Utah’s most prominent business — the Utah Jazz — is changing hands after 35 years. Gail Miller and the Miller family announced plans Wednesday to sell a majority share to Ryan Smith, co-founder of Qualtrics. Here’s what you need to know about the new Jazz owner.
Who is Ryan Smith?
Smith, 42, is a Utah technology CEO whose family founded Qualtrics. The company, based in Provo, is a world leader in customer-survey software. If you’ve taken an online survey, there’s a decent chance it used Qualtrics.
He’s wealthy, high-energy and outgoing, known for charitable work, boosterism for the Beehive State and an exuberant and kinetic quality in appearances at annual events for Silicon Slopes, a state tech industry group he helped create.
Born in Eugene, Ore., the son of a University of Oregon lecturer, he moved to South Korea at the age of 17 to teach English. Smith eventually attended Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business in Provo.
He was living in California and interning at Hewlett-Packard when his father, Scott, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001. Smith returned to Provo to be closer to family and the ideas behind Qualtrics began to shape. He left BYU in his junior year to focus on growing the business, eventually finishing his degree in 2016.
Smith and his wife, Ashley, have five children. He once told an interviewer that he’s a fan of green smoothies and Diet Mountain Dew. He gets his news from Twitter and the sports network ESPN’s mobile app, which he loads constantly. The CEO talks frequently about “playing the long game” as both a personal and business strategy.
Ryan Smith is nothing if not an advocate for his business. He is said to be the upbeat and relentless counterpart in the company to his brother Jared’s more understated, engineering-minded approach.
How did he create Qualtrics and what does it do?
Smith helped co-found the company in 2002 with Jared and his father, also a BYU marketing professor, managing to grow Qualtrics in its early years without the financial losses typical for many tech startups.
Their software helps companies manage their customers' experiences, with offices around the world. One major investor once said Qualtrics “takes curating customer experiences to the extreme.” Today, the company’s sales management platforms are used by more than 11,000 brands and many of the largest companies in the world, drawing yearly revenues in the range of $289 million.
Smith has credited the influence of the state’s tech sector for part of the company’s success: “Everything I got came from Utah,” he said in January. "... It’s this ecosystem that has helped our organizations be successful.”
In 2019, just days before Qualtrics planned to take its stock public, European conglomerate SAP swooped in and bought it for $8 billion in cash — a premium price that spun heads on Wall Street. The deal was structured to bring big payouts for stock the Smith family owned as well as to retain management control.
What has Ryan Smith done since he sold Qualtrics?
He’s been heavily involved in running the company after the sale, as per the deal with SAP, and, more recently, he’s jumped in on some high-profile projects from Silicon Slopes, including efforts to ramp up COVID-19 testing with the pandemic.
In a surprise announcement in July, SAP said that just 18 months after its purchase of Qualtrics it would instead sell shares in the company, while keeping majority ownership. Smith reportedly plans to remain one of the company’s biggest shareholders as well when it goes public.
Smith is also active in 5 For The Fight, a cancer research charity he founded in 2016 on a promise to his cancer-survivor father. Its most recent tax filings indicate the Provo-based group paid out $1.57 million in grants in 2018, primarily on advertising and promotion of cancer research. Ryan Smith was the charity’s principal officer.
The global organization, which urges supporters to donate $5 for cancer research, has paid to advertise its work with jersey patches worn by Utah Jazz players.
What do we know about Smith’s love of basketball?
Smith has a basketball court in the basement of his house. There’s also a court immediately inside the entrance at Qualtrics headquarters.
Like many Utahns, he grew up playing basketball in the Junior Jazz youth program, and told observers at Wednesday’s news conference that he wanted to play for the Jazz growing up, though that didn’t work out.
It’s been a long-time passion, too. He’s golfed with former Jazz star Deron Williams. On many early mornings, he plays pickup basketball games at BYU. In 2017, he attended Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the clinching game in a Golden State Warriors win. He’s also been at most Utah Jazz games in recent years, either on or near the front row.
Forbes senior editor Alex Konrad, who interviewed Smith for a story then, put it simply: “[The] dude absolutely loves basketball and the Jazz.”
What do we know about Smith’s pursuit of the Jazz?
Smith has been interested in buying the Jazz for a long time, but figured that the Millers would retain total control of the franchise. In a 2019 interview with 1280 The Zone — a radio station Smith will soon own — he was asked about the prospect of owning a sports team.
“There’s been discussion of that and I’ve looked at that. But, you know, it’s not all gold when you own a team. I mean, it’s a job and it’s a big job. And I’m really busy right now. I’m really happy with what I’m doing right now,” Smith said.
“I mean, there’s a lot of people who like to just go buy a team anywhere and do that. You know, I have some friends who have done that. And then they’re living four time zones away from their team. And that’s just not that interesting to me. I like Utah and something around here.
“But, you know, timing has to be right. And we’re in a seven-year bull market and teams are at an all-time high. I think the NBA asset, owning one is definitely probably one of the best investments you can have. But it’s a big commitment and watching and getting close to the Millers and seeing how they’ve put everything into this, they’re phenomenal stewards over this franchise.
“What they’ve done," Smith continued, "I think the world’s waking up and realizing, wow, they’ve done a really good job.”