It's a quiet Friday afternoon at Shell Cove's The Waterfront shopping centre when a black Porsche rolls up into the car park. The bloke that gets out is casually attired. Looks like he's just been to Bunnings in fact. His greeting is casually laced with a few swear words, as is his nature.
If you were given a choice of picking whether he was someone who built a global company which was bought by Neilsen for $US195 million or a Wollongong furniture salesman from Warilla, you'd definitely choose the latter. Truth is, Paul Smith is both.
Raised in the surf and sand of Warilla Beach and among the housing commission homes in Booth St of the same suburb, Smith would go on to build a business empire second to maybe only one in this city. Yet few here would even know his story and even less would recognise him.
During the week, he is a high-flying Sydney businessman whose company, Total Sports and Entertainment, owns the National Basketball League's marquee franchise, the Sydney Kings. He is the chairman of the Kings, the Illawarra Hawks' bitter rivals.
Yet, of a weekend, he is just another Illawarra local loving nothing more than spending his Saturday at his Minnumurra abode and paddling his surf ski on the river with his mates, the Minnamurra River Rats. So who the hell is Paul Smith? Well, let's go on a journey.
CLOWN TO KING
Smith doesn't blink when he describes himself as "the dumbest kid in school". "Literally," he continues. " I was an appalling student. It was in Year Eight at Lake Illawarra High, Mr Richardson said 'Paul is the class clown, he is wasting his time'. That was the report card."
For everything Smith has done and become, he has never forgotten his roots. Smith grew up on Booth St, the youngest of five kids. He went to Warilla North Primary and Lake Illawarra before the family moved to Kiama when he was 17.
"I actually got home before they left so they had to take me," he says jokingly. "Kiama was a bit of a change of pace. But you know, at the end of the day, the vast majority of my youth spent down there (Warilla) with the surf club, Warilla Gorillas regularly, it was a big part of our lives."
His mother worked at the Port Kembla hospital and his father worked at Fielders, the bakery in Unanderra. He describes growing up in Warilla as "good fun".
"It's funny, my brother still lives in Lake Illawarra and he says that the housing commission situation there ..." (he stops mid sentence and changes tack). "When we grew up it was all mums and dads and everyone worked, dad worked and it was very cool, you know, all our neighbours,' he said.
"There wouldn't have been a divorce in our street. You know, it was like one of these sorts of interesting communities, whereas today it's very different. The old Warilla is all like that still. People still have their shit together .... then you have the new housing commission areas and it's pretty wild and bad, you know."
I was an appalling student. It was in Year Eight at Lake Illawarra High, Mr Richardson said 'Paul is the class clown, he is wasting his time'.Paul Smith reflected
Like much of his family, Smith lived for sport. His nephew is Shellharbour's Olympic gold medal paddler David Smith. Smith finished Year 12 at Kiama and, after a stint working in a coal mine at Emerald in Queensland, returned home to work in the iconic Wollongong furniture store Barnes Darling. It was there store owner Ces Barnes taught Smith some valuable lessons on selling that would stay with him for life. "I think retailing is a good grounding for people because you get told 'no'," Smith enthuses.
In 1983 after a couple of years of selling furniture, Smith saw a newspaper ad for a new course at the University of Wollongong for a two-year associate diploma in sports science, designed for mature age students and athletes. The sports-mad Smith jumped at it. In his class was league legend Andrew Ettingshausen and Wallaby James Grant.
"Frankly, if I hadn't been lucky enough to find that ad, I wouldn't be in the position I am today," he notes.
As much as a life-changing moment as it was, Smith realised sports science wasn't going to be his road into a sports career. He then managed to talk his way into a course at the Canberra University, a bachelor of arts (sports administration).
While moving to Canberra to study, he scored a job as a house parent at the Australian Institute of Sport looking after the needs of some of the athletes. Under his wing was tennis stars such as Todd Woodbrige, Jason Stoltenberg and even future Sydney King and Boomer Shane Heal. Yet it gave Smith another learning which never left him.
"For me it was a great insight. Athletes are just normal people who are good at one thing, sometime's good at two things, but mostly good at one thing. So their pain points, their flaws, are all real."
On completing the course, he got a placeholder job in tennis in Canberra, but in September of 1988 he scored a job in Sydney as national education director for golf's governing body, the PGA. He would rise to become the PGA's head of commercial and marketing and, when Sydney was announced as the 2000 Olympics host city in 1993, he would leave to launch his own sports marketing company Total Sport and Entertainment (TSE). He launched the company seeing the lessons he's learned with sponsorship in golf.
