The empire of Sheila Johnson

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; 12

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.


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.

Still, the fact that they are the exception rather than the rule deeply troubles Johnson. Businesswomen here, she said, struggle considerably more than their male counterparts in raising capital, making the right connections and getting those crucial make-or-break opportunities.

So Johnson is using her position and power to fight for women.

She is adamant that the Mystics be treated with the same level of respect as their male counterparts: When she saw that their locker rooms were inferior to the Wizards', she ordered an upgrade. She plans to bring synergy to the franchises, she said, believing joint appearances among the teams will introduce the Mystics to new fan bases and strengthen the brand.

She has thrown open the doors of the Verizon Center to businesswomen, convening one or more networking events for them a month and offering special discounts to Mystics games at which they can entertain clients.

"Every time I hear her, it's inspirational," said Jennifer Collins, president and owner of the Event Planning Group in Bethesda, who last month attended a conference sponsored by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council at which Johnson spoke.

"I admire her push to bring [the Mystics] to an equal level," added Collins, a Mystics season ticket holder.


Standing in her skybox at Verizon Center next to her mother in a small gathering consisting of friends and staff, Johnson explodes into cheers and applause when Mystics star guard Katie Smith sinks a three-point basket. "She's now cooking!" Johnson shouts, slapping one of her staffers a high-10.

Owning a sports team was hardly part of her business master plan. But she said getting the opportunity to make history as the first African American woman to own a piece of three teams was serendipity. The late Abe Pollin offered to sell her the Mystics. She was taken aback and asked: "Why me?" He retorted: "Why not you?"

She approached Leonsis, persuading him to let her buy into the company now known as Monumental in a deal that would give him a piece of the Mystics and would give her a piece of the Wizards and Capitals.

Women "get so little that comes our way," Johnson said. "We need to take risks, just like the guys."

For Johnson, who is a trained classical violinist -- not a trained businesswoman -- deciding which venture to pursue and which move to make is largely an organic process.

"When I instinctively feel it is the right move to make, I do it," she said. "And I don't do it in a stupid way, I do it where I can see really the upside."

Johnson's family relocated a dozen times during her early years, following her neurosurgeon father who moved from job to job with the Veterans Administration. The family finally settled in Maywood, Ill., outside of Chicago, where she studied the violin.

Even back then, she had a knack for making money. She made purses out of oatmeal boxes and pot warmers, which she sold to neighbors.

In her freshman year at the University of Illinois, she met an upperclassman named Robert Johnson who was assigned to be her mentor during orientation week. The two fell in love and got married two years later.

After her graduation, the couple eventually moved to Washington, where Robert Johnson worked at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Sheila Johnson landed a job teaching violin at Sidwell Friends School, but discouraged by her paltry pay, launched a business on the side -- teaching music in her home after school.

Johnson's school grew into a successful enterprise and she eventually quit Sidwell Friends. She enrolled more than 100 students and took them on tours around the world, including one to Jordan where they gave a command performance for the king and queen. Her income rose to $64,000 from $7,200.

"I learned tax law -- how to deduct for the space, even for toilet paper," she said. "I always kept good records."

Meanwhile, Robert Johnson, as a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association, borrowed a discarded proposal from a man who failed in his attempt to launch a senior citizen channel. It became the basis for a proposal for a black cable channel. With an initial investment of $500,000 from cable TV pioneer John Malone, BET was launched in 1979.

Once BET was fully established, Sheila Johnson stopped teaching and joined the company full time in 1989, working in community relations and producing an issue show called "Teen Summit."

But as the tenor of the music videos became more and more sexually explicit, Johnson said she often found herself at odds with the BET brass and her husband.

"I do worry about young kids at such an early age watching videos day in and day out where young women are ... being depicted in demeaning ways. Women and young girls think they should act like that in order to attract a man and behave that way in order to get through life," she said.

Johnson said when she complained, the response always was: "It's not about education, it's about entertainment."


The couple's professional and personal differences escalated, she said, and her husband fired her. They were divorced in 2002.

That led Johnson into an intense period of therapy and soul searching.

She settled in Middleburg during the turbulent days of her marriage, relocating there to enjoy the quiet countryside and to be closer to horse trails, where her daughter loved to ride.

She decided to launch the hospitality business, she said, believing it was an extension of BET -- another way to entertain people.

Her Salamander Hospitality company is named after the amphibian known for its ability to survive trauma by regenerating lost limbs. "I realized that from what I had gone through, I could either curl up and emotionally die or I could find my power again," Johnson said.

"I thought I had lost everything. In fact, I came out much stronger."

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