Mr. Benton joined T. Dallas Smith & Company from its inception. He has successfully represented companies such as Gude Management, The Integral Group, E-Bay, AT&T, General Services Administration and A2D with their office space needs. Leonte is a result and relationship-oriented, high-energy, commercial real estate broker who has participated in transactions that range from a corporate mailbox to 400,000 square feet. Leonte specializes in tenant representation leasing and acquisition services for local and national companies.
Shantel: Hi, Leonte. Welcome to the Imagine More Podcast.
Leonte: Hello. How are you?
Shantel: Good. Thanks so much for coming on the show. We’re really excited to learn more about your company and how you got started. And, I suppose, to kick things off, will you tell our listeners a little bit about your journey in becoming an entrepreneur?
Leonte: Absolutely. Hello, everyone. My name is Leonte Benton and I am a Principal and Vice President with T. Dallas Smith & Company, which is a commercial real estate brokerage firm based here in Atlanta. We are, I guess, 12 years old now. And it’s been a hell of a journey and it’s been a fun journey. And we’ve experienced ups and downs just like, I guess, most entrepreneurs experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. This is definitely the way, for myself, and I can honestly say, I will never work for another person again in my life, besides, obviously, God and my family.
Shantel: I am. I certainly share that sentiment of … I mean, sometimes, if you ever wonder, and think well, what would you do if you had to go work for someone else? And it, kind of, is like pins and needles just thinking about how would I manage? I don’t know.
Leonte: Yeah. For me there’s no other option. I would-
Shantel: Well, how … Go ahead.
Leonte: I was going to say, I would start selling trinkets or cutting grass or something.
Shantel: Speaking of, kind of, first jobs and maybe selling, cutting grass. What was, kind of, your first shout out being an entrepreneur? Did you have another company before this or do something entrepreneurial when you were younger?
| BORN AN ENTREPRENEUR |
Leonte: Yeah. So, I’ve done everything from A to Z. As a child, I was always fascinated with other entrepreneurs. And I grew up in a low-income environment and I guess, naturally, for me, when I saw others that appeared to be thriving I had, thank God, common sense enough to go and, kind of, ask them for their advice. So, I would say, my first entrepreneurial venture was when I was in middle school. I had a very good friend of mines who had a brother that was in the military and he would bring home and send home cigars and all of these different, kind of, little trinkets in bulk. And me and my buddy, whose name was Bradley … His nickname was Chino. We took some of those things from his brother and we would bring them to school and we would sell cigars to our middle school counterparts, 50 cents a piece. And I would say, that was my first, kind of, introduction to being an entrepreneur. And, obviously, back then, we were just trying to scrape up some money to buy cookies and candy and soda and things of that nature. And, as time progressed, there was a local liquor store, which will remain unnamed, but the guy who owned the liquor store … I just, kind of, went in, randomly, one weekend and I introduced myself. And, at the time, I was, maybe, 14 years old, and I told him that one day I wanted to own a liquor store and I just wanted to come in and work for free and help him with whatever he needed help with. And he allowed me to come in and work, maybe an hour here, an hour there and he allowed me to start helping him with his inventory. And he never compensated me, but, as time progressed, he would gift me some items. And, obviously, in high school, booze was not the easiest thing to come across, but he provided me with some inventory that I was able to sell to my friends and save some money. So, that was, I guess, a couple of my first introductions to entrepreneurship.
Shantel: That’s amazing. Did you end up getting in trouble for the cigars ever or caught for the booze on the side?
Leonte: I did not, but I did get in trouble at Six Flags. But I was clearly in the wrong. I was stealing from Six Flags-
Leonte: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
Shantel: No, no, no. Keep going.
