James R. Smith

James R. Smith was born on May 15, 1949, in Roanoke.  His education was a result of the three J’s: Jameson Elementary, Jackson Middle and Jefferson High School.  Jim also graduated from Virginia Western and Virginia Tech. His parents, both hard working individuals, hailed from elsewhere before moving to Roanoke. His mother grew up in a family of coal miners in Mc Dowell County, West Virginia, and eventually became a cafeteria worker at Stonewall Jackson Middle School. His father, originally from Wytheville, VA, grew up in a family that ran a country store and sawmill.  His father would go on to serve as a Roanoke City fire fighter and captain for thirty years.  Jim’s father and mother decided Roanoke would be a great place to start a family with a variety of job opportunities. They had two daughters, followed by Jim as the third child.  They became members of Waverly Baptist Church.  During his upbringing, Jim enjoyed school, he played baseball, football and served as captain of the school’s wrestling team.  His high school superlative was “most popular”, a superlative he shared with his wife, Augustine. 

Jim is quick to add that outside of school he realized he was a “natural born merchant.”  At the age of six he joined the workforce of a small orchard, picking fruit for the local farmer’s market.  His pay was in fruit that did not go to market.  However, Jim hauled away his produce earnings in a little wagon.  Jim went door to door, selling his produce to the elder neighbors who paid in cash.  Depending on the time of year, he would sell other items in the neighborhood.  Around Christmas he peddled painted pinecones. Other times he would sell chicken potholders that his grandma made.  As he grew older, Jim recognized that other firefighters, like his dad, worked 24-hour shifts.  Jim made himself available to mow their grass, clean out their garages, wash their cars and shovel snow.

 The consummate entrepreneur, Jim enjoyed business, economics, and math.  He had an independent streak which motivated him to leave home at the age of seventeen.  Far from luxury, Jim’s attic apartment had bare light bulbs and a shared bathroom.  However, it was affordable on his salary at the local Save-A -Stop warehouse, where he worked from 4 to midnight.  He would get in a few winks before heading off to high school.  Jim assisted his firefighter dad on odd jobs as a plumbers’ assistant which usually meant working in crawl spaces under houses.  He also soared to great heights painting church steeples in the area. 

Jim signed up for the VA National Guard completing his training after high school graduation at Fort Polk.  He received medical training at Fort Sam in Houston, Texas.  He then turned his attention to furthering his education at Virginia Western Community College.   After two years of taking odd classes Jim says, “I had to bring the plane in for a landing after circling the airport a number of times.”  Jim ultimately earned an associate degree in business administration and a bachelors in Sociology at Virginia Tech in 1974.  But Jim had a strong interest in the subject of objectivity and in how to understand information based on quantifiable findings.  He believed one should not be influenced by personal biases, in other words “don’t put your thumb on the scale so it comes out like you want it.” His favorite read on the subject is “Super Forecasting” by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner.

After graduation, Jim’s career path began with the Southwest Virginia Training Center in Hillsville, Virginia.  A training center developed under the leadership of Governor Linwood Holton.

Jim went on to work for 5 years at the Department of Mental Health and Retardation as the Business Office Manager at Catawba Hospital.  This led to a career with Blue Cross/Blue Shield running the CHAMPUS division that processed claims for the military service and their dependents, plus Medicare.  This job covered seven states and ultimately led to a position with the Department of Defense.  Jim then developed nursing homes and other senior housing facilities. 

The combination of these experiences gave way to learning about the needs in our region for quality care of the aging population.  Jim decided to establish his own development firm, Smith/Packett Med-Com, in 1982.  He devised a matrix defining where condos, senior independent and assisted living facilities should be located considering square footage, access, cost of materials, regulations, and targeted population/occupants/ income stream.  This matrix allows him to determine if a project is feasible and where best to locate.   Utilizing a service-based system, he was able to provide what people wanted where they wanted it.

Smith/Packett, now a 38-year-old business, started with the first facility in Bland County named the George B. Kegley Manor.  Kegley was a much-admired general practitioner in Bastian, VA. This first nursing home for the area was constructed in 1985.  The whole development process was like Pandora’s box.  First, the promise of an established county water source was not adequate. So, Jim had to create the first full water system that not only served his sixty-bed building but the entire town.  Then, his facility became a major attraction because it featured the first elevator in the County.  There was no sewage system so that had to be developed as well.

The rapid growth of the company resulted in multiple partners building on an average of six nursing homes per year.  By the fifth year of business, Jim became a solo owner.  Within his career, he has developed well over 200 facilities that now include independent and memory care facilities. This led to the formulation of three companies designed to support the entire foundation. 

  1. Smith Packett – 38 years – A development company with 53 employees.
  2. Harmony -Management/Human Resources – 10 years – An operating company with 63 corporate employees and over 2,200 community employees. 
  3. Wessex Investments – pursuing new endeavors, investments, and growth – 5 years and based in Charleston SC with 7 employees.

Jim, being the founder of Smith/Packett, Harmony Senior Services and Wessex Capital has experience in the development and operation of senior housing facilities from the Northeast to Florida, all east of the Mississippi River.  Over the years, Jim has strategically led his companies in their growth and management of over $1.250 billion in assets. His ability to work through complex structures while creating value has allowed him to assemble a diverse portfolio of high-quality assets that produce reliable and growing cash flows. He has focused on forming predictable, steadfast partnerships with investors, financial institutions, and operators to provide clients with a strong team capable of withstanding changing market conditions.

Jim’s most challenging development in the Roanoke Valley had been the development of South Peak.  Jim proposed to Roanoke County that the intersection of interstate 220 and Electric Road should be looked at as the gateway to Roanoke.  After almost five years of meetings and the filing of 54 zoning applications, the location became home to a mixed-use development with condominiums, a hotel and a restaurant that provided the county with a stronger tax base and opportunities for employment.

Jim has extensive experience in reimbursement payor systems and is a recognized expert in Medicare and Medicaid and other long-term care issues. As a result, he frequently serves on national and state committees on reimbursement reform. He has served multiple terms on the Board of the Division of Medical Assistance for the Commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors. Jim also served on the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Board in Roanoke and was the first independent Chairperson of this Board.

Jim now resides in a Charleston, South Carolina home, the John Ashe house which was built around 1770.  The house was once a brief headquarters in 1780 for Cornwallis during the Revolutionary war.

Jim believes the primary factor in our success as a country is the rule of law.  “We are a people of the law.  That means truth, fair play, and an even break.  When you lie or cheat you have done a disservice to yourself, disrespect to others and undermined the endeavor at hand.”  Secondly, he states, “I believe in kindness and the ability to see in others what we see in ourselves.  We are more alike than we are different from each other so stop and reach out a hand, bend down to pick someone else up.  No one is ever stronger than when they share someone else’s burden.

James R. Smith was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 2019.

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