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Gordon Monson: What drives the Utah Jazz’s new owner and his big plans for the team

Ryan Smith says he wants to win, and have fun doing it, but he’ll be guided by some tough life lessons that have shaped who he is.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, pictured Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, at Vivint Smart Home Arena will soon take over the team officially.

Friction.

That’s the word Ryan Smith uses to describe the resistance that exists between him and what he wants to achieve, the climb between where he is and where he wants to be.

The 42-year-old billionaire who built the mega-tech company Qualtrics, and the man who, along with his wife, Ashley, just bought the Utah Jazz from Gail Miller, gaining official approval from the NBA governors Friday, knows the beginning from the end.

Check that. He doesn’t know the end, because, as he says it, “I’m only in the third inning.”

The first two innings and every part of the third have been … eventful, monumental.

And the sports analogy fits like a custom Rawlings baseball glove, seeing that the business polymath is as competitive as a Plott Hound in a crowded pack on the last piece of meat, as passionate about basketball and golf as two pros firmly inside those worlds whom he’s more than familiar with — Donovan Mitchell and Tony Finau.

He’s the individual now controlling the fate of the team for which Mitchell plays and the 2-handicapper has regularly joined foursomes including PGA Tour professionals Finau, Brooks Koepka, Ricky Fowler, Graeme McDowell, and older legends Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller.

He’s wandered the fairways at Pebble Beach with luminaries from other realms, such as Charles Schwab.

Privilege like that is rare, especially for somebody who once dropped out of high school, and later had no job, no place to live, no income, no direction and almost no hope.

Smith’s rise in business out of an unremarkable Provo basement, when he was a junior at Brigham Young University, to ionospheric reaches of the tech world are well documented in Utah. He, his father and brother and a friend put the rudiments that grew into Qualtrics, an experience-management software company, in place over an extended period, ebbing and flowing, leaning and lurching, thrashing and ultimately thriving en route.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs over 20 years,” he says. “I mean, there have been no straight lines.”

The miniscule-to-massive endeavor that lays out the analytics-driven technology formula for organizations of many kinds, from universities to corporations, to improve their experience, inside and out, from employees to customers, was constructed from its founding in 2002 and then sold in 2018 to SAP for $8 billion. Smith, who still guides the enterprise as CEO, said 20 months ago, while giving a commencement speech at BYU, that his company, his baby, is a “17-year overnight success.”

“Throughout this entire journey, we have faced massive friction,” he said. “And guess what? We still do today. The entire journey has been uphill. It’s been all push and very little pull.”

The outrageous success of the company, though, has brought obvious rewards, handing Smith the means by which he now owns the Jazz. The sale of Qualtrics was the largest private-enterprise software acquisition of all time.

His purchase of the Jazz might have been the most surprising acquisition of all time.

Few knew, foremost among them Smith himself, that the team was available to buy. The hoops fanatic had inquired multiple times before, as recently as February 2020, about the possibility, only to be told no, no, no.

In this last case, a couple of months ago, in this final instance, no didn’t mean no.

It meant Miller, nobody’s fool, a savvy businesswoman who had placed the Jazz in a trust to ensure the team’s long-term existence in Utah, had been swayed, impressed enough by Smith’s orientation here, his devotion to the state, and also by his wherewithal for properly bolstering the club, to hand over a majority share of the franchise, including its arena, its G League team and other assets, to native son Smith and Ashley, to and for their tender care.

The reward for the Millers was sweet.

The deal, reported to be valued at $1.66 billion, went down as smoothly as any deal could. Essentially, Smith approached the Millers with an idea to buy Real Salt Lake and wanted to evaluate their interest in rolling that ownership into some kind of joint operation.

“I don’t think they were jumping in to be a buyer the way most people would have thought,” Smith says. If they weren’t buyers for something new, would they possibly be sellers of what they already had? “… I don’t know how it happened, but it was like, ‘If you made an offer [on the Jazz], we’d be obligated to take it to the board.’”

The sophisticated thought that went through Smith’s mind in that moment fell somewhere between “Yowza!” and “Yabba-dabba-do!”

He was so captivated by possible ownership of an NBA team that he not only had made previous overtures to the Millers, but also had come close to buying another NBA team months earlier, an inclination on Smith’s part that was if not shot down by Ashley, hampered a bit by her.

