No Man is an Island
Sea Islander Cal Smith is anything but isolated
Published in 2007 Georgia Rising Stars magazine
on September 18, 2007
Updated on August 3, 2016
William Calvin “Cal” Smith III prepped for his legal career by flipping burgers, hauling nets on a shrimp boat, interning at the White House and traveling around the country as an advance man for Vice President Dan Quayle. The kicker? He did it all before he turned 25.
“You’ve got to learn to communicate,” he says. “A transactional lawyer, especially, needs to be a real-world person, someone who is at ease with all kinds of people, in order to negotiate the best bottom-line result. This is not a numbers game. It’s about people.”
Smith currently puts in long hours at Troutman Sanders representing U.S. forestry products giant Bowater Inc. in a planned merger with its Montreal rival, Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. If it goes through, the deal will create the third-largest publicly traded paper and forest-products company in North America.
But Smith doesn’t appear to be harried as he leads a visitor through Troutman Sanders’ offices on the 52nd floor of the Bank of America Plaza. The sweeping windows offer a bird’s-eye view of the sports stadiums of the Georgia Tech campus.
“On Saturday nights, we can watch the games for free,” he says.
The 38-year-old has a crooked grin and a gee-whiz air about him. His red tie, decorated with blue and yellow fish, provides a sharp contrast to the stolid marble pillars in the firm’s elaborate conference room. “You see these lawyers with the cufflinks and the handkerchief in the pocket and all that?” he asks. “I ain’t that kind of guy.”
“Cal’s not self-important like some big-firm lawyers,” agrees Kenneth Khoury, general counsel of Delta Air Lines and formerly a vice president and deputy general counsel of Georgia-Pacific. “One reason he’s so successful is he doesn’t come on as ‘A Master of the Universe.’”
The man who connects so well with others actually grew up on an island, Sea Island, one of the Golden Isles off Georgia’s coast. Once the winter retreat of Northern tycoons with names like Carnegie and Rockefeller, the Golden Isles are now full of vacation homes for well-to-do Atlantans.
Other than the exclusive Cloister resort, the site of the 2004 G-8 summit, Sea Island, a tiny enclave with a single road, has no business. The Smiths were one of only a few families who lived there year-round.
“You couldn’t go trick-or-treating,” Smith remembers, “because there weren’t any people there in October.”
Bridges connected Sea Island to neighboring St. Simons Island and the mainland environs of Brunswick, where the Georgia-Pacific paper mill was the biggest employer. Smith’s mother, Willou, was a county commissioner who was eventually elected to the state legislature. His father worked in real estate with the Sea Island Company. Both parents owned several Burger King franchises in Brunswick, and Smith and his older sister were expected to pull their weight. His first job was cleaning the dining rooms. “There are pictures of me wearing a Burger King uniform when I was in fourth grade,” Smith says. “We were probably breaking every child labor law. I still remember getting paid $5 for eight hours of work.”
Things got better in high school when Smith was promoted to the grill. “It was back in the days of that jingle, ‘Have it your way,’ and fast-food was still a relatively novel concept, especially in South Georgia,” he says. “I could make a mean Whopper, and all my friends ate free. I was very popular in those days.”
Up until his sophomore year, Smith attended a small private school on St. Simons Island—“Of the 20 kids in my class, probably 18 of us had been together since kindergarten,” he says—but to give their son greater exposure to the world, Smith’s parents sent him to Trinity-Pawling boarding school, located in the Hudson Valley, one hour north of New York City.
“They thought I was Cooter off The Dukes of Hazzard,” he recalls. A train line ran in front of the school and for $9 the boys could ride into the city for a Saturday afternoon. “I’d walk around the city with my mouth open.”
The summer before college, Smith returned to Georgia to work for the Department of Natural Resources, tracking shrimp populations and migrations. Then in 1990, while studying political science at Wake Forest, Smith worked as a driver for Johnny Isakson, who was running for governor of Georgia.
“I was his bag man,” Smith says with a laugh. “I carried his coat and drove him in his Chrysler LeBaron over hill and dale, to every county in the state. It was like All the King’s Men, heading out into the hinterlands of Georgia, fighting this losing battle.”
