Robert L. Johnson is always in search of the next big deal. In the past 18 months, the 61-year-old mogul has acquired more than 100 Marriott and Hilton hotel properties for more than $1 billion; formed a private equity fund with The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms; and gone into the hedge fund business with Deutsche Bank. He’s also opened a bank, Urban Trust, that will have branches in select Wal-Mart stores. And he’s completed a deal with independent producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein to develop Our Stories Films, a movie studio that will produce black-themed, family-friendly comedies. To run these ventures he has hired A-list management talent away from some of the nation’s leading financial, real estate, and entertainment firms, including Rufus Rivers, a former managing director at Carlyle; Derek Saleeby, an investment banker who worked for Citibank and Smith Barney and was recently listed among BE ‘s Most Powerful Blacks on Wall Street; and Tracey Edmonds, the acclaimed producer who appeared on BE ‘s list of Top 50 Hollywood Power Brokers.
It’s mid-April, and Johnson has finished yet another marathon week, which included wrapping up the less-than-stellar 33-49 season for his NBA franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats. The billionaire entrepreneur arrived at his elegant corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, for what has amounted to a pit stop. In less than 48 hours, he’ll be traveling to Liberia to receive the Humane Order of African Redemption, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his contributions to economic development. Once again, he’s being rewarded for his dealmaking prowess, fulfilling a commitment he’d made at the 2006 Clinton Global Initiative Forum to raise $30 million to invest with Liberian entrepreneurs.
It’s been seven years since he sold his first venture, Black Entertainment Television–the company he took public in 1990 and then private again in 1998–to media giant Viacom for $3 billion, which made him the wealthiest black man on the planet. In 2005 he left the network, but not to retire. Over the past few years he’s used his brand identity to cut deals–lots of them–and in the process, he’s reinvented himself as a mainstream business titan, a model for the next generation of black entrepreneurs to replicate on this 35th anniversary of the BE 100S.
Johnson has achieved what most black business leaders have been unable to: He’s gained invitations to the inner sanctums of global wealth and power; developed partnerships with the world’s financial leviathans; scored deals that have made black business history–although he quickly denies that his transactions merit a call to glory–and created legions of black millionaires who have served as managers or investors in his ventures.
Today, he expects that the businesses that make up his holding company, RLJ Companies, will have a greater influence on American society than he could have ever imagined BET having. Under the RLJ umbrella he owns two BE 100S companies: RLJ Development L.L.C. (No. 8 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $460 million in sales), which, among other properties,