“We’re Jazz fans,” she reminded her husband.

Smith remembered to do what most happily married men should — listen to his wife. She was the same adviser who had counseled Smith not to sell his business back in 2011, when he was offered $500 million for it. That same company escalated in value 16 times over in the next seven years.

Good move.

Given an open door, Smith says he literally got on his phone to look up Forbes’ estimated values of NBA teams, immediately wrote up an offer and said, “Take that to the board.”

And, he says, “Here we are.”

Here he is.

Smith adds: “I’ve done hundreds of negotiations, and I’ve done some pretty big deals. I have never done a deal like this. The amount of times the Millers have put themselves aside and we have put ourselves aside to do what is right in this transaction for the state and community, I have never been a part of a transaction like this. It’s been frictionless. And it should be an example, not just for the NBA, but for all of sports on how to take an asset like this and pass the baton.

“I just don’t know that I will ever in my life again experience something where it’s less about individuals and more about the team. And with a deal of this size, it’s just not normal. … Normally, you go through this stuff and you like each other less, burn all the bridges, and it gets really hard through the negotiation. It just hasn’t been that way. … It’s pretty amazing.”

Asked if he would circle back to consider buying RSL, too, Smith says, “I think that would be great. It’s just got to feel like this.”

Which is to say — Smith didn’t — that dealing with RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen was like shot-putting chunks of scrap iron onto the back of a two-ton.

Either way, the new Jazz owner has big ideas, big plans for his team, looking to bolt onto what’s already been built fresh experiences — for management, coaches, players and fans. That, after all, is the very thing Qualtrics says it provides for its clients — data and ideas for improved workplace environments and results.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t want to win or be successful,” says Smith, “but we’re here to have fun.”

(Photo courtesy Utah Jazz/Melissa Majchrzak) Gail Miller stands with Ryan and Ashley Smith during a news conference on October 28, 2020, where it was announced the Smiths are buying the Jazz and other parts of the Miller's sports and entertainment businesses.

Seoul searching

On this occasion, for this interview, Smith sits on a comfy sofa, decked out in a sweatshirt and a baseball cap worn backward, looking as though he just arrived from a skate park, openly telling tales about his life, about his ascent.

He was born in Oregon, moving to Provo with his family when he was a kid. His father was a professor at BYU, his mother an energetic woman who raised five children and went on to gain a doctorate degree and to work as a senior executive alongside the president of Utah Valley University. They stressed with their children, including Smith, the importance of education.

He pretty much blew off his parents in that regard.

His mother and father divorced when Ryan was 14. “Kind of a rough time in the family,” he says, and while he doesn’t blame anyone but himself for his lax attitude about learning and about life — he dropped out of Provo High School in the 10th grade, with no plans to go back — Smith says he dragged and slugged his way through, inspired by almost nothing.

When he was 17, he decided along with a couple of friends that it sounded like a cool idea to move to South Korea to teach English in Seoul. His dad told him he could do so, if he earned his high school degree first.

He did and he did.

That decision changed his life.

While in Seoul, especially in the early days and weeks, much of the little Smith had leaned on for his own identity and security dissolved. The job he and his friends had counted on did not exist, the planned housing arrangements crumbled. His friends forthrightly bailed on the venture, asking their parents to help them jump on a plane and head home. They did. But when Smith discussed his dire circumstances on the phone with his dad, the advice he got back was not only that he should stay and make the best of it, but also that Pops wouldn’t buy him a free ticket home.

The teenager had limited — read: no — money. He didn’t have a place to stay. The intended job was gone. So were his few friends. Prospects were slim and grim. He had no native language skills. He had nothing. For a time, he crashed in the less-than-stellar pads of people he met, one way or another. He found a different place to teach English, a school that allowed him to bed down on a couch at the facility. He desperately hung on, spending what he earned on ramen noodles, which he ate three meals a day.

Friction.

There was a lot of friction.

Not an actively religious person up to that time, Smith ran across some missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and attended a ward, getting to know some of the parishioners.

It was over this span when the kid started asking questions that fired past the superficial, straight toward what the hell he was doing with his life and why he was doing it. He learned, he says, to pour everything he had into an endeavor, this one — to survive.

He did survive, finding a little faith, too.

“I found gears I didn’t know I had,” he says.

