey Ferguson, CEO Dallas Smith and principals Cedric Matheny and Leonte Benton

Bisnow: What was your experience as a person of color in the commercial real estate industry in the early days?

Smith: Bill Bugg was the Southeast regional president of Cushman & Wakefield at the time. And Bill said, 'Dallas, people ask me all the time why I don't have other Black folks at Cushman & Wakefield?'

And he said, 'I tend to tell them one of two things. One is I can't find any qualified. Or two, we don't want them.' And he said, 'We really don't want any, but there's no reason why you should not be the first. But depending on how you do will determine if there's a second or third or fourth.'

And I was 26 years old when he told me that. That statement didn't really hit me until my late 30s or early 40s. Even now, I think about that statement and go, 'Wow, that's a lot to put on one person.' That would have never happened to a White person.

Editor's Note: Bugg is retired and was last with Cushman & Wakefield in 1994. When reached by phone, he told Bisnow he doesn't recall this exchange and denied that Cushman & Wakefield was discriminatory at the time.

"I don't think I said we don't want them," Bugg said. "We were very aware we did not have African Americans in the sales force, and to have them be part of the organization would be something very important. I take great pride in Dallas joining the firm and becoming quite successful on his own. In some respects, I almost look at Dallas as a son."

Former Cushman & Wakefield Executive Vice President Mike Elting was in charge of hiring for the Atlanta office. Elting said he didn't recall the comment being made. He is also retired. 

Bisnow: Tell us how you ultimately steered Microsoft to the idea of buying the Quarry Yards site on the Westside for a future mixed-use campus?

Smith: Atlanta is a very special place and Microsoft and a lot of these other companies realize that. How did the land play become available? The proximity of being near Midtown and Georgia Tech and being close to that tech talent is key.

It was really birthed out of a conversation we had with [Project Executive] Eric Pinckney and [Chairman] Egbert Perry of Integral Group. Egbert was somebody who really pointed us in that direction in a way that made a lot of sense. We knew it was going to be a big play at some point, if it actually happened. Our focus was purely on Atlantic Yards. But, if you think about Quarry Yards and the proximity to Atlantic Yards, they're all tied into the Atlanta BeltLine. It made a lot of sense. It was a great way to connect Atlantic Yards and the property formerly known as Quarry Yards. 

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Construction on the Westside Park in Atlanta, which will be next to Microsoft's planned campus, taken in February of 2020.

Bisnow: If you could, what would you say to Westside Atlanta residents who are concerned about Microsoft's impact on their community?

Smith: You know, I'm from the South, right? I was Atlanta born and Atlanta bred. And Southern hospitality is a real thing. So, I would say, before you shut the door, really have a conversation with the parties and keep an open mind.

In terms of what they're doing, the whole approach is really to deal with the issue of gentrification, not to be a catalyst of gentrification. But to put together a platform that will help unity, that [Microsoft] will not be the gentrifier that corporations are typically known for.

Let's just say for argument's sake they need a million square feet. A company would come in and build a skyscraper in the middle of wherever they want to. And the community would have to deal with whatever they have to deal with. That's not their approach.

Now, there's a conversation taking place [between Microsoft and the community] to really listen to what the community wants, things that they want to see happen, and how you can build a community first and then come in with what the office need will be. And that's completely different from any other corporation I've seen come into this market, or really any other town for that matter. That's a different approach. And so, I think, you couldn't have a better community partner than Microsoft. And that's what I think is extremely unique about them.

Again, as somebody who's been doing this 39 years, I hadn't seen that approach. So, what I would say to the community is to have the conversation. Be engaged when you can be engaged, but be open and don't put the closed sign up. But collaborate. And I think at the end of the day, it's going to benefit not just the community, but it can also become a model of what corporations ought to do when they come into these communities.

Bisnow: Are you seeing a similar social conscience emerging with your other corporate clients?

Smith: A lot of companies are now reaching out to us as a result of what they've seen. I think they realize it's a great way to enter the market. I really think Microsoft's going to end up being the model for how corporate citizenship should look. I think a lot of the companies that we're talking to now are coming to us with that mindset. And I can't wait to see really what pans out for other companies, because I just think it's going to impact us as a city in a way that's going to be very positive.

Bisnow: What's the connection between social justice, social consciousness, equitable development, economic equality and commercial real estate? What is that connection that we're all realizing now?

Smith: When I took my real estate class 30-plus years ago, the instructor said, 'You know, one of the three most important things about real estate is location, location, location, right?' But the reality of it is 30-plus years in this business, I realize it was not always location, location, location. But it was really particularly about complexion, complexion, complexion. The complexion would determine if the location was a prime site. 

And what I think we're seeing now, people are getting back to things that really matter. And that's really location, location, location, which is the main thing in the first place. Unfortunately, a lot of the local developers couldn't see the location because they were looking through the lens of complexion. So I think at the end of the day, we're going to get back to location, location, location. 

Bisnow: What do you see for the future of Atlanta commercial real estate?

Smith: I'm just excited again. I'll be 59 in August, and as a Black man who has been in this real estate business for over 35 years, to say I'm optimistic would be an understatement.

The fact is there is hope that companies are getting back to things that really matter. That gets me back to location, location, location. Commercial real estate companies are doing the work at the highest level, regardless of what they look like. Even if they don't look like a typical company, you're still being considered, and you're being judged the same way everybody else is.

And so, I'm optimistic that my complexion won't be the reason not to hire me, but it will really be the ability to do the work and to do it at the highest level. That's what I'm excited about.