Billion Dollar Man: Bob Johnson

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Conversations With Entrepreneur Series

Robert Johnson was born in Hickory, Mississippi on April 8, 1946, the ninth of ten children born to Eddie and Archie Johnson who later moved the family to Freeport, Illinois. He attended the University of Illinois where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history before heading to the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University to pursue a master’s in International Affairs.
After graduating from Princeton, he embarked on a career in media which
began with stints with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Urban League, and the National Cable Television Association. Then, in 1980, he took a loan of $15,000 to launch Black Entertainment Television (BET), the first cable network aimed at African-Americans.
Over the years, BET would blossom to become the
first Black-owned company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, though in 1999, Johnson sold the company to Viacom for $3 billion, thereby becoming the only Black male billionaire in the world, according to Forbes Magazine. Rather than rest on his laurels, Bob has since gone right back into business and begun RLJ Companies whose holdings include the Charlotte Bobcats, an NBA franchise; numerous Hilton, Marriott, and other upscale hotels; an assets management hedge fund; Urban Trust Bank; casinos and gaming operations across the Caribbean, Rollover Systems, a financial services corporation; and the recently-created Our Stories Films, a $175 million movie studio.
Johnson has also served on the board of such organizations as Lowe’s, Johns Hopkins University, US Air, General Mills, Hilton, Wal-Mart’s Diversity Committee, and the Deutsche Bank advisory Committee. Here, he talks about Our Stories Films’ first release, Who’s Your Caddy, a ghetto goes golfing ensemble comedy starring Big Boi, Sherri Shepherd, Terry Crews, Tamala Jones, Jeffrey Jones, Faizon Love and Tony Cox.

So, what motivated you to launch Our Stories Films?
BJ: What motivated me sort of got put into its name. When I started BET, the
one thing I would always hear when I would go out to L.A. or anyplace where
the entertainers would gather was their complaints about the fact that
there’s no way to tell our story, that there was no studio that would
consistently tell our stories as African-Americans. So, I decided that the
only way we’re going to be able to greenlight it and get the right to make
movies about our stories, if you will, is if someone put up the money and
hired the talent and created a business as a Black film studio to make Black
films. And that’s why I decided to start Our Stories and to hire Tracey
Edmonds to run it.

Tell me a little about your first release, Who’s Your Caddy?
BJ: Who’s Your Caddy? is a story that was brought to us by Queen Latifah’s
production company. And we put together just a talented team of really funny
people headed by Big Boi as the star, and Faizon Love and Sherri Shepherd.
It’s a simple film, in a funny way, because it tells the story of this
hip-hop guy who tries to join an all-white golf and country club where his
dad was a caddy. Now, he’s trying to join the club and, of course, the white
members don’t want him in the club. So, he goes about buying one of the
holes on the course which gives him the upper hand. It’s all about how he’s
able to get into the club and change attitudes, and all the antics that go
along with that are really funny.

Sounds a little like Caddyshack to me.
BJ: Yeah, like in Caddyshack, you have a guy from the wrong side of the
tracks trying to hang out with the golf elite. But this time it’s sort of
updated to have hip-hop guys, rap guys, walking into a pristine, all-white,
country club in South Carolina.

What other films do you have planned?
BJ: Well, we’ve got a number of projects on the drawing board. Tracey’s team
has just found all kinds of scripts and ideas. They’ve got a project called
Courtroom. It’s about a guy who acts as a public defender when he’s really
not a lawyer, and just making it up as he goes along. There’s another
project called Don’t Date Him Girl about a group of female investigators
hired by other women who think their men might be doing them wrong. All
we’re going to do are comedies: romantic comedies; buddy comedies; family

Why all comedies?
BJ: That’s the genre that’s most appealing to African-American viewers.

If that’s your targeted demographic, I guess you’re banking on being
supported by the Black community.
BJ: I think that’s absolutely critical. We need African-American viewers to
go to this film in big numbers to demonstrate that African-Americans can
greenlight films, run a studio, and turn out good entertainment. So, the
more folks that attend this film, particularly on the opening Friday, the
27th, the more it will simply mean that we’re going to have a chance to
continue making films and continue telling our stories.

How will you be able to gauge the success of the company?
BJ: I think you measure the success of a movie company in two ways, really.
One is box office, obviously. That’s the biggest driver. If the box office
is big, it determines the success of the pay-TV. And if the pay-TV is big,
it determines the sale of the movie on DVD, and then on into regular
television and basic cable. So, the box office is going to be the
determinant, and the one thing that makes that happen is people waking up on
Friday the 27th and saying that’s the movie I want to go see this weekend
and telling their friends about it.

