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Trump may pave way for NFL legend Emmitt Smith’s next business opportunity

Making the leap from sports to business can be a tricky proposition for athletes, even the superstars. For every successful jock turned entrepreneur, such as Magic Johnson, Venus Williams and John Elway, there are plenty who have tried and failed. On the plus side of that balance sheet is former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher (18,355 yards). Today the Pro Football Hall of Famer is making millions in real estate development and management, infrastructure construction, personal endorsements and, most recently, franchising upscale men's barber shops.

The Gents Place, based in Dallas, where 47-year-old Smith lives and operates his businesses, was launched in 2008 by Ben Davis, a former partner at Goosehead Insurance (formerly TWG Insurance) in Irving, Texas. He bills it as "an ultra-premium men's grooming and lifestyle club" — services range from haircuts and straight-razor shaves to manicures and Scotch whiskey tastings — and a player in an estimated $5 billion industry. Davis, 33, opened four locations in Texas and Kansas before deciding last year to franchise the business nationwide and invite Smith to invest as co-owner.

Smith sat down with CNBC.com to talk about his latest venture, his shift from the locker room to the boardroom and his advice for other athletes considering the transition.

CNBC: How did you end up becoming co-owner of The Gents Place?

They were part of one of my charity events [last year], where we had a variety of vendors. I'd never had a straightedge-razor shave on my head or my face, but I sat down in the chair and got my first one. Afterward I said, Okay, that felt good, and I looked and felt like a million dollars when I went out that night. Then I met Ben and got to know about the business and understand what he wants to do with it.

CNBC: What was your due-diligence process?

The first thing was the product. Second was understanding the vision. How is the business doing? What are the margins? In expanding, where are you looking to go? Nationally? How can I help you bring brand awareness to the franchising program, because I like what you're doing.

As an entrepreneur, I saw an opportunity in a growing marketplace, where men want to look good because they want to impress the people they're around. From a professional services standpoint, this is perfect. For me service is extremely important, because so much service has gone out the window. And at the end of the day, we want to make sure people get what they pay for — service and value.

CNBC: Your "help" became an investment in the privately-owned company. Can you say how much?

No, because I don't have to [laughs]. But I once heard someone say, 'Where you spend your money is probably where you should be investing it.' I've been going to The Gents Place once or twice a month [gesturing to his neatly shaved bald pate and trimmed beard]. That process enlightened me.

CNBC: What's your involvement as The Gents Place looks to sell 150 franchises?

My role is to bring more brand visibility and awareness to what the franchising program looks like.

CNBC: You became interested in business during your NFL days. You met former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who by then was a real estate entrepreneur. What did you learn from him?

I've always had this entrepreneurial spirit, even when I was a kid — the desire to be independent, build my own house, drive my own car, own my own stuff. Meeting Roger, the legend of the Cowboys, was icing on the cake. I spent time with him during the off season, understanding what he was doing in the real estate business, which was intriguing to me. I invested in a couple of The Staubach Company's real estate funds. Upon retirement, I told Roger I wanted to become a developer on the commercial side, to build shopping malls and retail centers. He hooked me up with somebody, I did my first venture, and from there I've been on my own.

CNBC: What's your advice to other athletes who want to go into business?

The first thing is, as an athlete, you have to humble yourself to where you're willing to learn something new. Unless you grew up, were trained or worked in a business environment during your career, in the off season you can volunteer or get an internship or an apprenticeship with an organization in a field that you want to transition to once your game is over.

Ask yourself these questions: What is it you envision yourself doing, what are you passionate about, what's out there that you'd be excited to get up in the morning to do? Are you willing to put in the work to learn the terminology, understand the business model, understand the product, the market and demographics? Then you go to the financial side of it. What's it going to cost you? Do you use your money or other folks' money?

CNBC: Considering your real estate and construction businesses, are you anticipating the Trump administration's pledge to stimulate $1 trillion in infrastructure spending?

I see tremendous opportunities there. We build roads and bridges, so infrastructure is a big part of my platform. I have laid some groundwork in terms of relationships I have in the state of Texas, to look at some major projects. There are certain things I want to get in place, because the strategy I have is much broader than I'm willing to share in this conversation.

CNBC: What else is on the horizon? Have you considered investing in a sports team?

It's funny that you ask. Right now my vision is to grow what I currently have, and then there's an exit strategy. It takes time, and I'm not going to get out over my skis. But do I have aspirations of owning an NFL team or some professional team? Yes, I do.

— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com