Dorian Martin, July 14th, 2021
Brent Smith ’97 ’98 learned to appreciate family, integrity, and a strong work ethic growing up in rural Central Texas. His understanding of these values deepened during his undergraduate and graduate experience at Texas A&M University, creating a strong foundation for Smith’s successful professional success and personal life.
Now Mays Business School is honoring Main Street Capital’s CFO and treasurer with the Mays 2021 Professional Program in Accounting (PPA) Lifetime Achievement Award. “Brent Smith embodies the Aggie core values and has earned the respect of leaders across the financial industry through his personal integrity,” said Dr. Nate Sharp, head of Mays’ James Benjamin Department of Accounting. “Brent has risen to the CFO position at two different companies thus far, and his career achievements reflect positively on Texas A&M University, Mays Business School, and the PPA program in the James Benjamin Department of Accounting. We are so pleased to honor Brent with the PPA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021.”
Committed to Hard Work
Smith spent his early life growing up and working on the family’s century-old farm in Round Top, Texas. The importance of family and community was underscored when his father died of cancer when Smith was 12. “My brother and I were raised by my mom, who was incredible—and still is an incredible woman,” he said, adding that the small community’s commitment to hard work also influenced his approach to life.
As Smith and his brother, Brad ‘91 ‘92 grew up, education remained a top priority. Both became the first generation in their family to attend college and earn a degree. “In general, most of the people in our community were Aggies,” Smith said. “Certainly, the culture of A&M—that historically supported blue collar students from a rural environment–led to having more Aggies in the area where I grew up.”
A Stable Career
As a freshman, Smith still was unclear about his career direction. Eventually, he decided to major in accounting because of his family’s financial struggles. “I was always told that if you wanted a safe and consistent job and you wanted to go into business, you couldn’t go wrong with accounting,” he said. “People are always going to need accountants.”
Soon, he realized that he had an affinity for the accounting coursework. “I had a general interest in business. I was very detail-oriented by nature and very analytical,” he said. “It seemed like a good fit.”
The university’s culture also supported the future executive’s development as a leader. “Texas A&M fosters teamwork, and a sense of community and togetherness. We can work together to figure things out,” said the member of PPA’s Group 5. “Texas A&M also offers a humble, hard-working environment and a down-to-earth mentality where, in general, Aggies don’t think they’re above you. We’re a roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-to-work kind of people.”
That work ethic, along with the technical accounting skills that Texas A&M provided, were instrumental in Smith’s rapid success in his first job at Arthur Andersen’s Houston office. “When you go into an organization like Arthur Andersen, you try to distinguish yourself,” Smith said. “The way to do that is through hard work, a can-do attitude, and being a team player.”
After working in public accounting for a few years, Smith joined FTI Consulting to concentrate on financial investigative work. He worked with FTI for three years before deciding to switch jobs to prioritize his young family.
Smith’s reputation for hard work and willingness to learn, combined with his deep network, led to a position at Cal Dive, a multinational marine construction company serving the offshore oil and gas industry. “Like most opportunities, this one came out of something that was broken,” he said. “They were having issues with their operational accounting, which they wanted me to come in and improve.”
While he knew that he ultimately did not want to do operational accounting long-term, this position was a way to get his foot in the door at Cal Dive. “That started a 10-year run that led to a lot of opportunities for me to move through the organization very quickly,” he said.
Smith followed a circuitous professional route—including working for one of Cal Dive’s spin-off companies that ultimately went public–that broadened his experience. “I jumped at the chance because it was a way for me to pivot a little bit away from accounting and do more on the finance side, which I hadn’t done a lot of,” he explained, adding that he advanced to become the company’s vice president.
These varied experiences prepared him to become the CFO at Cal Dive at the age of 35. “This was a great experience in a very tough industry,” he said. “There were lots of ups and downs. I went from record-level financial performance to worrying about meeting payroll. There were extreme circumstances that I had to manage through. Looking back, you learn invaluable lessons about how to manage things.”
Investing in People
Eventually, the oil and gas industry’s ups and downs took a toll, causing Smith to be receptive to other opportunities. Several of his former Arthur Andersen colleagues approached Smith about the Main Street CFO position. “This was completely different from my previous experience,” he said. “It’s a publicly-traded investment firm. It was such a great opportunity that I decided to make that change.”
The Houston resident has continued to hone his leadership skills during his seven-year tenure at Main Street. “I’m a big believer in effective communication,” he said. “To be a successful leader you have to have effective communication—to be direct and have tough conversations when needed.”
Smith also has embraced mentoring to invest in the company’s employees. “When you take someone under your wing and bring them along in their career, you’re making a big investment in people,” he said. “If you can do that consistently, it’s going to pay off through less turnover.”
While career and family have occupied much of his time, Smith has found ways to give back to Mays. Smith and his wife, Kristi, established a scholarship for PPA students. This fund already provided financial support to two Mays students during the 2020-21 academic year.
He enjoys meeting with PPA students and MBA students and has participated in roundtable discussions. The senior executive also regularly participates in Mays Alumni Forum, where he shares the critical lessons from throughout his career. “I always tell people that it is very difficult to be patient. If you have some idea of how your career path will line out, that’s great; it’s good to have long-term goals,” he said. “But don’t get too caught up in specific titles, because I can guarantee it won’t work out exactly the way you planned. The key is putting yourself in a position to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities when they come.”
A Foundation of Family
While career is important, Smith always puts his family—his wife of nearly two decades and their two children, Hunter and Jenna—first. “Nothing is more important than spending time with them,” he said. “The big buzzword that I’ve learned throughout my career is perspective. Especially early in your career, a problem or challenge might seem like it’s overwhelming and the end of the world. But at the end of the day, nothing is more important than your family. Having that balance and keeping in mind what you think is most important is critical.”
Unsurprisingly, Smith’s family and roots are at the center of his reaction to receiving the PPA Lifetime Achievement Award. “I was very humbled. This award is something my family can be proud of,” Smith said. “I came from humble beginnings, and I still consider myself very humble, but I have had some success in the corporate world. This just shows that you don’t have to be raised in a wealthy family or in a large city to achieve a very high level of success in the corporate world.”
Mays’ leaders feel that Smith personifies the type of transformational leader that the school is trying to develop. “Brent Smith is the kind of person who gives capitalism a good name. He has demonstrated excellence throughout his career while maintaining his perspective on what is important. Around Aggieland, we call it selfless service, but for Brent it has just meant being who he is, a deeply skilled professional who leverages his abilities to make others successful,” said Dr. Mike Shaub, Mays clinical professor and Deloitte Professional Program Director Professor. “He is generous in giving back in time and resources to those who are following behind him in Mays and PPA, because his legacy is not centered on accomplishments, but on changed lives. He is patiently building a legacy not just in the business world or in Mays Business School, but in life.”