Margie Goldsmith met hotel and sports team owner, entrepreneur, philanthropist and documentary producer, Sheila C. Johnson
US entrepreneur and philanthropist Sheila C. Johnson focuses on the arenas of hospitality, sports, TV/film, arts, education, women’s empowerment and community development. As CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, a hospitality company she founded in 2005, Johnson oversees an ever-growing portfolio of luxury properties, including three of the top golf resorts in Florida; a new property, Henderson Beach Resort, also in Florida; the equestrian-inspired Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia; and the newly-opened luxury NOPSI Hotel in New Orleans. In spring 2018, Johnson will open her company’s second city property, Hotel Bennett in Charleston, North Carolina.
Johnson is also Vice Chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, and President and Managing Partner of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA’s) Washington Mystics. She is the only African-American woman to have ownership in three professional sports teams, her portfolio including the National Basketball Association’s Washington Wizards and the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals. She serves on the executive committee of the United States Golf Association, is a partner in Mistral, the maker of fine bath, body and home products, and launched her own collection of luxury scarves, inspired by her travels around the world. She has served as a judge for Ernst & Young’s World Entrepreneur of the Year Award, been named among the Top 50 of America’s Richest Self-Made Women in Forbes Magazine, and co-founded WE Capital, a venture capital consortium to empower female-led enterprises. She also serves on the board of the Greater Washington Partnership, a centre for commerce and innovation.
A long-time powerful influence in the entertainment industry, Johnson was a founding partner of Black Entertainment Television (BET), served as executive producer of four documentary films, and helped finance The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels and distributed by Harvey Weinstein. She serves on the board of governors of The New School, Parsons School of Design, New York; is a member of the Leadership Council at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership; and is a board member of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and International African American Museum, Charleston, South Carolina.
Johnson served as global ambassador for CARE, which combats global poverty by empowering women, and was a member of Accordia Global Health Foundation’s International Council, fighting infectious disease in Africa; in recognition of her humanitarian efforts she was honoured with the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal. An accomplished violinist, Johnson received a Bachelor of Arts in music from the University of Illinois.
Born in Pennsylvania on 25 January 1949 to a neurosurgeon father and an accountant mother, Johnson moved 14 times before completing high school near Chicago. She has two children and lives with her husband, Judge William T. Newman Jr., in Middleburg, VA, where EVA caught up with her.
In high school, you became an accomplished violinist and received a full scholarship to study music at the University of Illinois. During college, you became engaged. Tell me about your fiancé.
His name was Robert Johnson and I married him junior year in 1969, during the Vietnam War. He was in a reserve unit because they needed more minorities, then he went off to boot camp. I finished my senior year, and when he returned, we moved to Princeton. I taught music at two schools and after he graduated from Princeton, we moved to Washington, D.C. where I taught at Sidwell Friends School and he took a job with the Corporation of Public Broadcast.
Your husband secured a $500,000 investment and together you co-founded your own highly successful cable TV network, Black Entertainment Television. Why did you sell the company?
Bob decided he didn’t want to continue running the company. BET was devoting more of its airtime to music videos, and as videos grew increasingly sexually explicit, I became disenchanted. There was a lot of head butting on which direction the network was going. I thought that it should answer to the African-American voice. And then our marriage fell apart and I wanted to move on.
In 2005, you founded Salamander Hotels and Resorts. How did that happen?
I was sitting on cash, ready to rebuild. I always loved travelling and staying in fine hotels, especially in Europe… I was like: “I could do this”. When a door opens and you can see the direction in which you want to go, walk through that door. I bought a 340-acre plot bordering Middleburg, Virginia for a good price. I’d been in the town since 1996 and it was financially struggling. I’d bought a gun shop, which I gutted and turned it into Market Salamander, with a chef’s working kitchen. I brought in chefs and we worked with the farmers, sort of the Martha Stewart approach. It’s still up and running and doing very well.
The town of Middleburg couldn’t keep retailers, but I did a feasibility study and put a business plan together and decided to build a resort. I met with the town council to show how this could work and the money that could be made. Nothing had happened in the area in more than 150 years and some fought me. I hired top hotel business people and we put it together. It took almost 10 years and was a powerful lesson in perseverance, but really believing in my vision and making it work has been worth it. The resort has been hugely successful as a bipartisan meeting place, somewhere for huge corporate groups and a segue into aviation. We had no place for private jets to land, so put together a company called ProJet Aviation and secured the Winchester Airport, providing a private jet facility we could link to the resort.
How often do you fly privately?
All the time. I had a GIV since I travelled to Europe a lot, but sold it because I wasn’t using it as much and the maintenance cost so much. Now I have a Piaggio, which I fly all the time and also charter out.
When you charter, which charter operator do you use?
I brought in Jet Linx, which is a national company. They brought in an extra fleet of planes, since I could broker that kind of deal using other planes, rather than holding onto a costly huge plane that was going to have repairs every year. I thought this was a good way of reinvesting, selling the GIV and keeping the Piaggio.
Why do you fly privately?
It’s the only way I can get things done. I have to visit my hotels – coming up on seven now – and I take my senior executive team on the plane. It really is a time saver. We can get more done flying privately, because commercial planes often get held up in airports and we lose a day, sometimes two days and it’s easier for me to take the team with me so we can get it done in one day and fly right back.
How much would you say you fly privately in a typical year?
Over 600 hours.
And has your private flying changed in the last year compared to the year before?
Yes, because we’ve taken on more hotels so I have to fly more.
And how do you expect it to change in the year ahead?
I am also the vice chairman of Monumental Sports so I own sports teams in Washington and I take the plane to those games too.
Do you ever fly the team?
