to rags to riches, the road to building a billion-dollar telecommunications
company was never easy for Steve and Sarah Smith. But it has been interesting.
was a chilly February morning when Steve Smith boarded a helicopter at
his ranch near Uvalde, Texas, and headed west on a whim last spring.
businessman heard about an unusual sale in the Big Bend area of Texas.
The resort town of Lajitas was up for sale.
lasted barely an hour. Steve Smith went home $4.25 million poorer, but
now he owned a 2,123-acre town, complete with hotel, nine-hole golf course,
trading post, a half-dozen other small businesses and 21,000 acres of
Sarah was in Fort Worth when the phone rang. Sarah was trying to talk
to the caller when her sister began tugging her toward the television
up long enough to see TV reporters asking Steve why he'd bought the town.
stunned; Steve hadn't said a word about it. Later, Sarah said she realized
if it wasn't that, it would be something else. She has accepted that life
with Steve will always be ". . . like trying to hang on to the tail of
was a dreamer on the side of an Austin road in 1988 selling strings of
He knew chile
ristras were popular decorative items in his hometown of El Paso, but
they hadn't quite caught on in Austin. Maybe, he thought, that was only
because no one had brought them to town.
from the back of his pickup was hardly Steve's dream job. It was, at best,
a way to fill in the cracks that had torn at his family since their arrival
in Austin several years earlier.
life in El Paso had been mostly idyllic. As vice president for international
marketing for his family's paint manufacturing business, Steve provided
Sarah and their two children, Rayner and Rachel, with a comfortable life
that included social and financial standing, a large house, even a white
But a business
dispute eventually sent Steve and Sarah searching for a new future. Unfortunately,
their move to Austin collided with the '80s economic dip and before long,
the Smiths were living at the mercy of generous friends. Sarah eventually
returned to teaching while Steve sold ristras.
It was a
low Sarah would later recall with soft eyes as she described bathing the
kids at the public pool and cooking foil dinners out back because the
electricity had been turned off.
crushed, Steve languished for a while on the sofa with the remote control;
a "bewildering" time, he called it a decade later.
think that would happen to you, but we literally lost everything," Sarah
said. "We lived in a friend's apartment. We had no car, no telephone and
sometimes, no food." For two and a half years they struggled.
in telecommunications, but despite being a consumate salesman, nothing
took hold. His financial hole was so deep a regular job would never get
the family out of debt. Steve needed something big.
Then he met
Kenny Troutt, a fellow dreamer who was taking advantage of the recent
deregulation of Ma Bell and starting a long-distance company. Steve had
long been fascinated by the thought of merging network marketing and long-distance
It took a
few months, but he eventually convinced Troutt that was the way to take
his fledgling company. So with only a yellow legal pad, a No. 2 pencil
and a big idea, Steve wrote out the marketing plan that would make the
two millionaires in only a few short years. He
wrote it up between customers on the side of an Austin road.
are an odd sort, Sarah said. Their dreams are often so big they find they
don't fit in. Their passions run deep, and while differing in many ways,
entrepreneurs have one similar goal -- to create their own destiny.
Sarah are both deeply passionate, but Steve's big dreams were vastly different
from Sarah's. Hers centered around family; Steve openly admits that back
then, he just wanted to be rich.
1989 at age 46, Steve started making that happen. Every Monday he drove
to Dallas, where he worked nonstop to build Excel Communications. On Friday
he returned to Sarah and the kids.
like fire ants under Steve's marketing prowess. Before long, he bought
the family a house -- in Austin. They agreed it was best for the kids.
years Steve commuted to Dallas, exciting years for Steve as his personal
empire grew to near gargantuan proportions, lonely years for Sarah and
an entrepreneur isn't easy, Sarah said. The average is four wives for
every entrepreneur. Staying married takes a commitment of epic dimensions
and a whole lot of love -- the one constant in the Smiths' union.
The two first
met when Sarah was a 19-year-old beauty in the queen's court at the El
Paso Sun Bowl. Steve was escort for another girl. They struck up a friendship
and double-dated occasionally over the next few years.
23 and home on break from teaching in Kansas City, Mo., when she ran into
Steve, who had recently divorced. A whirlwind romance ensued and within
months, they married. Her reserve balanced his gregariousness.
been able to make me laugh," said Sarah, eyes sparkling.
stability," Steve deadpanned, then tossed his head back with a laugh.
"Don't print that or I'll be dead."
"We both came at marriage with different backgrounds and issues and a
bunch of baggage, but I think it's our desire to be successful at marriage
and family that's brought it to where it is. "The biggest lesson both
of us had to learn is that that person is just going to be that other
person, and you've got to love them no matter what. That has to be the
ultimate conflict in marriage -- trying to make the other person be who you
want them to be."
fortune grew, Steve's investments eventually included seven different
homes scattered across the country. Each time, Sarah added her touch and
poured her soul into the newest one, hoping that would be the place Steve
would settle into and make his own.
very hard to make them each a home," Sarah said. "I used to think, 'This
is the one Steve will want to come to,' but I finally learned that's just
not Steve. Now I'm glad I worked to make them each feel like home so when
I go to them, I feel comfortable."
