He may still be chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, the cable channel he founded and then sold to Viacom Inc. for $3 billion in 2000. But these days Robert L. Johnson is also a man in search of new business ventures.
He has the embryonic National Basketball Association expansion franchise in Charlotte, a team he named the Bobcats, after himself. Next month he is going to oversee the team's first draft choices.
Then Johnson's going to create a regional cable-sports network to telecast the team's games and other sports throughout the Carolinas next fall. He has big plans for new Hilton hotels in Baltimore and Norfolk on moribund downtown sites and one in Denver, too, say officials in those cities.
And he has announced plans to join with other African American investors to build Hilton hotels at 10 historically black colleges over the next five years. He is already the biggest African American hotelier, according to the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers. The new hotels would join 11 in which the trade group says he already has a nearly $300 million stake.
And maybe he will invest in a baseball team in Norfolk, too -- says a Norfolk investment banker who says he has discussed it with Johnson -- if Major League Baseball decides that's where it wants to send the Montreal Expos. And then he could put the baseball games on his sports network, too.
Johnson recently agreed to sell his stake in a Leeward Islands lottery operation, but he is still on the board of the gambling company in the Caribbean. Now he might be interested in a slot machine outlet in Pennsylvania if the state legislature legalizes slots, according to Democratic state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams of Philadelphia, who was one of a group of state lawmakers who invited Johnson to meet with them to advise them on slots legislation. Many Pennsylvania lawmakers believe a slots bill will be approved this year.
And don't forget the 58-year-old Johnson's shared ownership of Orantique, restaurants serving Caribbean cuisine in Washington, Las Vegas and Coral Gables, Fla.; BET Soundstage, a chain of nightclubs at Walt Disney World in Florida and four other locations; and Detroit-based Wolverine Foods, a chain of restaurants.
But not all of Johnson's deals have materialized: He was unable in 2001 to create the regional Washington-based airline he planned because the federal government objected to a merger of US Airways and United Airlines that would have opened up slots at Reagan National Airport for his airline. And more recently he has sought, unsuccessfully so far, to buy majority control of Independence Federal Savings Bank, in which he now holds a 3 percent stake.
After selling BET to media giant Viacom Inc., owner of CBS and MTV, Johnson, the great-grandson of a slave named Filmore and the only one of 10 siblings who went to college (he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois and a master's degree from Princeton), walked away with more than $1.4 billion. Johnson, whose Viacom contract to run BET extends through 2005, declined to talk about his current business ventures. But those who have known him for a long time or have struck recent deals with him say that he is low-key, yet astute and detail-oriented when it comes to analyzing deals. Johnson's dealmaking outside cable television started before he sold BET, but it seems to have intensified since then
"He's the consummate entrepreneur," said Jim Winston, executive director of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. "He has the insight, tenacity and ability to take nothing and make it something. He can size up a business opportunity and capitalize on it."
Brett Pulley, a senior editor at Forbes magazine and author of a recent unauthorized book, "The Billion Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story of Black Entertainment Television," said "this is a guy who is relentlessly focused, singularly focused, who has clearly and consciously decided that nothing would be more important than creating shareholder value and his profit margin," even in the face of criticism that some of the music videos on his cable channel are too sexually suggestive.
George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association's news service, worked for Johnson for seven years as editor of Emerge, a now defunct black news magazine. While Johnson, he said, has championed African American entrepreneurship and installed blacks in key management positions, Johnson "sort of broke the mold for African American-owned firms" in that he at various times has partnered with white-owned companies and moguls, such as John Malone, one of cable television's biggest chiefs; Time Warner's HBO cable channel; and Hilton Hotels.
In buying the new Charlotte franchise for $300 million, Johnson beat out an investor group led by basketball legend Larry Bird and is the first and only African American owner of a major professional sports team.
Since winning the franchise rights himself, he has added other wealthy white, black and Hispanic investors to the ownership group. But Johnson, in joining the exclusive circle of rich people who own pro sports franchises, clearly views that as a step for other ventures and has already announced the creation of Carolina Sports Entertainment Television, a cable television network to carry the Bobcats' games, much like Comcast Sports Network and the Wizards' games in the Washington area.
While the network could fill many a winter night with Bobcat games and related programming, Johnson also has his eyes on the long-shot relocation of the Montreal Expos to Norfolk and the chance then to expand his fledgling cable network to carry baseball games, said a Norfolk investment banker. Johnson once entertained the possibility of linking up with Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to bring the baseball team to Washington, but his interest waned last year after he won the NBA franchise.
Nonetheless, Will Somerindyke, one of two 26-year-old Tidewater investment bankers who once were financial advisers at Merrill Lynch & Co. and now are seeking to lure the Montreal Expos to Norfolk, said Johnson called him in early April about his efforts to land the baseball team and that they met later last month.
The Expos have struggled for years in Montreal and no one knows which of several cities Major League Baseball might award the franchise to after the years-long study of the issue. Some baseball officials recently said that the District is a "serious" contender.
Somerindyke and his business partner, Jason Osborne, have declined to say who their investors would be, but Somerindyke said, "Funding this deal will not be a major problem."
He said Johnson "showed some very serious interest [in the venture] both as an equity owner and involving the regional sports network. There's an obvious synergy. Bob could potentially be involved. I'd say anything's possible and if we feel we can benefit each other, we'll do it."
Meanwhile, Johnson has another Norfolk deal that seems closer to fruition, teaming with former pro football defensive end William Fuller, now a Tidewater developer, to build a 200- to 250-room Hilton hotel in downtown Norfolk on a city-owned site. Final terms of the public-private partnership have not been worked out, but Norfolk Mayor Paul D. Fraim said, "We're proceeding in a comfortable, business-like manner. I do want to say we are looking forward to a prosperous partnership with Mr. Johnson. He has a wonderful record, a considerable ability to get things done."
Fuller, 42, who played for three pro teams in a 13-year career, said he sought out Johnson to join in the deal because "he's an astute businessman. When he got [to Norfolk to talk about the deal], he knew all about the project. All parties are committed to working out the deal."
The same is true in Baltimore, where Johnson, in a joint venture with Washington-based Quadrangle Development Corp., won a spirited three-way competition in February for exclusive negotiating rights with the city to build a $200 million, 750-room Hilton hotel just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. City officials hope the hotel will boost use of the city's flagging convention center.
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, said the RLJ-Quadrangle combine "has been terrific to work with. There's no reason but to believe that we'll go ahead." He said Johnson was "not a flashy person, not a hard-sell person, easy to work with."
Brody said Baltimore officials appreciated Johnson's sense of humor when he introduced his aptly named development chief, Thomas J. Baltimore Jr. "When we go to Denver, he's known as Tom Denver," Johnson said to laughter.
And yes, Johnson is negotiating a hotel deal there, too.
Staff researchers Julie Tate and Richard Drezen assisted with this report.