No, I’m not allowed to. In the WNBA we are not allowed to have them even set foot on the plane.
Do you remember the first time you flew privately?
Yes. I was with NetJets for about 20 years and I flew all the time, especially during the BET years. We had 250 to 400 hours with NetJets.
If you were going to move or upgrade from your existing aircraft, which model would you most likely move to?
Possibly a Falcon, because I like the size. It’s a little larger than what I have and I could probably carry a few more people and go to the West Coast without having to refuel.
When you’re visiting a new destination, do you leave the decision of which FBO to use to your flight ops team or pilot, or do you have your own preferences?
I have my own pilots so I leave it up to them and our flight ops team.
Do you have a preference for onboard catering on longer flights, or do you leave that to the team?
We have a wonderful catering service that I link to the private service – you start connecting the dots. Whenever I fly, whether it’s short or long, if I need food, I stop by our market, where we’ve got all packaged foods and menus. I tell them what I want and I bring it on.
How much of a concierge service do you expect from your flight department as far as hotel accommodation, if you are not staying in your own properties, and other logistics are concerned?
Being in the hospitality business, we know general managers of many hotels across the country so I can make arrangements for my staff no matter where anyone is going. We handle the flight information and my flight ops people have a driver waiting to take me to the hotel; the hotel takes over from there. I’m also involved with the United States Golf Association, so we fly to the US Open and do all our flight ops activities through my office.
Does a third party manage the aircraft for you?
No. We have a management team on property, while our maintenance is done in Florida.
When you put your aircraft out for charter, are you happy with the numbers of hours being delivered per year?
Absolutely. The problem is that I use it so much, sometimes it can strain the charter and so I like to work very closely with Jet Linx. Sometimes I’ll know my schedule for a full month and we give it to them, but I have first right of refusal. If someone does want it and I really need it, I have to find them an alternative.
Does an aircraft management company manage your plane?
My pilots take care of everything and Jet Linx helps us.
How close an eye do you keep on the expenses? Do you scrutinise bills?
I have three CFOs that work for me privately. They go through everything and are in constant contact with Jet Linx. We keep track of all of that.
Who does your aircraft maintenance? Which company?
Jet Linx pretty much handles everything in-house.
And which FBO executive handling companies do you use around the world?
I believe Jet Linx has about 100 planes under management, with relationships nationwide. We go pretty much wherever they tell us to.
Is being the vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, and majority owner of several sports teams an investment opportunity, or have you always been a sports lover?
I’ve always been a sports lover. I was a synchronised swimmer before Title IX, and ran a little track in high school. In college, I found that I couldn’t do as much in sports, except become a cheerleader and I was the first African-American woman to be a cheerleader at the University of Illinois. It was something very unusual for the College of Fine and Applied Arts, because they’d never had a cheerleader who played the violin.
After selling BET, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime, one that women never get: a chance to buy the WNBA Washington Mystics. I said I needed to see the financials because I knew the WNBA teams had been struggling. The Mystics had been one of the first teams to enter the WNBA and to bolster the summer franchise, I went to my attorney and said, “I don’t just want to own the women’s team, I’d like to be an owner of all three Washington teams and I want to be a significant owner, not a penny more or a penny less than any of the other majority owners.” I told the chairman, “You can get a ‘twofer’: a woman and an African-American.” And now I’m vice chairman.
It’s been terrific because since I bought the Mystics, we now have women owners. And you’re starting to see women minority owners in other basketball franchises. I think this has really opened the door to thinking that instead of being on the bench or behind it, we can be there in front of the bench. Certainly it’s a struggle, but we’re doing better, and if you think about the NBA 20 years ago, they were struggling too. If we hang in there and keep fighting for women in sports, it’s going to get better.
What do you have left to do?
To continue growing the Salamander brand. I’ve got two kids, even though they’re adults, I’m still there for them, and I’ve got a husband who’s absolutely extraordinary, a chief judge and an actor.
I understand your new husband goes back to your divorce. When you approached him at the bench after your divorce and asked him if he remembered you, what did he say?
He said, “I’ve never forgotten about you.” And I said, “Have you ever been married?” He said, “I’ve always been in love with you.”
What’s your passion?
My passion is creating things, like great hotels. But I also have a passion for films. I produced The Butler and I’ve done four documentaries. I started the Middleburg Film Festival and we’ve helped bring so many arts to this town, including Shakespeare. We’re creating and being transformational in areas that just weren’t here. I think it takes a special person to see where the holes are that can be filled and I’m creating a better life for myself and my family, and the people around me.
What does leadership mean to you?
It means integrity, character, not being afraid to take risks, being an example to the people you are managing and trying to inspire by leading a life that is joyful and peaceful. It’s also about being a real example of a person with integrity and character.
As an African-American woman, how do you deal with the rampant racism that surrounds us?
By not being a shrinking violet! I’ve had issues, even at the resort, where I’ve had to put out fires from people that have gotten drunk. I have a very diverse employment team and I have people of colour, people from different races and socio-economic backgrounds that come to the resort. There have been a few unfortunate patrons that have made some very nasty, racial comments and I’ve had to step in and diffuse that, and let them know I will not tolerate it, not in my establishment.
Trying to create the resort I ran into all sorts of horrible racist comments. I just put myself in their shoes and tried to educate them to be better people. I often think these racist adults have grown up in a social circle so narrow that they have just not been able to understand and experience that there are good people of all nationalities out there and we have to learn to get along. We cannot live in silos. That’s not the way this country is evolving.
You could easily retire. Is there a reason that you don’t?
I’ve never sat still my entire life, and I can’t see me doing it. I’ll probably die sitting at my desk or at the basketball court. I love life and I love people and I have never been more at peace or more happy in my life.