"I sold sponsorships to people who didn't know what they were doing," he said matter of factly.
"In the '80s and '90s it was called ego marketing, 'I want a game with Greg Norman'. Golf was big then, the coolest thing ever. And it was a fun job, it was easy. But you always knew that you were churning, you were always looking for a new partner. A new sponsor.
"And so knowing that and seeing how a lot of businesses didn't exploit their assets, they just didn't exploit what they were buying therefore they saw it as a failure. In 1994 with TSE the proposition was pretty simple: To go out there and help brands better message, better manage their sponsorships."
Smith admits it wasn't easy but eventually the business gained a foothold and some major clients. "Pepsi has been a client of ours for 21 years," he notes. After the tsunami that was the 2000 Olympics, Smith found businesses were starting to seriously interrogate their sponsorships.
"We had a dotcom bubble burst and the NASDAQ imploded," he said. "As a result of that we ended up in a very stressed environment. Clients asked more and more hard questions around 'what's it worth?'.
"Initially I said, 'I've got a job, I don't do that' but then I started listening to people and watching and working out what was going on. We realised there was a real issue. The problem was not that people were looking for measurements, the problem was there was not good answers."
A GOOD IDEA
That was the start of his business venture Repucom, which aimed to give clients an actual metric measurement on the impact of their sponsorship dollars. He said the simple proposition was assessing the value of "your logo on the jersey of this brand or this team in this sport".
"What we developed was a technology that allowed us to be the best logo counters in the business. It was a simple proposition, but complicated and difficult to achieve."
Repucom used technology to do that. So one of the company's first steps was to acquire 50 percent of a company in France to be able to control the development of the technology. The business quickly established its own foothold in Australia and, with his other company TSE largely looking after itself, Smith would open a Repucom office in Singapore in 2006 a New York office on April Fool's Day in 2007.
Leaving behind his wife and two daughters, who would join him later, Smith admits it was a huge leap of faith. "We didn't have a client when I moved to New York," he said. " I didn't have a visa. I didn't have a credit card, I didn't have a bank account. I didn't have a phone.
"I'll never forget the night I flew into New York. It was one of those really clear early spring nights, the plane dropped down and you could see the whole city and all the lights .... I was that f**king scared I started to cry. I was so scared of what I'd committed to - it just dawned on me."
Smith got to work "simply having conversations" with major organisations about what Repucom could do for their sponsorships and slowly the wheel turned.
"There was one guy at the Houston Rockets I'll never forget. He said to me 'man, you built a better mousetrap, you're in'. I was that happy, I got in the car outside the Toyota Centre (in Houston) and it dawned on me - and this is really what I think typifies what America is about - that someone else might come along with a better mousetrap one day and I'm out."
It fueled a drive and a work ethic which saw Repucom grow. Fast. Eventually Repucom came to dominate the American market working with the biggest sporting leagues and organisations in the US. It then took aim at Europe and, in Smith's own words, started "swallowing up the competition".
"No one should glamorize what we did," he admits. "It's not glamorous, but for me, it was my Mount Everest."
Repucom grew to have offices in 23 countries 1600 staff doing over $US100 million in revenue annually.
After building Repucom to this point, global giant Nielsen would finally make Smith and his private equity partners an offer they couldn't refuse. He would sign an agreement to sell Repucom for $US195 million ($260 million) and it would become Neilsen Sport, the dominant force in sports marketing worldwide today.
Yet for Smith there was a certain finality about the sale of the company he wasn't prepared for. His family had returned to Australia earlier in 2013 and, after the sale of Repucom, he had homes in London and Dubai to finalise before returning to Australia.
"I wasn't prepared for the emotional implosion of selling a company," he said. "I had a very difficult period, I'm very open about it. I probably incorrectly call it corporate depression but it was real depression. In hindsight I should have dealt with it differently, but I didn't understand or appreciate what was going on. Everyone wants a liquidity event in your life. There's nothing wrong with that, you know. As much as I now don't like money today, money's a part of what we are. And that's a part of the things that make good things happen. And so, you know, I found myself at a point where I just was sort of lost.
"I'm not ashamed of it. It's ironic, on what should be the happiest day of your life ... mate that transaction close .. when you sign a binding agreement it's done. It's just a matter of cleaning up all the bits and pieces . And four or five months later a f**kload of money ends up in your account."
Smith returned to Australia in July 2018, with no marriage, no Repucom and a need to find a new passion. That would become the Sydney Kings.
PART TWO, COMING SOON: Smith on the Kings, Hawks and his unsuccessful bid for the Dragons.