In his heyday, Cameron Smith was among the world’s best professional fast-pitch softball pitchers.
In the 1980s, he toured with the legendary Eddie Feigner and his barnstorming, four-person team known as the King and His Court. Sportswriters often described them as the Harlem Globetrotters of softball.
“Cameron was an incredible softball pitcher,” said Matt Waller, a longtime friend of Smith’s and dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. “The way he got good at it was he practiced it over and over. He was relentless about practicing.”
Waller said that a relentless mindset guided Smith’s business pursuit, too. It helped him build a prominent executive recruiting firm in Rogers, focused on the consumer products industry and ranked by Forbes among the nation’s top executive search firms.
“When he came to Northwest Arkansas and shared with me his vision for what he was going to do, he was relentless about learning retail and the [consumer packaged goods] world,” Waller said. “He just went at it full force.”
Friends and colleagues are remembering Smith, the founder and owner of Cameron Smith & Associates (CSA) executive recruiting firm in Rogers. He died July 18 at Mercy Hospital in Rogers from complications due to cancer. He was 71.
Denise Natishan joined CSA in 2004 and is a senior partner. She said Smith’s work ethic reflects his upbringing by a single mother who worked multiple jobs.
But, she said, Smith had the charisma to match, which set him apart.
“Nobody could do it like Cameron,” she said. “He was so genuine and real with everybody. He genuinely cared about people and this community. He wanted [Northwest Arkansas] to be the best it could be and saw it that way.”
Smith was born in Hempstead, N.Y., on Feb. 1, 1951. He grew up in southern California in the 1960s and played football at Long Beach State University in the mid-1970s.
After working in sales for a couple of California companies and touring as a professional softball player, Smith went into the human capital business in 1987. By 1991, he founded his own executive search firm.
During a Las Vegas vacation, he met a Russellville girl, Monica Tucker. The couple eventually married and settled in Fort Smith. Together, they started CSA in 1994, and Monica is the firm’s chief financial officer.
She survives him, as do his children: Jeff and Tara Smith; Troy and Michelle Smith; Sarah and Jeff Tucker; Jaclyn and Brad Julian; and 10 grandchildren.
“He adored his family,” Natishan said. “He just lit up when he talked about family. And he created a work environment that ensured we could take care of our families. He was forward-thinking. We were able to work from home if we needed to long before COVID.
“He and Monica were that invested in us.”
Smith eventually relocated to Northwest Arkansas to build his firm in Bentonville in the mid-1990s when there were less than 50 supplier teams in the region.
Wayne Callahan, one of the region’s most influential suppliers for many years, started the local S.C. Johnson Wax vendor office in the early part of the decade to serve the Walmart and Sam’s Club accounts. Callahan said Smith was an essential connection to help him build the team with the right people in the right roles.
“At that time, not many of the companies had more than one person here,” said Callahan, who later headed up H.J. Heinz Co.’s business with Walmart for 15 years. “Through the years, he’s helped me source many people.”
Callahan, now a senior adviser for a private equity firm, said Smith was a close friend and also someone he relied on to discuss needed jobs as the region’s CPG reputation grew nationally.
“He was always there anytime I needed or wanted to talk,” Callahan said. “I was so confident in him, and I enjoyed advocating for Cameron to other people. I loved sharing with other [CPG] team leaders doing similar work in the market and recommending Cameron and his team.”
Callahan said that making those critical connections is Smith’s business legacy.
“He did not create the need for vendors and suppliers. That was the customer,” he said. “What he did extremely well was connect people. I like to think of all the people he connected to an opportunity that positively changed their life.”
In 2010 CSA launched CSA Outplacement & Career Coaching, to assist companies during layoffs and downsizing, followed by the opening of a temporary staffing division. In 2014, Smith announced an initiative promoting gender diversity in the boardroom by placing women on the boards of public companies.
Among Smith’s other endeavors, he co-founded the speaker series Doing Business in Bentonville and Shiloh Technologies, a software company. As a financial supporter or board member, he worked with numerous nonprofits, was prominently involved in multiple community endeavors, and served on several civic and corporate boards, including America’s Car-Mart Inc. and White River Bancshares, the holding company for Signature Bank of Arkansas.
Smith was also on the World Trade Center Arkansas’ board of advisers. The center opened in 2007 in Rogers to help Arkansas companies gain access to and expand in the global marketplace.
“Cameron and the late Stanley Reed were the first two people I asked to sit on our board,” said Dan Hendrix, WTCA founding president and CEO, now retired. “Our mission was to increase and establish opportunities for business and help source products elsewhere. I felt he was a natural fit.”
Hendrix said Smith was not only a business colleague but a good friend. He enjoyed watching Smith’s business success during their two-decade relationship.
“He had a talent, and he understood people,” he said. “He could look at people personally and on paper and determine where they may or may not belong.
“Timing is everything. He was first out of the gate to put the recruiting together with all the influx of vendor offices in Northwest Arkansas.”
It’s estimated today that more than 1,500 vendors have a presence in Northwest Arkansas.
Waller, who frequently invited Smith to speak at the Walton College, said the category management retailing concept originated in Northwest Arkansas due to collaboration between Walmart and its suppliers. Smith played an essential role in the development.
He said CSA’s success played a role in Walmart’s growth and success.
“Without Cameron, I think it would have taken a lot longer for some of these firms to locate here,” Waller said. “And I’m not sure they would have had the right people on their teams. These CPG teams needed unique skill sets, and Cameron was diligent about understanding the skills and leadership capabilities needed in these offices and how to organize their teams. These weren’t just sales teams. You had logistics and supply chain teams from the supplier and the retailer working together. He had performance metrics on all of this, which greatly benefited Walmart.”
Waller noted it wasn’t as easy 25 years ago to recruit to Northwest Arkansas.
“Can you imagine if you spent your whole life in New Jersey working for a CPG company, and all of a sudden, they want you to move to Northwest Arkansas?” Waller said. “It was a bit of a stretch. And some people wouldn’t do it. Cameron Smith made it happen.”