When he returned to Utah, he applied himself in ways that hadn’t occurred to him previously, like going to college. He also decided to head out on a Latter-day Saint mission, ending up in Mexico City. When he returned from that, the former lost boy powered through into a self-actualized man.

While attending BYU, he met Ashley at a party, and she dated and married him, despite him not having a real job — “She bet on me,” Smith says — and still in ardent search of what he would latch onto with all his acumen and newfound energy.

He previously might not have been a conscientious student, but he did have a big brain on him.

Discovery happened soon enough as Smith co-formed and co-organized the foundational ideas for what would become, never in a straight line, always up and down, his multibillion-dollar child. En route, he and Ashley, who established her own dance studio, had five kids and formed as balanced an existence as parents of a crew that size, with burgeoning business concerns and responsibilities, possibly could.

Looking back at that transformation, that journey, Smith shakes his head in near disbelief, but the evidence of its authenticity is all around him. He remembers with exactness the effort expended in formulating the software, the ideas behind the product, handling the risks, attending the meetings with customers, taking the countless trips away from home, the setting up of offices around the globe, the hiring of 4,000 people, the expansion of an empire that was hatched, in part, out of his own imagination.

“There are sacrifices at every point,” he says. “But we’ve been fortunate.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, left, talks to Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith at the company's headquarters in Orem in 2012.

Learning how to give

Smith never talked to Larry Miller, not once. The man who took a huge chance on buying the Jazz in 1985, borrowing more than his net worth to do so, and subsequently building an automotive kingdom, as well as a stretch of other businesses, used to make weekly trips to teach a class on entrepreneurship at BYU. Smith does remember that.

His mom regularly dropped her kids off at the Tanner Building on BYU’s campus, where her then-husband taught, and Smith used to bound around the building and all around other campus buildings as though they were his personal playground. He was young, but old enough to notice the Jazz owner taking the time to teach that class, and to wonder why, with so many other things tugging at the business titan, he would do that.

“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “I don’t know why I grasped that concept as a kid, [wondering] why he would do that, but I could see the philanthropy. As a kid, you never see the philanthropy. You never realize it until later. But I realized it at the time because it was so consistent.”

Smith has followed the pattern, not only by championing causes like the 5 for the Fight campaign to raise money for cancer research, symbolized by the patch that the Jazz have worn on their uniforms for a fistful of years now, but also in attempting to be a decent person, beyond being a good husband and father.

But this is where the conversation with Smith turns slightly awkward.

He fervently talks about good causes — it felt rewarding for him to discuss the 5 for the Fight patch and sponsorship with other NBA owners earlier this week on a Zoom call convened to approve his new ownership, a patch and sponsorship they have been and are impressed by — but he hates when those around him confront him with his good deeds.

Five for the Fight, which Smith helped found, has generated nearly $30 million over the past four years to help take steps toward slaying cancer, one of the monsters of our time.

That’s a big deal, but there also are little ones.

He and his wife and kids dropping off meals at neighbors’ and friends’ homes just because they want to help out during a pandemic, or being kind to strangers who might have no clue who he is or why he does what he does.

“Qualtrics is an experience-management company,” says Mike Maughan, a high-level executive with the firm. “And I think that has bled into every aspect of Ryan’s life.”

Maughan says he marvels at the interactions Smith has with regular folk, such as ushers at Jazz games, where the billionaire stops to talk, offer up food and drinks, and inquire about how they’re doing.

Tim LaComb, the former assistant basketball coach at BYU, and his family were once the recipients of an unannounced meal hand-delivered by Smith to their doorstep. “Why?” LaComb asked, as Smith tossed him two bags of food. “Just thought you might enjoy it,” was the response.

“I’m an imperfect person,” says Smith, twisting and turning. “This [conversation] is going in a direction I don’t feel comfortable with.”

‘We want to win’

Smith’s connection to sports is something he has a difficult time explaining. He wasn’t a great athlete as a kid — he was diminutive, 5-foot-7 in high school, but he grew to 6-2 later. He played various sports, but not at any high level.

He does now.

The Jazz owner has an indoor basketball court attached to his home, where he has regulars, among them former NCAA Division I players, showing up to engage in full-on, full-court battles.

“He’s not that good,” says LaComb. “Nah, don’t put that in.”

