“You are so motivated to make sure the trip goes smoothly, because you know that the organs of these two kids are now going to save the lives of more than just a handful of other kids.”
Salamander Hotels & Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson
A cable TV pioneer flies high with new projects—and two business aircraft.
Salamanders are powerful animals that, legend has it, can walk through fire and come out unscathed. Sounds alot like Salamander Hotels & Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson, who has been a resilient warrior her entire life.
Johnson, whom I interviewed inside her Gulfstream GIV-SP, has certainly walked through her share of fires. Growing up in the southern U.S. during the segregation era, she found solace in the violin, earned a B.A. in music from the University of Illinois and became an accomplished performer. Then, in 1980, she cofounded Black Entertainment Television with her first husband. The first African-American cable network, BET also became the first black-controlled business to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
The company was sold in 2002 to Viacom for more than $2.3 billion. That same year, Johnson went through a painful and very public divorce. She then proceeded to rebuild her life by focusing on causes and businesses that she passionately believes in.
In 2005, she founded Salamander Hotels & Resorts, which now oversees a growing portfolio of luxury properties, including three in Florida, one in Virginia and one that just opened in North Carolina. Johnson is also a partner in the Virginia-based aviation-services company ProJet Aviation, which is where she parks her Gulfstream and Piaggio Avanti II aircraft when she isn’t using them to check on the resorts or fly around the world toparticipate in charity work. (Her chief pilot, Madeleine Gilad, co-owns ProJet Aviation.)
One of her biggest commitments is to the advancement of women. She places them in top roles in her companies and sets policies, such a flexible hours, that enable working mothers to thrive. In 2006, Johnson was named global ambassador for CARE, a leading humanitarian organization whose mission includes combating poverty by empowering women.
She is the only African-American woman to hold ownership positions in three professional sports franchises: the NBA’s Washington Wizards and WNBA’s Washington Mystics basketball teams and the NHL’s Washington Capitals hockey team. She has also served as executive producer of many acclaimed films, most recently The Butler.
During our interview, I was struck by Johnson’s charisma and forthrightness. She is a fierce businesswoman who has managed to retain the soul of an artist, and she appears to truly live the values she espouses. One of the most inspiring things about her is her willingness to candidly discuss the setbacks and challenges she has faced.
You’re involved in so many businesses. How do your airplanes help you run them?
I was brought up to take control of my own life, and this is one way I am able to do it. I spent 15 years [using a] fractional company and I decided that I should get my own plane where I can have more control over the service and maintenance.
I could not do what I am doing if I did not have these planes. I bring my staff on board and we are able to get twice as much work done. Flying commercial now is so complicated, so cumbersome, and it eats up valuable time. By putting [my staff] on this plane we can visit one, two, sometimes three hotels in a day.
I decided to [become an owner of ProJet Aviation] because I needed an airport with close proximity to the [Virginia] resort that could service not only me but my clientele. We have our own limousine company based within the resort, and it can come pick up the guests.
Do you remember the first time you flew privately?
It was when BET was starting to become profitable. We were taking the family on vacation to [the Caribbean island of] Anguilla. [Flying privately] is an experience like no other. It is the best way to travel—to be able to drive your car right up to a plane. The service is impeccable and people pick you up at the plane and get you through customs. It is amazing.
How has flying privately helped with your philanthropic efforts?
When I was a global ambassador for CARE, we did a lot of work in Africa and South America. We were going to regions where it was almost impossible to fly commercially, but [with a private aircraft] we were able to find landing strips. The only time it was a little tricky was in Haiti after the earthquake. [On those trips] we parked the plane in the Dominican Republic.
You are hands-on in your philanthropic work. Can you tell me a bit about what you’ve witnessed?
I have seen so much—from gender-based violence to HIV to children who are starving. In Haiti there is a cholera epidemic. Children bathe in the streets in sewage water. [The situation] is daunting.
We also have enormous issues here in the United States, and sometimes people think you have to have a lot of money to [effect change]. With my film, A Powerful Noise, I was able to capture three exceptional women [around the world] who were able to change communities. It shows what is being done a half a world away, with so little, with women living on less than a dollar a day.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to give back but doesn’t know how to get started?
If you can reach out to just one or two children who you see that are in trouble—from there it can grow and grow. I get a little irritated when people say they want to help, want to start some foundation, and the next thing I know I get a letter asking me for a million dollars. That is not the way to do it. [Instead], take one or two people under your wing and help them. Then those two can reach out and bring in two more and it will slowly grow. Even if you change one life, you have done a lot.
There were setbacks with starting your most recent venture, the Salamander Resort & Spa [in Middleburg, Virginia]. Why were some people so opposed to it?
It took 11 years to go through the permitting process and bring everyone on board. A lot of [the opposition] was fear-based and I think it also became a racial and gender issue. I think women in general, when they are trying to start companies, have a much harder time than men.
How do you handle that?
You wear that. I mean, I am a female and I have to keep that in mind when I am negotiating contracts [or] in meetings. I don’t wear it as a badge of honor. I wear it as a businesswoman, and that is what is important.
How do you maintain a high level of service at your resorts?
I brought in some of the top people from other hotels and we put together our own handbook of what is acceptable procedure, acceptable language, how to address guests. Nothing is impossible—you never say no to [guest requests].
