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Emmitt Smith Waltzing Into Real-Estate Biz

A few months back we mentioned that Emmitt Smith, who was then in the middle of dancing his way into America's hearts (oy), was in Phoenix pitching a real-estate development: a 237,738-square-foot retail center. Turns out, it's hardly a one-off venture: The February 5 issue of Fortune, which isn't online yet, has a lengthy piece on the former Cowboys running back's love affair with real estate. It's headlined, "Build 'Em, Cowboy."

Smith, writes Roy Johnson, longs to become "a real estate tycoon" -- so much so that ever since he was a rookie, the RB has been buying and selling property both in the metroplex and in Smith's hometown of Pensacola, Florida. And, yup, he's indeed partners with former Cowboys QB Roger Staubach in a company called Smith/Cypress Partners LP, which Fortune describes as "a real estate development enterprise specializing in transforming underutilized parcels in densely populated areas into commercially viable properties anchored by national retail giants." Smith has 51 percent ownership in the company.

Some highlights from the Fortune piece are after the jump. Also, another local entrepreneur gets a mention in Fortune this week -- and she's a baker. And, no, not this kind.

Here's some of what Roy Johnson about Emmitt Smith:

In his first deal, Smith helped the firm sign Mervyn's, a California-based department store chain, to anchor a $45 million, 230,000-square-foot project in Phoenix, where he last played for the Cardinals two seasons ago. With access to $50 million in capital, Smith has several other projects in the works. He has a letter of intent to develop a 65-acre site in a densely populated yet underserved area near northwest Fort Worth (it was formerly a college operated by a Masonic lodge), and he's haggling over another potential project in southeast Fort Worth. On one of the sites, Smith plans to build a complex with as much as 600,000 square feet of retail space, more than double the size of the Phoenix property. "There's a huge need for top-quality retail in these areas, and I understand how the deals are cut," Smith said before lunch. "I'm not an engineer. I'm not a contractor. And I'm still learning the jargon. But I understand deals, and the only way to grow is to be in the middle of the deals."

If you're thinking Smith is following the path laid by former NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, whose Magic Johnson Enterprises has built movie theaters, restaurants, and Starbucks franchises in urban areas, you're partly correct. Smith aims for Johnson's entrepreneurial success but is not restricting his projects to the inner city. "I love what Magic's doing," Smith says. "He's inspired all athletes to pursue successful business careers. But I'm not confining myself to urban areas. If there are rural areas with economic potential, I'm right there." ...

Smith typically arrives in his office just down the hall before 9 A.M., but he convinced Staubach long ago that he brings more than star power to the job. "He has the leadership skills to build a real business," Staubach says. "Someday he may come in here and say 'I'm buying you guys out.'" ...

Smith's interest in real estate began during his days in Pop Warner football in Pensacola, when he sometimes stayed at the home of his coach the night before a game. The 3,500-square-foot house was no mansion, but it was enough to impress a young man who lived in a public housing project, the Courts, with his mother and four siblings. The coach owned a small construction firm, and he began to teach Smith how to use drawing boards and read floor plans. Smith was enthralled by the thought of a profession that might let him move his family into a home similar to his coach's.

Also receiving pub in the new Fortune is Stephanie Vandegrift, a former account manager for A.C. Nielsen who has since become "The Corporate Baker," as the headline reads. Vangegrift used to bake cookies bearing her clients' logos for presentations, which were, of course, big hits. So after the left the corporate world, the 54-year-old decided to keep on baking -- to the point where she's had to build a commercial bakery to open her new business, Stephanie's Premium Bakery.

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Writes Anne Fisher: "Initially she put logos on each cookie by hand, using an overhead projector, but she soon found a faster, mechanized printing process. (The 'ink' is food coloring.) A mass mailing of samples yielded her first clients Exxon Mobil, Chase, the United Way of Texas, the Dallas Symphony and the Cookie Co. was launched. 'The only really hard part has been not having lots of smart colleagues to bounce ideas around with,' she says."

In related news, I made some really great chocolate-chip cookies this weekend. Got the recipe here. --Robert Wilonsky

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