From the archives: Cameron Smith pitched jobs, softballs in NWA

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,928 views 

Cameron Smith signs autographs after competing in a softball game with The King and His Court — the Harlem Globetrotters of softball.

Editor’s Note: The following story written by Jeff Wood was originally published in the July 5, 2004, edition of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. Northwest Arkansas business leader Cameron Smith, founder of executive recruiting firm Cameron Smith & Associates in Rogers, died this week from complications due to cancer. He was 71.

Cameron Smith’s original Fort Smith office telephone is a gray, weighty relic.

A beat-up plastic PhoneMate model from the early 1990s, it has a key-covered setup with a clunky neck rest and a corkscrew cord. There’s also something else noticeable, something about the buttons that’s been just beautiful for Bentonville.

The numbers are worn completely off.

Cameron Smith & Associates Inc., the world’s largest executive search firm specializing in vendors to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has helped bring hundreds of retail supplier teams to Northwest Arkansas over the last decade. During 2003 alone, CSA recruited 65 vendor teams to the area. As of early July 1, it was working on another 11.

These aren’t just any jobs that Smith, 53, has helped bring to town. These are the major league all-stars of their field — the Scott Rolens of retailing, the Sammy Sosas of supply chain management. That’s why corporations shell out for recruiting searches instead of simply posting a “help wanted” ad.

A professional fast-pitch softball hurler himself, Smith whips the old phone out of a drawer when asked how he turned a legal pad and a pipe dream into a headhunting empire.

“My wife Monica would walk through a store, pick up product packages and write down on a note card where the company was from,” Smith said. “Then she’d give it to me for my Rolodex. There were also only about 48 Wal-Mart suppliers with Bentonville offices back in 1994 when I got started, and at that time the Beau Terre office park housed most of them.

“So I just drove up the hill, wrote down all their addresses and went back and made my calls. They were ecstatic that there was finally someone on the ground here doing executive searches for vendors.”

Word spread, and so did CSA’s business. The Bentonville firm has grown to nine people between a Minneapolis, Minn., branch and its 2,000-SF home office. Smith moved the firm up from Fort Smith last October and into new local digs this June on the downtown Bentonville square — just three doors down from the Walton “Five & Dime” museum.

With more than 10,000 pre-qualified resumes of experienced, high-level retail vendors on file, CSA had 2003 billings of more than $2.7 million. That number grew 40 percent from 2002, Smith said, and he expects to have to add another recruiter soon.

CSA gets a percentage of a placement’s base salary when the candidate is hired, and guarantees the employee for a period of time. A number of vendors, Smith said, keep CSA on retainer. CSA also helps in the interview process and with compensation negotiations.

Because his company is privately held, Smith declined to disclose its total placement statistics. Wal-Mart suppliers such as Gary Parker, director of customer management at Atkins Nutritionals Inc., suggest the recruiter’s overall impact must be staggering.

CSA lured Parker from the Kellogg Co. to Atkins in January 2003. Since then, Smith helped add five additional members to the low-carb diet food firm’s Wal-Mart team. During the same span, the number of product categories Atkins sells through Wal-Mart has grown from 13 to 70 and Atkins’ sales — due to several retailers — have grown 10-fold from $93 million to more than $1 billion.

“Unlike some others,” Parker said, “Cameron calls and really listens to what you’re trying to accomplish. He takes time to get to know the person and the supplier team’s needs. There might be a job out there for more money, but it might not be the right job for you. He only calls with opportunities, or candidates, that make sense.”

Numerous other retail vendors, such as Wayne Callahan, who leads the global Wal-Mart support group for the H.J. Heinz Co., have provided endorsements for CSA on the company’s Web site at

As of July 1, CSA was trying to fill 74 open positions on vendor teams that are either moving to, or are already settled in, Bentonville.

Wal-Mart claims to have 23,500 domestic vendors, or what it likes to call “supplier partners.” Smith said his firm has charted 1,143 Wal-Mart supplier offices on the ground from Fort Smith to Joplin, Mo. That includes, he said, 400 to 500 “one-man-show” operations where vendors primarily work out of their homes.

Smith said there’s at least 48 additional Wal-Mart vendor teams in Chicago and another 56 in Dallas — two cities within a commuter-flight’s length of retail’s ground zero. The regional influx, Smith said, has not come from some supposed edict but the suppliers’ strategic desire to react to and interface with Wal-Mart quickly.

Many times, he said, a 30-second meeting in Wal-Mart’s corporate lobby can make a difference.

“Sometimes a supplier will just put a part-time analyst here,” Smith said. “Even that might cut the firm’s annual need for trips to Bentonville from eight to four.”

Estimates for the number of existing and expected local vendor bases are often bandied about by various public officials, Smith said. But his firm has spent a decade tracking the supplier teams and CSA keeps its collective ear to the ground daily.