We look for the best employees with the right personalities for every position and we have a list of qualities people need to be able to execute the different jobs. Once we choose them, they go through training. Some of them do not make it through training. Sometimes the work is too hard, or they just have not been able to understand what is expected.
When I am in town, I am at that resort morning, noon and night checking on things. I can spot things that are not quite right. I make a list, take pictures. Without good service, people are not going to keep coming back, so I regularly visit every department in my hotel and take any problems back to my management team.
You moved around a lot growing up.
My father was one of 11 African-American neurosurgeons in the country. He could not practice in white hospitals back then. He had been in the army during the war in the MASH unit, and when he came out it was very tough for him to get a job, so he stayed with the VA. We moved 13 times. For me it actually was great because I got to meet so many people. I think it toughened me up.
How did your experiences with racism shape you?
We moved to Louisville, Kentucky, way before desegregation. Throughout my childhood I was not allowed to go to white schools. When I got to Louisville, however, we were able to fool them for a whole year because, as fair-skinned as I am, I was able to go to the all-white school. It was a tough period, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. I remember the sit-ins in college. Sometimes I think this younger generation does not appreciate the struggles that we went through.
How did you maintain your self-confidence in that environment? Did you always know deep down that you were special?
No. I never thought I was special. I was brought up [knowing] that I had to study harder and get better grades than anyone else. I had to come to school dressed better than anyone else. That is what we had to do to survive.
Did music help you?
Music really shaped my life. My father was a great pianist besides being a great neurosurgeon, and so I learned to play piano, but did not like it. I always wanted to play the violin, and I took it up in fifth grade. I practiced for hours every day. I remember in eighth grade playing on stage flawlessly and getting a standing ovation, and then I played the violin all through high school, and became the first African American to be first chair at all-state competitions. It opened up another world for me. I started traveling to Europe to play on tour, and then went to the University of Illinois on a full scholarship.
You remain involved in promoting the arts.
Art gives you an incredible foundation of organizational skills. It helps you focus. Playing in orchestras and string quartets taught me how to listen. It took me outside of myself. It took me into my psyche and allowed me to reach deeper into myself. I learned very early that through patience, determination and hard work, you can make things work, and I have carried that through my whole life. I never give up on anything. Don’t tell me I can’t do something.
How did your life change after you sold BET?
I was going through a divorce, and the sudden wealth gave me the freedom to walk away and rebuild my life. As my mother said, it was God telling me: “Let’s get your power back.”
You know, people ask, “After your divorce, how did you bounce back?” And the answer is, I wasn’t going to not bounce back. I planted my feet and continued to move on.
And then you went on to do all these incredible things.
Exactly. And I will tell you I would not have been able to do all these incredible things if I had stayed in that moment of my life.
At that time your children were quite young. How have you instilled your values in them?
Leading by example. You would be surprised how closely kids watch you and emulate you, whether it be good or bad. I think all parents should think about that. Sometimes I will listen to my daughter talk and I’ll think, “Boy, she sounds just like me. I wonder where she got that from?” [laughs] My daughter runs her own horse business. My son runs a design business. They have learned that it is important to work hard to get to that destination.
Was there a negative aspect to the financial freedom that accompanied BET’s sale?
Sometimes people want to ride on your coattails when they think you are successful. You have to become very smart and savvy about who you let into your life and the people that you surround yourself with. Sometimes what they seem like on the outside is not what’s going on inside, and there is a [disingenuous] reason why they are around you. Unfortunately, there are people who get a little power-hungry or who just want to jump on the bandwagon.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
That I had absolutely nothing to do with building BET. And I think it is a lesson to any woman who starts a company with her husband. Because, you know, I wrote the first check to start getting the rent paid, and all that kind of stuff. I worked very hard within the company.
[But] Washington is notorious for [sexism]. There were times when we would get invitations in the mail addressed to only my ex-husband. I still bristle [thinking about some of the sexism]. I am now very sensitive when I send out invitations. I try to be an example.
What do you value in friends?
Character, integrity, loyalty. I can only be around people who love me for who I am and vice versa. I don’t believe in having friends where you have to put on a different face when you are around them.
Why did you name your company “Salamander”?
The salamander stands for perseverance, courage and fortitude. King Louis XIV had salamanders around his moat. It was to keep out enemies, protect him and give him courage. Mythically, they say it is the only animal that can walk through fire and come out alive. You can cut off its limbs and they will grow back. I love the symbolism behind it so much. It is the symbol of courage and fortitude for me.
Sheila C. Johnson
BIRTHDATE: January 25, 1949 (age 65)
POSITION: CEO, Salamander Hotels & Resorts. Also, partner in ProJet Aviation, vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and president and managing partner of WNBA’s Washington Mystics. Executive producer of four documentary films and one feature film (The Butler) and designer of a line of luxury scarves (The Sheila Johnson Collection).
PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Cofounder, Black Entertainment Television cable network
EDUCATION: B.A., music, University of Illinois
TRANSPORTATION: Gulfstream GIV-SP, Piaggio Avanti II
CHARITIES: The Lady Salamanders (a women’s street soccer team for low-income and homeless youth), Accordia Global Health Foundation, Middleburg Film Festival (founder).
PERSONAL: Married since 2005 to circuit court judge William T. Newman Jr. Two grown children. Lives on Salamander Farm in The Plains, Virginia.
Jennifer Leach English is BJT’s editorial director. Her interview with NetJets CEO Jordan Hansell appeared in our April/May issue.