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The empire of Sheila Johnson

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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

Sheila Johnson steers her pewter Mini Cooper on a long, meandering path on a 340-acre pastoral parcel in Middleburg and steps out in front of a mustard stucco building that looks like a grand manor. It's just past noon on a hot and humid day, and Johnson is squinting in the glaring sun behind dark glasses as she laments the economic conditions that forced her to put her resort project on hold.

She jumps back into the car and circles the property on a horse trail, reaching a wide-angle vantage point that shows the full scope of the 168-room property.

By now, as she had initially envisioned, she'd be getting ready for the grand opening of the $130 million Salamander Resort & Spa. But the corporate high rollers she was counting on to drop big bucks for a pampered getaway are watching their pennies. As a result, she's put the brakes on the remaining work and rescheduled the opening for late 2012, hoping by then that luxury will be fashionable again. Until then, the hotel is much like a movie set -- an impressive facade with a hollow interior.

"We're slowing the process down a bit because all hotels now are in a very challenging time," said Johnson, 61, dressed casually in a short-sleeved yellow blouse and black jeans. "And one thing you don't want to do is open a hotel in the middle of a bad economy because you can't make it out ... And I do not want to fail at this."

Yet while the slump has altered her plans, it has not slowed Johnson's pace. In the past six years, she's emerged as one of the most high-profile businesspeople in the Washington area by building an empire consisting of enterprises as disparate as a gourmet market and aircraft management company, a high-end gift shop and sports teams.

Johnson is finding ways to benefit from the economic slump, scouting out distressed hotels for a property management company she just launched to turn around. She said she and her team are capitalizing on their experience rescuing Innisbrook outside of Tampa and the Woodlands Inn outside of Charleston, S.C., two resorts she acquired and made profitable after investing tens of millions of dollars to make them five-star properties.

As a new vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, she will have a part in running three of the city's sports franchises -- the WNBA's Washington Mystics, of which she is majority owner and the NBA's Wizards and NHL's Capitals, of which she is minority owner.

She's also been making the rounds of various film festivals with a documentary she produced on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the District called "The Other City."

"Throughout her life Sheila has been an aggressive and passionate business person and engaged in many endeavors. One of Sheila's great traits is her ability to successfully juggle multiple initiatives -- she has great bandwidth for her businesses and her community," Ted Leonsis, chairman and chief executive of the newly named Monumental, said in an e-mail.

BREAKING THROUGH BARRIERS

Johnson is among a small group of women and African Americans to break into pro sports' risky yet lucrative ownership ranks. And it's an equally small list of women and blacks who head hospitality companies. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to finance such ventures like she did -- from nearly $3 billion in proceeds she and her then-husband Robert L. Johnson split when they sold Black Entertainment Television to Viacom in 2000.

Washington has been a land of opportunity for some women in business. With leaders including Cathy Hughes of Radio One, Tammy Darvish of Darcars Automotive Group and Aimee Daniels of HSBC Bank, this area has the highest proportion of female executives among all the major metropolitan regions around the country, according to U.S. Census data.


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