Of the firms that supply Wal-Mart, he said, CSA has narrowed the overall total to about 13,000 main, retail-product players. Companies that sell Wal-Mart shelving racks and cash registers, for instance, aren’t CSA’s forte.

“Every time I read the paper and people are speculating on how many vendors are moving here, I think, ‘All we do all day long is track that,’” Smith said. “If we don’t know for sure, how do they? Even if another recruiter has a search assignment, typically we know about that, too. Typically, we’ll know about six months before a new team is coming.”

Smith, a native of Laguna Beach, Calif., met his future wife on a Las Vegas trip in 1993. He was a district sales manager in California for the Champion Spark Plug Co. from 1976 to 1980 and Gulf & Western Industries from 1980 to 1985. After a stint in professional fast-pitch softball, including with the Hollywood All-Stars, he went into the human capital business in 1987. By 1991, Smith founded his own executive search firm. After Smith said he fell in love with “a southern belle from Russellville,” the couple settled in Fort Smith and started CSA.

Smith had contracted to put together a sales force for Entergy Corp. when he stumbled into “Vendorville.” He hand-picked people who had not been executive recruiters before, picking people who were dynamic communicators and solvent enough to give the business time to grow.

“Headhunters eat what they kill,” Smith said. “It’s all straight commission.”

Smith said he restructured the entire business to focus on top-tier retail vendors. CSA’s northern office now serves suppliers to Target Corp. of Minneapolis, Best Buy Co. of Richfield, Minn., Walgreen Co. of Deerfield, Ill., Kmart Holding Corp. of Troy, Mich., and Cosco Wholesale Corp. in Issaquah, Wash.

A new CSA division, CSA New Ventures, was recently formed to help Smith tap into non-staffing opportunities that keep coming the firm’s way. He’s also teaming with some retired Wal-Mart executives and vendors on a supplier education series. This fall, CSA will help present a course called “Street Smarts” for hundreds of high school junior and seniors.

The course will tackle dressing for interviews, college courses that can speed a career and even how to hone a good resume.

Northwest Arkansas’ vendor invasion continues, Smith said, even though the fact many are one- and two-person offices probably means construction is outpacing growth.

“Most of the big guys are already here,” Smith said. “They’ve already seen the value, but Wal-Mart’s shift to a category-management model also means that the supplier teams have gotten deeper and wider. They have to keep up.

“The real next wave is that third circle, those 3P [third party] companies that are flocking here with sales and technical people to call on the vendors.”

Smith said 3P firms are also probably the best place for local professionals without national retail experience to try to crack into the vendor community. Calling on vendors every day, he said, creates networking and other opportunities.

“I get unsolicited calls every day from people I can’t help,” Smith said. “There are quality people in other fields who think just because they’re already here, that’s enough. It’s not. I had a Division I football coach from a neighboring state call recently asking about a supplier team leader’s job.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a team leader over here who doesn’t know anything about football, but he wants to be a Division I coach next year. What do you think?’ He said, ‘Yeah, OK, I see what you mean.’”

A marketing analyst certificate from Northwest Arkansas Community College combined with additional internships can help, Smith said. But don’t expect to go from a fork-lift driver to managing a $100 million category overnight.

“These suppliers are brilliant, analytical people,” Smith said. “They’re the best out there who have worked their way up through the ranks to call on the largest company in the world. There’s not time for training. It’s all about speed.”

Clothing and smaller food companies, such as pork seller Rudolf Foods, make up a lot of the recent move-ins. Smith said it comes down to a commitment to service.

“The vendors aren’t here to sell Wal-Mart,” Smith said. “They’ve already sold them or they wouldn’t be here. Now they’re moving here to service Wal-Mart better. That means finding the very best people.”

Staffing isn’t Cameron Smith’s only area of expertise.

After playing football as a tight end and punter at Long Beach State from 1974-75, Smith stayed active in sports and became a world-class softball pitcher. He joined The King and His Court — the Harlem Globetrotters of softball — in 1982 and became a full-time member of the roster in 1985. From 1987 to 1993, Smith also pitched for the Hollywood All-Stars charity teams, playing with the likes of Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, Ted Danson, Mark Harmon and Tony Danza.

Tons of newspaper space has been devoted to stories about Smith’s trick pitches, such as the between-the-legs or blindfolded varieties. It’s true he consistently threw the ball at more than 104 miles per hour, and Smith’s credentials even include 26 professional no-hitters and five perfect games.

“I couldn’t believe there weren’t men’s fast-pitch softball leagues when I moved here,” Smith said. “I got interested in helping promote the sport, and we conducted clinics all over the state that during the course of seven or so years saw more than 6,000 girls go through.”

The Arkansas Activities Associates credits Smith with helping lobby to make fast-pitch softball a sanctioned statewide high school sport for girls during the late 1990s.

“It’s probably one of the proudest things I’ve ever done,” Smith said. “I still enjoy getting out there and doing free clinics for the kids.”