Johnson Readies His Next Gamble

Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, left, former chief of staff to president Bill Clinton, and Robert Johnson have teamed up to invest in auto dealerships in Alabama.
Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, left, former chief of staff to president Bill Clinton, and Robert Johnson have teamed up to invest in auto dealerships in Alabama. (Linda Davidson - The Washington Post)

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By Thomas Heath
Monday, February 16, 2009

Robert L. Johnson's rise to riches is one of those oft-told success tales in entrepreneurial circles, the stuff of Washington legend.

He was a lobbyist for the cable-TV industry in the late 1970s when he convinced communications mogul John Malone to invest in his idea for a television network targeted at African Americans. Thus was born BET, Black Entertainment Television, which is located in the District.

Johnson sold BET to Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion, becoming the nation's first black billionaire. You'd think he would kick back, buy an island or a vineyard, and pursue a well-earned life of leisure.


Johnson is hunting for opportunities. He sees lots of them in this down market. He networks like mad, partnering with others -- and often their money -- to turn his ideas into businesses. He was hobnobbing at the NBA All-Star Game this past weekend in Phoenix (after all, he is the lead owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats). With a boldface name, you can imagine he receives lots of pitches from other entrepreneurs. His friendship with the Clintons hasn't hurt, either. It helps "deal flow."

And he's got a lot flowing.

Johnson's latest scheme is a venture to bring video gambling machines to the Caribbean and Latin America, promising governments there a lucrative new revenue stream and a means to drive out less-scrupulous gambling operators.

But that's hardly his only preoccupation. A hotel owner, he is building a $12 million, 78-room resort in Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, which opens next month. (Liberia's president personally asked him to build a hotel and gave Johnson a favorable, long-term lease on the land.)

He's been active with an auto-dealership venture he formed with former Clinton chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, recently buying a (get this) bankrupt Chevrolet dealership for $3 million in Huntsville, Ala.

He owns RolloverSystems, in Charlotte, which helps people manage retirement accounts when they move to a new job. He is busy expanding his Urban Trust Bank. And he has invested in a $30 million private-equity fund with the Overseas Private Investment Corp. in Africa.

Johnson told me he has something in the works involving personal finance, but that one isn't soup, yet.

Oh, and he also plans to bid on the franchise to run the D.C. Lottery.

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