What impact do you think the Imus firing is going to have on the Black
entertainment industry, especially when you hear people calling for gangsta’
rappers to clean up their act and you see the NAACP holding a ceremony to
bury the N-word?
BJ: Well, it’s certainly creating a dialogue about the N-word and other
kinds of words that are negative, whether it’s about women, or about race,
or about individuals. But I think the real question is going to be how we as
a people handle it, and not simply buy into the simplistic notion that if we
fired Imus for saying that then we have to fire so-and-so for saying it,
even if they’re Black. I think that’s a little simplistic. Yet clearly,
there are issues within our own Black family, if you will, that we need to
debate about how we handle creativity and how words and images are depicted
in the Black community. So, it’s worth a debate, but how it will come out, I
don’t know. On the one hand, I hate to even think of the notion of stifling
creativity, but sometimes, if creativity or just words cross the line,
you’ve got to sort of strep back. It’s certainly a dialogue that’s already

Do you regret selling BET? How do you feel about the job that Debra Lee
has been doing since you stepped down as chairman a couple of years ago?
BJ: Oh, she has done a magnificent job. There’s no hesitation on my part
about saying that BET is probably in better hands now than when I was
running it, because she’s brought a whole new vision, a whole new energy,
and some innovative programming ideas. You’ve got a talented team of
executives over there. So, I have no regrets. I started BET more than 25
years ago, and I created what I think is a brand in much the way that Berry
Gordy created Motown. I think BET will be around for a very, very long time,
and it will always be a legacy I will cherish. And under Debra’s leadership,
it just gives me more confidence that that legacy is in great hands.

During the last Democratic debate, Senator Obama was asked if he’s Black
enough and he responded by talking about his not having to explain how Black
he is when trying to hail a cab. I know that despite all your success,
you’ve been mistaken for a stable hand on your own farm and as the chauffeur
of your own car. What does that tell you about racism?
BJ: The NAACP may have buried the N-word, but they didn’t bury racism, and
racism will be around for a very long time. I don’t let it bother me, and I
don’t think Barack will let it bother him. But it exists. It’s something
you’ve just got to recognize as being there, keep on pushing to move it
aside, and try to make the society better in everything you do by making the
point that we deserve and have every right to be anywhere in this society,
to compete in this society, and to have an equal opportunity to enjoy the
fruits of this society. Over time, I think we will conquer it, but it’s here
now, and I don’t let it worry me.

I know you got your Master’s degree from Princeton, which is where I
live. Have you ever come back to visit?
BJ: Yeah, I’ve gone back to Princeton on several occasions to speak to the
Black students there. I did it when I was at BET, and again when I took BET

: Do you ever feel a burden as the first black billionaire?
BJ: No, I don’t feel a burden at all, because everything I did, I did the
old-fashioned way. I worked hard for it. I earned it. The money is just a
measure of some success. It’s not the reason you do what you do. It’s just
the results from doing it. What I find the most exciting, having created
BET, is that I simultaneously created an opportunity for lots of people to
get jobs and positions that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. And the RLJ
Companies which I’m running now also has some very talented people in
private equity real estate. We have a bank, we’re providing student loans,
and I own the Charlotte Bobcats in partnership with my good buddy Michael
Jordan. The way I look at it, it’s an opportunity, an opportunity to do
things with people and hopefully have a positive impact. So, to me, it’s not
a burden. It’s really a joy to do things that I like to do with people I
like to do them with.

Did the Bobcats have a good draft?
BJ: When Michael came in, he said, “I want to look at this team and put
together what I think will be a playoff team.” So, we traded the eighth pick
in the draft for Jason Richardson. Now, we’ve got a veteran scorer who we
think will mix well with the guys we have coming back. We’re excited about
what’s going to happen down in Charlotte.

Being born Black in Mississippi, the ninth of ten children, and becoming
a billionaire. That’s quite a story. Are you going to write your
BJ: No, no, no. I don’t believe in reading my press releases, so I
certainly don’t believe in writing them. No, I haven’t done anything like

How about making a movie about your life, like they just did for another
innovator in the entertainment industry, Petey Greene, with Talk to Me. Did
you know Petey?
BJ: I knew Petey Greene well. In fact, we put Petey on national television
on BET. He was first on local TV in DC, and I said, “This guy’s funny enough
to be seen all across the country.” I remember standing in line at the
church for his funeral when he passed away, and I guarantee you it was 5,000
deep. It was a real cold night, but people came out to pay their last
respects to him. Petey Greene was a dynamic personality, and a heck of a
funny guy, too.

I know that in 1995, you covered the Million Man March. Did you catch
any flak for that from your advertisers?
BJ: No, we didn’t. We basically thought that it was an important enough
event to African-Americans that we turned the network completely over to
covering it. So, we simply didn’t run any advertising that day. We told our
advertisers that it wasn’t going to be interrupted by commercials, and we
went with it. None complained, and they all came back when the regular
advertising came back.

What advice do you have for youngsters looking to follow in your
BJ: I think there’s no substitute for hard work. Prepare yourself; get an
Education; be willing to work hard at whatever you do. Martin Luther King
was quoted as saying, “If you’re going to sweep the streets, sweep the
streets like Michelangelo painted pictures.” In other words, be the best at
everything you do. Believe in yourself, and have the faith and confidence
that you can achieve, and never let anything stand in your way as an
obstacle. Because if you believe in it, and exhibit the passion that proves
that you believe in it, you’ll find people who are willing to back you and
help you along the way.

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