She now knows
her need for home and family and a quiet space was as strong as Steve's
need to inject himself into the frenetic world of a successful entrepreneur.
But, at the
time, his absence stung.
"You go through
so much to get to this point, but in the midst of the pain and misery,
you don't realize what you've really gone through emotionally until you
crater," Sarah said.
with it the only way she knew how -- she studied up on what makes entrepreneurs
tick, then wrote a book about how to live with one. The two-year project
is not finished -- Sarah said she hasn't stopped growing through it all yet.
Formal education has never been a priority for Steve.
years of plodding through a handful of classes, Steve left the University
of Texas to return to the family business. But for Sarah, who taught elementary
kids after graduating from Stephens College in Missouri in 1973, education
is a passion.
kids. The Smith’s two Frogs, daughter Rachel, a sophomore, and
son Rayner, a business senior, are best friends and remain close to
their parents. Sarah calls them “her jewels.”
It was she
who steered son Rayner to TCU following a raucous year at the University
of Colorado in Boulder, she who joined the TCU Parent's Council and then
the Chancellor's Advisory Committee, she who suggested Steve might make
a good guest speaker in the business school.
spring day -- just one week after Steve spoke on campus -- Chancellor Michael
Ferrari, Provost William Koehler and David Minor '80, the director of
the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, sat at the Smith's breakfast table
talking about the future of the new Entrepreneurial Studies program.
announced his plan to donate $10.5 million to build a home for the program,
Sarah's tears flowed. He had not told her of this plan; it was a gift
to her as much as to the future of TCU.
what I almost feel like is a big debt because we've been so unbelievably
successful," Steve said. "It certainly didn't come from my efforts, though
that had something to do with it, but there had to be a whole lot more
to it than that. A whole lot of people helped my success, our faith had
a lot to do with it, and now we're going to give back to the important
areas in our life."
and entrepreneurship -- first they funded a national TV ministry for their
pastor, then they donated a wedding chapel for the church. Now both pairs
of eyes are on TCU, each with their own view toward its purpose. Sarah,
who serves on the Center's Advisory Board, said she wants the building
to be a campus-wide gathering place for students of like minds.
this place to capture the spirit of those kinds of individuals," she said,
"but most of all I want this to teach them how hard it will be for them
to pursue their passions and still hold on to their families."
is a bit more pragmatic. "I think our whole educational system is based
on teaching people how to add two and two, but not how to take that end
result and use it in life," he said.
process teaches you how to go out and get a job for somebody else. "The
entrepreneurial program can be an absolute landmark beginning to a movement
to lead this society back to more independence."
their involvement is the result of finding like-minds at TCU. "There is
real sincerity at TCU about furthering some of the same things that I
believe in," Steve said. "It's not just lip service; there's a passion
among the faculty and the administration for this entrepreneurial push."
people ask them, Why TCU? When you come down to it, she said, it's all
about being part of something bigger than yourself.
the Smiths' world is not easy. The massive electronic gates to the exclusive
Vineyard Bay neighborhood where they live open only to the invited. Then
there's that finicky wrought iron fence wrapped around their three-acre
property on Lake Travis, followed by an imposing, ancient European front
door with an unwieldy handle.
you cross the threshold into their 8,500 square-foot home, the Smiths
are just a couple of regular folks from El Paso who just happen to have
spent the past few years under a lucky star.
that's what they will tell you. Sitting among the bougainvilleas and hummingbirds
at their estate, it is hard to imagine they ever experienced hardship.
Sarah's serene and warm manner speaks of strength and confidence. Steve's
eyes glow with satisfaction when he looks at his bride of 26 years. But,
they emphatically agree -- it wasn't always that way.
people like everyone else," Steve points out. "Special things just have
happened to us. We're very fortunate." Sarah explains they both know it
was God who carried them through their business to a place where they
can give back.
things together for a reason," Sarah said. "It's not about money, it's
about people. It's not like we planned way back, 'Oh, I think we'll build
an entrepreneur hall someday.' " Her laughter fills the room. "It's all
a link in the chain. It's not a matter of intelligence or being brilliant.
It's just that when your heart is open, then your vision will be open."
the past few years have been "a real ride." Now he's focused on a mishmash
of various brick and mortar types of businesses -- banking, oil and gas exploration,
real estate. And
of course bolstering Lajitas. But
his real joy now comes from helping TCU and others achieve dreams.
relates the story about Steve buying Lajitas, the self-effacing entrepreneur
laughs and points to a small sign bearing the words of Winston Churchill.
It was a
thought he brought home to Sarah early in their marriage -- and now hangs
on their kitchen wall -- for better or for worse:
rise highest against the wind.
sure to read Business plan and Business