Leonte: I was going to share that story, if you didn’t mind. So, I was at Six Flags, working with some group that my high school had took to Six Flags in order to raise some money to go down to Orlando. In fact, it was for FBLA, Future Business Leaders of America. And, while at Six Flags, the basketball machine that you can win collegiate basketballs with your favorite team on it, the machine was down. And I just, kind of, hopped over the counter and I would tell people that the machine is out of service, which it was, and that they had to give the money to me. And literally, I think I made close to $800 or $900 and it was all ones, one dollar bills. So, there was so much money that I had to start stuffing it in my pants and not in my pockets. And a police officer walked up to me and he said, “Son, I need you to come with us”. And I said, “No, sir. I’m currently at work right now”. And he was like … because he was a plain-clothes officer, so first off, I didn’t know that he was an officer. And then he said it again and I said, “Sir,” I said, “You’re a stranger. I’m not coming with you”. Then he showed me his badge and I was like, “Oh, shit”. So, he asked me to come with him and they escorted me off the premises. And they took me to a little room and they basically asked the question, “Son, is that your money or Six Flags’ money?” And I said, “It’s my money,” because they found $4 on me in my actual pocket. The rest of the money was stuffed in my pants and I told them, I said, “My Mom gave me this for lunch”. And we went on and on and they said, “Okay, son, since you want to play hardball, we’re just going to take you in”. And that’s exactly what they did. They took me in and once we got to the little hole in the cell, or whatever, I was just my usual self. I forget the term for the gentleman that was present on the outside of the hole in the cell, but I asked him if I could use the restroom, because there was a toilet in the middle of the cell for everyone to use in front of everyone. And I’m in here with adults, which, now, come to find out, I guess, as a minor, I wasn’t supposed to be, I guess, mixed in with the adults, but I was very polite to the guy. I was always raised to use, “Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am”. And, just from simply being polite to this guy, he says, “Son, you don’t belong in here”. He said, “I’m going to give you a chance to call your parents or whoever it is to come and get you”. And he allowed me to do so and he allowed me to use the restroom with privacy. So, I went to the restroom and I literally took all of the money out of my pants and flushed it down the toilet. I told God, “If you get me out of this, you ain’t got to ever worry about me stealing again”.
Shantel: Yeah. I was wondering if you had to use the restroom what you were going to do with all that money.
Leonte: Yeah. Yeah, it was the funniest thing too, because cash was just falling out of my pocket, I mean, out of the pants, as I unzipped my pants and-
Shantel: Oh, geez.
Leonte: Yeah. I flushed all of it down the toilet and when my Mom … My Mom was at work, actually, so I had to call someone from my school to come pick me up. And, long story short, once I was in the presence of my Mom, she took me back down to the hole in the cell and she made me give the guy a letter, thanking him. She made me write her a letter apologizing and she made me write a letter to God apologizing, which I still have that letter, to this day, in my Bible.
Shantel: That’s amazing. Looking back, do you ever, kind of, wish that you had talked to Six Flags and said, “Well, you can keep 60% of the profits,” they lost that money that day and could have been a … yeah”.
Leonte: That did not cross my mind at the time and they also banned me from Six Flags.
Shantel: Oh, no.
Leonte: I don’t think I’m supposed to ever go back.
Shantel: Then we can never go, as a fun activity, as friends. Bummer. Okay. Well, you’ve come a long way. Now you have a huge company with lots of people. Can you tell us a little bit about what T. Dallas Smith does?
Leonte: So, we are a commercial real estate brokerage firm, which basically means that we are a real estate broker for companies. I guess, to put it in simplest terms, for those who many not know the difference between residential and commercial real estate. In residential real estate, you would hire a real estate broker to help you buy a house or sell a house. And in commercial real estate, companies hire us to help them buy an office building, sell an office building or lease office space in a renewal or in a relocation. And, we personally, at T. Dallas Smith & Company, focus on three things, office, industrial, and land. And we’re only on the tenant rep and buyer’s side, so we don’t represent any landlords. So, we only have companies that want to lease office space or buy office space or renew their current lease and we do that across the country. I think we’ve got deal experience in 36 different states, if I remember correctly, and we represent a few national clients such as FedEx, AT&T. At one point, we represented the Federal Government and several others.
Shantel: Wow. That’s amazing. 36 states. How did you get into real estate?
| DISCIPLINE |
Leonte: So, I’ve had an interest in real estate all my life. When I was, I guess, maybe, four years old, the Bank of America building, which is the tallest building in Atlanta, was being constructed. Excuse me. And I had a cousin that worked in construction who we would drop off every morning. And I basically saw the building go from dirt to this massive tower. And, I remember, as a child, asking my dad, “What is this?” And his response was, “Real estate”. And my response to him was, “I want to do real estate one day and own a building like that”. And, my father, he went and bought me, ironically, Donald Trump’s book, as time progressed, The Art of the Deal. And he also got me a subscription to The Wall Street Journal. And, I mean, he kind of just fed that. And when my father went to prison, I guess I was, maybe, seven years old, he continued to make sure I received that subscription and he continued to, kind of, feed and push me in that direction. So, that was, kind of, like my first introduction to real estate. And then in high school, I had a coach named Coach Bracco, who was one of the basketball coaches at my high school. And I was skipping class one day and I decided that I’m going to go to the last five minutes of class. And I remember I walked in the classroom and Coach Bracco just looked at me like, “How dare you walk in my class with five minutes left?” He wrote on the chalkboard in big, bold letters, the word “discipline”. And he started pacing back and forth with his head down and he said, “Son, step outside for one second”. So, I stepped outside and I had my back against the wall and I remember he hit the wall right next to my face and he was like, “Son, what in the fuck are you going to do with your life?” And I looked him in his eye and I said, “I’m going into real estate”. And he said, “Well, God dammit, Benton, I want you to go into commercial real estate”. And he just walked off. And that was the first time I had ever heard the term “commercial real estate”. So, I called my godfather, who worked in real estate on the residential side and I asked him what was commercial real estate. And his response was, “That’s that big shit”. And I said, “Okay, well, one day I’m going to do that”. And that was, kind of, my first introduction to it.
