A 'Magic' touch in the business world

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

Flashing his megawatt smile, Earvin "Magic" Johnson recently entered the cavernous exhibit hall in the newly refurbished Washington Hilton hotel near Dupont Circle to lead a pep rally of sorts.

A majority owner of the luxury hotel, the former all-star point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, and now a team co-owner, stood before several dozen housekeepers, bellmen and security guards and encouraged them to perform their best to win their customers' repeat business.

"When I played sports, I only wanted to play with the best," Johnson said, sounding like an NBA coach rousing his players to victory. "When I invest money, I only want to invest with the best. Guess what? All these faces -- I'm playing with the best.

"If we over-deliver to our customers, we get retention, retention, retention. They will always come back," Johnson said. "They'll say the Washington Hilton is my home away from home."

Johnson has been a cheerleader-in-chief for an array of enterprises that has earned him a $500 million fortune and put him on Forbes's list of the five richest African Americans.

In 1990, Johnson, 50, made his foray into the Washington area business scene when Black Enterprise Publisher Earl G. Graves Sr. recruited him as a partner in the purchase of a $90 million Pepsi-Cola distribution operation in Forestville. (Graves later bought out Johnson and sold the facility.) Since then, Johnson has built his empire largely by catering to the black community. He has opened multi-screen movie complexes, TGI Friday's locations, Burger Kings and retail outlets in underserved urban communities across the country.

The Washington region has been especially important to Johnson. Besides the Hilton and an upcoming high-rise residential development on that site, he has opened the AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center 12 theaters in Largo; seven Starbucks in the District and Prince George's County; and home loan centers in the county. He also has a partnership with Gaithersburg-based Sodexo to co-brand cafeterias it operates at hospital, college and corporate campuses around the country.

"I love D.C. -- that's why I keep investing here," Johnson said in an interview. "It's a great city to do business in and get a quality return on your investment."

Now he's ready to fire up businesspeople of a different sort.

Johnson aims to mentor small, minority-owned professional business service firms here and elsewhere, providing them with advice and contracts with Fortune 500 companies. And in a separate effort, he is establishing a fund called TCW CapitalAssist Management that will offer some of those firms financing.

He discussed his ideas while strolling around the hotel, stopping repeatedly to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He talked with and made time for anyone who approached him. Similarly, he plans to make himself available to the small-business owners, giving them access to his expertise and contacts.

"I've been around the country talking to small-business owners asking them what's missing, and the number-one thing is capital. How can they get capital to go to the next level?" he said.

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