ROGERS -- When Cameron Smith threw out the first pitch at a University of Arkansas softball game in May, he wound up and fired a strike -- between his legs. The crowd roared.
Doing things with a little flair comes naturally to Smith. Since moving to Northwest Arkansas in 1992, the former California surfer dude and professional softball player has built Cameron Smith & Associates into one of the top executive recruiting firms in the nation. In the process, he helped transform Wal-Mart's "Vendorville" of suppliers into a key cog of the region's economy.
"It would be impossible to look at the massive expansion of the vendor community and not see Cameron's fingerprints all over that," says Bill Akins of Rockfish, a digital solutions agency based in Rogers.
Smith's imprint is all over a completely unrelated part of Arkansas as well: high school girls softball. He spearheaded the change from slow pitch to fast pitch, which improved competition and the scholarship opportunities for players.
And then there were his back-to-back battles with heart trouble and cancer, which turned him into a public advocate for the Arkansas organizations that have helped him and others.
"He has so many interests," his wife, Monica Smith, says. "He gets known for things."
Spend a little time with Cameron Smith and you might believe his real gift is as a raconteur. Still sporting a shock of blond hair at 66, Smith specializes in stories in which he figures as the flawed hero or heroic foil.
"Cameron can pick up the phone and call anybody and get them to laugh or make a connection with them," says Denice Natishan, a recruiter for the recruiting firm. "He has a unique ability to make somebody feel special. He probably thinks it's simple, but it's not."
Smith grew up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. His mother, Phyllis, worked three and sometimes four jobs at a time to put her three kids through Catholic schools. She died at 48 from a stroke. "She had a huge influence not only on me but my brother and sister," Smith says. "She was very social. We picked up a lot of those skills."
Cameron -- when not surfing -- delivered newspapers, mopped floors at a car dealership and sold peanuts at The Forum, home of the Los Angels Lakers. He played football and ran track in school, continuing his gridiron career as a tight end at El Camino College before finishing his communications degree at California State University, Long Beach.
When a friend asked him to play softball, he recalls, "I said, 'Are you kidding me? My athletic career has come to this?'" But Smith eventually put together his own team, named himself pitcher -- and got pounded in his first outing.
"We lost like 21 to 1. I walked 15 batters and hit another five. My teammates wouldn't even talk to me after the game. I said, 'I've got to get better at this.'"
He did, by throwing for hours a day. His team moved up the ladder of area softball leagues, and within five years, Smith was getting paid to play the game, with teams across the country flying him in to pitch. In Los Angeles he played on teams sponsored by actors Tony Danza and Billy Crystal.
"I was like a hired gun," he said. "I was on 17 rosters a year."
Smith took a sales job after college but quit after several years to play softball full time. When he decided to return to a traditional job, he contacted a recruitment agency, which offered him a job. Smith eventually started his own professional placement firm in California, specializing in the consumer product and medical-pharmaceutical fields.
He continued playing softball on the side, including stints with a famed barnstorming team, The King & His Court. A kind of Harlem Globetrotters of the softball diamond, the team was known for beating other teams with a four-man roster consisting of a pitcher, catcher, shortstop and first baseman.
Smith almost assuredly would never have moved to Arkansas if not for someone he noticed in Las Vegas, in a hotel breakfast buffet line. "She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen." Finding her name -- Monica Tucker -- on the buffet sign-in sheet, he called the front desk to ask if a "Mr. Tucker" was staying there. Instead, they patched him directly through to Monica's room. Smith pretended to be a hotel employee with a vaguely European accent. He kept Monica on the line just long enough to elicit the information that she was from Russellville.
Several weeks later, he found her number in Arkansas and called.
"He just said, 'Were you in Vegas six weeks ago?'" Monica says. "'Do you remember this voice?' It really freaked me out a little. In my book anybody who comes from Los Angeles is a little crazy anyway. I just kept hanging up on him."
Smith finally persuaded her to write down his phone number and call if she was ever out west. A couple of months later, she arranged to meet him in Las Vegas while taking her mother there for a quick trip. The half-blind date -- he'd seen her, but not vice versa -- developed into a long-distance romance. Monica refused to move her two children from Arkansas until they finished high school. So they settled in Fort Smith.
"It was a pretty big deal, but he knew he could recruit from anywhere," Monica says of her husband's move. "Once he got here, he fell in love with the state."
One thing about Arkansas astounded him. "When I found out girls were playing slow pitch [softball], I thought, 'Have I landed on the moon or what?' The next thing you'll tell me is your high school football team is playing flag football."
Smith, who was still flying back to the West Coast to play softball every other weekend, started lobbying coaches, athletic directors and anybody else he could think of to bring the fast-pitch version of the game to the state. At one meeting, he remembers, "Somebody stood up and said, 'Who's going to teach these kids to pitch?' I finally said, 'I will.'"
Smith held clinics across the state for five years, sometimes attended by as many as 100 young athletes at a time.
"He was kind of an ambassador for fast pitch in this state," says Farmington High School Coach Randy Osnes, whose teams have won three state championships. "Speaking for myself and a lot of coaches, we're very appreciative of what he did for getting the sport going in this area." Osnes met Smith after one of Farmington's star pitchers, Cassy Long, now head coach at Fort Smith Southside High School, took lessons from him. Smith and Osnes eventually started conducting camps together.
"Whenever he talked to these young women, he wasn't talking above them, he was talking to them and explaining in a way they understood. Not only could he tell them how to do it, he could show them how to do it."
