Johnson has dabbled in many ventures

Before and after BET, he put his business acumen to the test

July 15, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Robert L. Johnson may be best known as the media mogul who created a billion-dollar fortune with the country's first and largest African-American-oriented cable network.

But he has long dabbled in a variety of business ventures, before and after selling Black Entertainment Television to Viacom for $3 billion five years ago.

Johnson's latest foray into hotel development in Baltimore and Washington comes 25 years after he created BET in the basement of his Washington home. Today, the network reaches more than 70 million households.

Johnson, 59, resigned this year as chairman and chief executive of BET, freeing him to pursue other business interests at full speed. In 2001, he became the first African-American to own a major sports franchise with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, which he named after himself.

Today, his Bethesda-based RJR Development LLC owns more than a dozen Marriott and Hilton hotels. Launched in 2000, the firm is reportedly worth $79.3 million and is considered a leader in hotel development by the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers.

Born into poverty in rural, segregated Mississippi, Johnson was the only one of his 10 siblings to go to college - earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and a master's degree from Princeton University. In 2001, he became the world's first African-American billionaire.

"Not only did he come from a family in rural, poor Mississippi, when he launched his network, he did it with his own money," said Brett Pulley, a senior editor at Forbes magazine and author of the unauthorized biography, The Billion Dollar BET: Robert Johnson and the Inside Story of Black Entertainment Television.

"That's extraordinary," he said. "Forget about where he came from as a kid. That's notable for anyone to have created a network of such extraordinary success."

Johnson has been a member of the boards of directors of USAirways, as well as Hilton Hotels Corp., which he said in earlier interviews influenced his entrepreneurial decisions. He did not return phone messages yesterday.

Not all of Johnson's ventures have been successful. His plan to buy a commercial airline failed several years ago. Throughout his years at BET, critics argued for more diverse programming on the network, saying it relied too heavily on hip-hop videos and comedies. Other critics charged that Johnson "sold out" to Viacom, and they were upset when he replaced the network's unprofitable news shows with videos.

Johnson's biggest strength, Pulley said, is his determination.

"Bob has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to be singularly focused," he said. "There was a lot of pressure around him to change the network, and do things a different way. But in spite of all that, Bob stayed focused on what he saw as being paramount. And that was delivering shareholder returns, and that was the bottom line. For better or for worse, he did that and he was able to build the kind of value and worth that he created."

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