How a young intern orchestrated the creation of this $15 billion real estate firm

BY Preta Peace Namasaba May 28, 2024 6:09 AM EDT

During his real estate career, T. Dallas Smith became the first African-American broker at Cushman & Wakefield of Georgia and developed the brokerage division for H.J. Russell & Company in 1995. He served as vice president of the Brokerage Division, leading the company initiative of acquiring 40 parcels of real estate, a full city block in the inner city of Atlanta resulting in a mixture of office, retail, and multifamily developments now valued at over $20 million. At the height of his commercial real estate career, Smith met Leonte Benton, a young intern with magnetic energy and determination who inspired him to establish his own firm.

“We had no money. We had no clients. But this kid had faith in what we were doing. We started from scratch and we became the no. 1 African-American tenant rep firm in the country,” Smith said about how he grew the business with Benton.

Together, they have grown T. Dallas Smith & Company into a successful enterprise with over $15 billion in transactions.

Early encounters with racial prejudice fueled Smith’s drive to be successful both personally and professionally. He remembers approaching a well-dressed white woman who was buying several expensive clothes for her husband in the clothing store Smith worked in. He asked about her occupation and was excited when she shared that she worked in real estate, an industry he was interested in. However, when Smith shared his interest, the woman told him that he would never make it because he was Black.

On the other hand, Benton was motivated to turn his life around by a series of tribulations. His father went to prison when he was seven and his mother worked four jobs to support the family. When he was 14, Benton was arrested for the first time. His 10th-grade English teacher, who had become a millionaire by investing in real estate became a role model. After graduating from high school, some of his friends got arrested, and one was fatally shot. Benton consequently moved to San Diego to attend Grossmont College to play football and get a two-year associate’s degree.

His godfather, who owned several small apartment buildings, advised him to return to Atlanta where he could have an impact on his hometown. Benton wrote down the names of 100 successful people he wanted to meet and interview. It was in this frame of mind that he met Smith in 2006 through his business partner and baseball player Brian Jordan. Smith had been in the real estate business for decades and was used to young Black men coming to him to get into the business. He always asked them whether they had a real estate license as a way of getting rid of them.

But Benton was not to be deterred.

After three weeks, Benton came back to Smith with his newly acquired real estate license. It was the first time one of the over people Smith challenged had followed up. Benton offered to work for nothing so he could learn the business. He did all the tasks assigned to him joyfully and Smith eventually took a liking to him. His energy and determination made Smith realize his mission was to serve as a bridge and catalyst for young people with the desire to advance. He launched T. Dallas Smith & Co. with Benton by his side.

Almost two decades later, T. Dallas Smith & Co. has emerged as the largest African American-owned pure tenant rep commercial real estate firm in the country. As an advisory and exclusive tenant & buyer representation firm, the company eliminates any conflict of interest when negotiating leases and/or purchases for clients. It has worked on assignments in over 40 states, led projects all over the country, and has more than 8 million square feet of tenant and buyer representation in office and industrial space.

Smith has since handed over the role of president of T. Dallas Smith & Co. to Benton.

“From day one, he told me he was going to raise me like a son and that one day I would be running the company,” Benton said about the role Smith has played in his life.