Arkansas players who'd been raised playing slow-pitch softball had not been recruited by colleges, which were already playing fast pitch. Since the switch, Osnes alone has sent more than 20 young women on to play in college, many on full-ride scholarships.
"It's just really nice to see how things have progressed, and a lot of it has to do with Cameron Smith."
Smith spotted another unmet need in Arkansas, about an hour north of Fort Smith. At the time, 40 to 50 Wal-Mart suppliers maintained offices in and around Bentonville, but meanwhile the company was doing business with thousands of vendors. Smith figured that if he could convince some of those suppliers to build offices in the area, he could get the job of filling them with executives.
Armed with a yellow legal pad, he and Monica went to Wal-Mart stores, picked up boxes, wrote down the names and addresses of the companies on them.
"I would call a company and say, 'I know you're No. 1 except in Wal-Mart," Smith says. "It's because you're not here.' They couldn't care less."
Then he hit on the idea of soliciting testimonials from the vendors who were.
"It just blew the lid off," he says. "I couldn't hire recruiters quick enough to handle all the assignments I was getting."
Today, there about 1,600 Wal-Mart vendors and third-party suppliers -- companies that support the vendors -- in the area. Smith says his firm had a hand in attracting nearly a third of that number and has placed about 5,000 employees with those companies.
In the beginning, he notes, not every potential employee wanted to move to Northwest Arkansas. Today, it's an easy sell.
"When I recruit people here, the first thing I say is the best part of this opportunity is where it is."
Fifteen years ago, after working out of their home for several years, Cameron and Monica moved to Rogers and opened an office. Cameron Smith & Associates employs two dozen recruiters and support staff. Monica, the company's CFO, watches over its finances "like a mother hen," Cameron says.
The agency works beyond Arkansas, helping recruit employees for suppliers of Target in Minneapolis, Walgreens in Chicago and Dollar General in Nashville, Tenn., among others. In 2018, Smith expects to open an office in central Arkansas, serving nonretail fields such as accounting and information technology.
Akins, of Rockfish, attributes Smith's success to two factors: an incredible number of contacts and a genuine willingness to help anyone he can. "He immediately gives back knowledge that he acquires," Akins says. "He doesn't horde it like he thinks it's going to make him smarter or give him a competitive edge."
In 2011, Smith flew to Washington state for what was to be his last appearance with the King & His Court team. Shortly before the game, his physician telephoned with urgent news: the amount of calcium plaque in his arteries was so high that playing in the game might kill him.
Smith returned to Arkansas for successful quadruple bypass surgery at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith. Grateful, he allowed his photograph to be used on a billboard along Interstate 49 urging others to get a coronary calcium test. "People started coming to me and saying, 'I want to get tested,'" he says.
Then, six weeks after that surgery, another examination revealed that he had throat cancer. He underwent treatment at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, dropping 70 pounds in the process.
"You feel like holy #$%), man, it's unreal," he assays. "People would see me and they'd say, 'Man, you don't look like you're going to make it.'"
Smith continued to sit courtside at Razorbacks basketball games, although at times he could barely walk.
"He's such a fighter," Natishan says. "He just had the most amazing attitude, like was he never going to be beaten. Nothing will ever get him down. He always finds a solution."
He has been cancer-free for six years.
The Smiths' activity on behalf of charitable organizations reflects their experiences: the Cancer Challenge, Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Benton County, Arkansas Children's Hospital, American Heart Association, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and its "amazing" Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, and the Rogers-Lowell Chamber of Commerce have all benefited. Smith will chair a fundraiser for Haas Hall Academy, a public charter school in Fayetteville, this spring.
Three years ago, he and his colleagues launched an effort to place more women on the boards of publicly traded companies. "We've had some successes, but it's been a little slower than we anticipated," Smith says. "You look at boards of directors across the state of Arkansas, it's really one big boys club, and trying to change that takes time."
Ever the showman, Smith sponsors one of the state's biggest fireworks shows each July 4th.
He claims not to be working all that hard these days. Thanks to its employees, Cameron Smith & Associates practically runs itself, he says, leaving Monica and him more time to attend their 10 grandchildren's dance recitals and sporting events. On the other hand, don't look for him to retire anytime soon.
"I don't see an end," he says. "It's kind of a sick feeling, but I just enjoy it. I can barely get through a weekend. Sunday afternoon, I'm ready to go to work."
• PLACE AND DATE OF BIRTH: Long Island, N.Y., Feb. 1, 1951
• MY BEST PITCH IN SOFTBALL: a rise curve. Breaks up and out.
• MOVING TO ARKANSAS: was life changing.
• MY FAMILY WOULD SAY I'M: young at heart.
• MY PET PEEVE: name dropping
• IDEA OF A PERFECT DAY: early morning devotional, good workout, time with family and friends and knowing I made a difference today.
• LAST GOOD BOOK I'VE READ: Leading Through the Turn by Elise Mitchell.
• BEST CAREER ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED: Before you can have success, redefine the word failure and don't be afraid to fail.
• GUESTS AT FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Tom Hanks, Tony Robbins, Michael Jordan and Jim Carrey
• ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: grateful
“Somebody stood up and said, ‘Who’s going to teach these kids to pitch?’ I finally said, ‘I will.’”
High Profile on 12/31/2017
Print Headline: Robert Cameron Smith; The big-league recruiter behind the dramatic growth of Wal-Mart’s ‘Vendorville’ helped raise the level of play in girls high school softball so Arkansas athletes can swing for sc