Shantel: Wow. And have you stayed in touch with that coach? And was he a mentor, kind of, as you continued to progress in your career?
Leonte: The strangest thing happened recently. I saw him at the Masters Golf Tournament this year-
Leonte: And that was my first time seeing him, probably since high school. And he was with his two sons. And one of his sons is an entrepreneur who owns a company, I forget the name of the company, but yeah. We saw him at the Masters Golf Tournament this past year and we were, actually, my wife and I, we were walking towards the entrance and we had our son with us and who, at the time was, maybe, two months old. And they rejected us at the gate, because we only had two tickets and they said that we needed an extra ticket for our two-month-old son. So, coach, as I was, I guess, leaving to go see if I could retrieve another ticket somewhere, I just ran into Coach Bracco. And that was, literally, my first time, probably, seeing him. I graduated high school in 2002. This is 2018, so that’s roughly 16 years since I’ve seen him. And we talked for, maybe, 15 minutes and I told him what was going on. And he had a son who was already on the grounds and who had an extra ticket. And he brought the ticket out for our son. So, it ended up being a pretty cool thing and since that day I’ve reached out to him, maybe once a month.
Shantel: That’s amazing. What a small world-
Leonte: Yes, indeed.
Shantel: To get reconnected. I think, I mean, the discipline thing is really interesting and it sounds like it stuck with you throughout your career and it really resonated when that experience happened. As an entrepreneur, in a lot of different … I mean, we all hear that term, “shiny object syndrome” and, “Well, you could be doing this,” and “You could be going after this deal,” and there’s so much you can always be doing. How do you stay disciplined and focused on where the company’s going and what you’re trying to achieve?
Leonte: To be honest, for me, it’s just simply, just setting goals. I mean, as simple as that is … And what we do is we create action goals at the beginning of each year, with the idea that if we complete these daily actions and tasks, then whatever the end goal is will be exceeded or accomplished. So, for me, literally, I religiously, before I leave the office every day, make a action item list for the next day. And the goal is to just, simply, get as much stuff done on that list as possible each and every day, just for me to simplify things. And yeah, for me, that’s pretty much, kind of, my secret formula, which is, kind of, like the simplest thing to do. And I, personally, I like old school pen and paper versus using my smart phone, so that I can cross the task off as I, kind of, complete each one.
Shantel: I think there’s really something powerful about mapping out your day before the next day, so when you get there, you’re not, kind of, distracted by the fires and the so many other things. You just, kind of, work down that list. Yeah. I like that too.
Leonte: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Shantel: Speaking of goals and accomplishing the goals, do you and the team … ? How do you celebrate these wins?
Leonte: Oh, man, that’s a very good question. I feel like the celebration is every day, no matter if it’s a good thing or bad thing. I mean, there’s a lesson in everything and there is … I think we should show gratitude in everything, ups and downs. We really, I guess, hadn’t done much, I guess, in the way of formally celebrating, but I would like to think that, just our culture alone and us having such a strong emphasis on spending time with each other and we are, really, a family-oriented office and we enjoy spending time with each other. So, I think there is a sense of celebration, just in, just showing up every day. And I don’t know if that’s a good answer or not, but I mean, I can truly say, there has not been a day since we started this company that I regretted being a part of this movement that we’re creating. So, it’s like every day is a celebration and every day is a moment to show gratitude and appreciate the journey and where we are and we … I mean, in our eyes, we’re still a small company with big dreams and goals.
Shantel: I love that. Yeah. I asked about the celebration. I do a pretty piss-poor job about stopping and celebrating, so I’m always interested to see how other entrepreneurs put the small wins in perspectives, because it’s challenging to stop and pause and reflect on all the cool things that you’re doing.
