Published June 15, 2004
Volume 12, Number 6

Neal Smither's Life is a Testament to the Resilience of the Human Spirit

By Jay Hipps

There is no underestimating the resilience of the human spirit. That might seem like an unlikely statement to begin a profile of a business person’s life and career, but Neal Smither’s story offers few other conclusions.

Neal SmitherSmither was born in nearby Richmond in 1949, graduated from high school there, received an Associate’s degree from Contra Costa College, and transferred to Chico State to pursue a degree in business. It was there that his life took a sudden turn.

“At the end of my third year, April 16, 1970, I decided to drive home — I had a ’59 Volkswagen, no seat belts — and I guess I decided to drive while I was asleep. They told me I hit a tree. I woke up in the hospital with a broken neck.”

After over six months of healing and rehabilitation, Smither was discharged and left to face his future knowing that he would very likely be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He tried to continue his schooling at UC Berkeley but found it difficult to get around the hilly campus. He finally finished his degree in Oakland at the University of Phoenix extension, but his real learning was self-directed.

“After I got hurt, I wouldn’t even watch TV,” he explains. “I got up at six in the morning. I read profusely and my grandfather devised the stand-up, an exerciser, so I exercised all day long. I did nothing but that for two years.”

He found that he was able to slowly recreate his life despite his physical condition.

“After I got hurt, my uncle brought in two guys. One was going to show me how to get interested in stocks and the other guy brought in a textbook called ‘The Science of Mind,’ and how to set goals and make things happen. So I tried reading and studying the stocks and fortunately or unfortunately, I was too dumb to understand it. It felt like gambling and the print was so small, I just couldn’t get into it. So I got into the other stuff because it gave me an idea that, wow, maybe I can get healed.

“I started reading every religion I could to figure out ‘why did this happen to me? What did I do that was so bad?’ I was reading things like ‘Why Me?’ Yoga, the Bible, anything I could get my hands on. Where’s the answer there? My whole life changed.

Fortified by his new awareness and more information on the philosophy taught in The Science of Mind and the Positive Mental Attitude preached by Napoleon Hill in his book Think and Grow Rich, Smither earned his real estate license and made a goal: to be a millionaire by his 30th birthday.

His first year in real estate, he served as an unpaid intern at Precious Allen’s Real Estate in El Cerrito. In 1975, when he was 26, he moved to Locators Real Estate in El Sobrante and earned $8,000. Things were starting to come together, though.

“I would see agents go home at 7:00 at night and say to myself, ‘All right – when they go home, that means more business for me. Less competition.’ To cut a long story short, I became their top agent, listing and selling residential (properties).”

His work also helped him make a number of shrewd investments in real estate. His hard work and belief in himself was paying off.

“My goal was to be worth on paper, in equity, a million dollars. And I made it 30 days before I turned 30. So except for being healed physically, I met every goal that I put down.”

As it turns out, he was just beginning. He purchased a building and started his own company, Prime Properties Real Estate, in 1980. That was followed by the creation of the Prime Rentals and Premium Mortgage companies in 1983.

“I ended up with five real estate offices, five Premium Mortgage offices, about three or four hundred agents, and about six full-time appraisers. At the time, I think I was Countrywide’s largest lender in Northern California. And then in ‘89 and ‘90 the market soured.”

Thanks to his aggressive growth in mortgage banking and a precipitous 30 percent drop in the Vallejo and Benicia housing markets, Smither found himself writing checks to cover FHA loans he had guaranteed for the initial year. He closed Premium Mortgage, sold Prime Properties to Mason-McDuffie, and tried his hand in the Concord area with a new partner.

When that proved unsuccessful as well, he hit the street in an effort to sell the luxurious house he had built for himself and wife Patty in Orinda. He was passing out flyers at the Kaiser Center in downtown Oakland when he met a man who introduced him to the owner of a depressed downtown property at 436 14th Street, the Northern California Law Building. It was a beautiful, 15-story building, built in 1924 with inch-thick marble slabs on the floors and beautiful mahogany trim everywhere, but just over 10 percent of it was occupied. Smither took over management of the building through a five-year agreement that also contained provisions for purchase.

“In 4 and a half years my wife and I remodeled the building. It’s the only building in Oakland that has a private BART entrance and we opened that up for the first time. We rebuilt the tenant roster and I called my option and bought it.” Four years ago, Smither exchanged that building for a property in Hacienda and a small shopping center in Pleasant Hill. 

Smither’s tale of tragedy turned to opportunity — not once but twice — is remarkable without even mentioning that he broke his neck again in an accident four years ago. He lost the limited use that he had of his left arm but has since regained it, once again demonstrating his remarkable resilience.

His story doesn’t end with his personal fortune, however. He and his wife started Access for Disabled Americans in 1993, a non-profit whose purpose is to help people with disabilities live and function in an accessible environment. His wife Patty has written several books that the organization distributes, including A Guide for the Wheelchair Traveller. Their latest project is the conversion of a 64-unit apartment complex in Arizona into disabled-accessible housing.

Despite all his tribulations, Smither has a healthy perspective about his disability and the way it forced him to re-think his approach to life. “My accident saved my life,” he says. “Put it this way: I’m sorry that it happened to me but I’m glad it saved my life. I’m sorry I was so hard-headed that I couldn’t wake up. Breaking my neck woke me up.”


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