Isakson ran against Zell Miller in the days before the Republican revolution in the state. “At every catfish fry, Zell would show up with his campaign manager, this off-the-wall guy from Louisiana called James Carville,” Smith says. “We all knew Carville was destined for big things because he was so sharp and witty. We were all just bamboozled by him.”
After Miller won the election, a family friend, former U.S. senator Mack Mattingly, helped Smith get a job as a White House intern during the George H. W. Bush administration. That gig led to Smith’s first post-college job: leading Dan Quayle’s advance team during the 1992 presidential election campaign. He traveled throughout the country to lay the groundwork for Quayle’s official visits, and to help coordinate details once the vice president arrived. “Quayle was a pretty right-wing guy—far more right-wing than me. But it was hard to turn down the opportunity,” Smith says.
It seems like an impossible job: trying to ensure that nothing went wrong for a vice president for whom little went right. Remember the “potatoe” incident when Quayle bombed at an elementary school spelling bee? Smith does.
“That was a rough day, to say the least,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Regardless of the best-laid plans, things had the potential to spiral out of control. Quayle was just such a lightning rod.”
The vice president drew a firestorm after accusing the TV show Murphy Brown of contributing to a “poverty of values” because Candice Bergen’s title character chose to become a single mom. The advance team often took the heat. Snowballs hit Smith during a visit to New Hampshire. A tomato splattered against his chest in San Francisco.
So much for politics. The endless travel, low pay and strains of campaigning did not add up to the kind of life desired by Smith, who is now married with two young sons. Plus: “I was always on the losing end,” he says.
He decided to enroll in law school at Atlanta’s Emory University. “I’m not a big risk taker,” he says. “I love business and I knew that, if worse came to worst, law school would give me a broad base to build on. It was a very basic, block-and-tackle, safe approach to life.”
After graduating in 1996, Smith spent three years with the Atlanta firm of Smith, Gambrell & Russell before joining Troutman Sanders, where his star rose quickly when he became an outside counsel for Georgia-Pacific. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia-Pacific is one of the leading manufacturers of paper, pulp and building products, including Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern toilet tissue. At that time, Georgia-Pacific was one of Georgia’s biggest public companies with more than $20 billion in revenue. It was also going through rapid changes, trading and selling many of its assets to focus on its core business, builder and consumer products.
Khoury was then-deputy general counsel at Georgia-Pacific, and Smith says the more experienced attorney was a valuable mentor. “We just hit it off,” Smith says. “I was still wet behind the ears, and he took me under his wing and brought me along. I still rely on him for advice. You need a sounding board in life, and Ken’s one of mine.”
Khoury says Smith needed little mentoring. “All I did was give Cal a chance. A lot of people are given a chance in life and don’t do anything with it,” he says. “He understands how to get everyone working together.”
Smith meshed so well with the Georgia-Pacific team that the company hired him in 2005. But shortly after Smith became corporate secretary and principal counsel, Koch Industries made a bid to buy Georgia-Pacific and take it private. Smith thus found himself in the awkward position of working on a deal that would ultimately put him out of a job. “It was a very emotional thing,” he says. “I had just left a promising career in private practice. All of us were very close on the legal team at Georgia-Pacific. We knew that closing the deal meant we were all going to be breaking up. We also understood we had a job to do. We had to do what was right for the shareholders.”
Smith did his job and lost his job. The 2005 acquisition of Georgia-Pacific made the Wichita-based Koch Industries the biggest private company (in terms of revenue) in the nation.
Back at Troutman Sanders, Smith is once again immersed in paper and pulp as he works on the Bowater-Abitibi deal. That business came to Troutman Sanders via Dave Paterson, the former head of the building products group at Georgia-Pacific and current president and CEO of Bowater.
The ability to form such lasting bonds is a trait Smith looks for in young lawyers.
“I don’t think law school necessarily values the traits that make for a successful lawyer,” he says. “I’d much rather take in a C student with a well-rounded personality, someone who can get along with folks, than a straight-A student from Harvard who just sits in a library. We should never lose sight of the fact that this is a people job.”