Answers Smith: “Hey, when you’re 42 years old and you wake up at 6 a.m. to run up and down the court, that’s a win.”

As mentioned, Smith plays golf whenever he can, and has become a skilled amateur, his handicap hovering between scratch and a 3. He loves the Monterey Peninsula, and has a soft spot for the course at Pebble Beach, where he owns nearby property.

His hunger for competition is voracious when he loads up his clubs.

“You don’t play golf as much as I do if you don’t want to be competitive,” he says. “It’s the one game you can’t master, no matter what you do.”

But you can master it more than your friends.

When it comes to running the Jazz, Smith says he will lean on the experts — managers and coaches — already in place to make decisions. He sat in the war room during the draft last month, staying mostly silent, and was impressed by what he witnessed.

“Man,” he says, “they’re good at what they do.”

Jazz Executive Vice President Dennis Lindsey sees similarities between Gail Miller and Smith: “Ryan is a great people person with boundless energy. Jazz fans should be confident he’s values-based, much like the Miller family. In short, he’ll soon set meaningful examples of what Jazz DNA stands for. I’m excited that we’ll see team building the same way.”

He adds: “He’s always had great passion for basketball, so this stewardship of the Jazz is the culmination of a lifelong love for the game.”

For his part, Smith says Lindsey is the team’s architect, and he’ll let him continue to mold the team to his liking. He calls Quin Snyder “one of the best coaches in the league.” And he says he “loves” the current players on the roster. He would offer no revelatory info on the progress or lack thereof in the high-stakes contract extension talks involving All-Star center Rudy Gobert, a major issue/decision facing the Jazz.

“This is probably the best team we’ve put on the court in years,” he says. “… I think we’re poised to do some great stuff.”

Hoist a Larry O’Brien championship trophy?

Smith plans on gaining ultimate victory, he says, with deep-furrowed sincerity: “We want to win.”

He wants more than just that.

“The thing I’ve said with the Jazz is, we’re going to have fun,” he says. “… That’s what we’ve done at Qualtrics. And so, that’s what the promise and commitment is. And I hope every single player, every single fan, when they come to the arena, they have fun. We live in Utah, and one thing I can say about this state is, generally people are happy and you can have fun here. And that’s it, the Jazz have to be that for everyone.”

Even so, his brief experience preparing to own Utah’s marquee professional team has been different than he anticipated. Harder. “It’s not easy to own an NBA team,” he says. “This is not what people think from the outside, where it’s all fun. There’s a lot of work, a lot that comes with it.”

Smith feels that heavy responsibility.

“To sit and say, ‘Hey, this is a dream,’ I don’t really see it that way,” he says. “It’s work. It’s going to be work, and it’s going to be hard. The dream comes in what we’re able to do for people.”

Regarding the attention paid in the NBA, particularly by the players, to racial and social injustices that have been in the news for so much of 2020, Smith is all for making right what has been wrong for far too long.

“These should have been solved hundreds of years ago,” he says. “… We’ve just got to do better. And I’m going to do my best to lead out on that the same way I’ve done at Qualtrics. We can do better as a state. We can do better as a league. I stand with our players. … Systemic racism might be the worst experience there is. … We want to get rid of these bad experiences. No one should have to grow up or deal with that. And I will do everything I can with this platform to help use it to get rid of that bad experience.”

As for the pandemic and its adverse effect on sports teams, what with attendance being limited to such a huge degree, Smith says, “Help [in the form of vaccines] is on the way, and we’re going to get through it.”

The daily reminder

Life is good for Smith, not because he’s got more money than King Farouk, not because he possesses the power and influence that immense affluence brings, and not because he views himself as any kind of conqueror. No. He likes himself some of that, most of that.

But the parts of his existence that bring the real reward are family and stewardship, responsibility and achievement and work.

It’s because, just like during those lonely days as a kid in South Korea, he’s brushing the friction aside, he’s riding the ups and the downs, pushing what he’s created and what he’s acquired toward a better end, keeping the whole of it in perspective.

“That’s why I dress the way I do, I wear my hat the way I do,” he says. “It just reminds me …”

It reminds him that he’s Ryan Smith, the imperfect dude, not Ryan Smith, the monarch.

And that, casual or otherwise, he’ll beat an opponent that is more challenging, more formidable than the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers, the one that’s always been his foe, but also his friend.

Friction.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.

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