Leonte: Yes. Yes. You, actually, bring up a good point and I just made a note to myself that we may need to do something formally. I know when we celebrated two years, we threw a party for all of our clients and friends, just to let them know that we thank them for getting us this far. But, outside of that, I mean, we kind of just go through our lives and, kind of, just share and spend time with each other, whether that’s us formally getting out and, I don’t know, running a Peachtree Road Race together or walking over to Centennial Park and throwing a football, as a company, like day.
Shantel: Yeah. I like that. I think, sometimes, even those unplanned to spontaneous activities as a team are really impactful-
Leonte: Yes, indeed.
Shantel: Kind of, giving yourself the grace and the time to have those spare minutes to do things like that, that’s a great-
Leonte: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Shantel: Is there anything you wish you knew when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Leonte: I guess I wish we would have taken, in fact, more advantage of the down market, because the company, I guess, started ’06 when … And then we officially, I guess, registered with the state and everything March of 2007. And I wish that, yeah, that we would have took more of an advantage of the down turn, because there were some amazing opportunities across the board in just about every asset class that one could have took advantage of. If I remember correctly, and don’t quote me on this, but for instance, in the stock market, I think Citigroup was trading for $3 a share. Citibank. And, I think, last time I checked, it was trading for $67 a share.
Leonte: So, just imagine if you would have took, I don’t know, let’s just say, $10,000, and, kind of, just left that in Citigroup how that money would have grown. So, I mean, there were millions of opportunities like that across the board. So that’s, kind of, the only thing, in my mind, I wish I would have, kind of, seized the moment on, because I have no clue when we’ll get such an aggressive down turn again.
Shantel: Well, I’ve been hearing a lot from a lot of people that they think that’s soon.
Leonte: Yeah. See, and that’s the thing. Two years ago we thought we would have had one by now and it still hadn’t happened. So, everyone’s on pins and needles, trying to figure it out so, I don’t know, I guess that’s what makes it fun.
Shantel: Keeps us on our toes.
Leonte: That’s right.
Shantel: So, you touched on The Wall Street Journal earlier, which I think it’s amazing and such a unique gift and thoughtful for your Dad to invest in you in that way-
Shantel: How do you now continue to learn and to grow and stay innovative in your field?
Leonte: Reading lots of articles, books, lots of podcasts, and I still really enjoy meeting people face-to-face. I mean, I think meeting someone who’s an expert in their field, to me, may still be, kind of, the best approach. Although it is a little more time consuming, I think that’s still the best approach. I mean, that’s one of my favorite things to do. Find someone who’s an expert in XYZ and reach out to them and ask them if I can spend some time with them. So, for me, and also, in the commercial real estate, with what we do, we’ve been fortunate enough to have clients, kind of, all over the spectrum, who touch different industries. So, that keeps us on our toes, as well, and just that exposure, alone, to those different industries and people, kind of, helps us stay on top of what’s going on in the market, across the board.
Shantel: You touched on the face-to-face, which I think, knowing you, even outside of this podcast, I think you do a fabulous job of just building relationships, in general, and I’d be curious to ask, do you think that, that is your top strength or is there another strength, that comes to mind, that you really leverage in your company?
| THE SECRET SAUCE |
Leonte: Yeah. I definitely think so. For me, back when I was an undergrad, I went to a community college out in San Diego, California, before I went to a four year school. And when I finished school at the two-year college, I made a list of over 100 names of people that I wanted to meet. Everyone from Warren Buffett to, I don’t know, Arthur Blank to Truett Cathy to … I would just pass buildings in Atlanta and see who the broker or the owner was and I would, literally, write them a letter, a little three or four sentence letter, asking them if I could pick their brain. And, I want to say, I had probably a 95% hit rate and these people taking time out to share with me their experience and give me advice, kind of, for me was the thing that put me on the right path. So, to answer your question, I think the face-to-face thing, especially in aN environment now where everything’s done digitally, is always going to be, at least for me, the best kind of, I guess, the secret sauce, so to speak.
Shantel: That’s great. Well, Leonte, how can people get in touch with you and learn more about your company?
Leonte: Well, feel free to give me a call. Is it okay to leave a phone number?
Shantel: Yeah. Of course.
Leonte: Okay. 404-665-8401. Again, that’s 404-665-8401. And then my email address is Leonte L-E-O-N-T-E at tdallassmith.com.
Shantel: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for being on the show, Leonte. I appreciate it and it was great chatting.
Leonte: You as well, thank you.
SOURCE: Imagine More Podcast