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I Am American Business

Bob Johnson

Producer Notes

The Charlotte Bobcats Arena in downtown Charlotte is an extremely hi-tech facility. We could feed images from cameras or computers to any of the small or large screen monitors in the arena with incredible ease. But even more amazing than that was the sight of Michael Jordan strolling down the hall, saying "Hey" to everyone. That was a thrill. We weren't able to get on MJ's calendar that day, but we did hear his music blasting out of his office, just down the hall from Bob Johnson's. While we were there some players were practicing on the gleaming practice court off the lower level. They were all draft candidates, showing off their shots to Michael Jordan, hoping for a place on the team. That shot was strictly off-limits to our cameras too. But Bob Johnson was incredibly gracious, focused and clear about his message. It was a pleasure to interview him. Just talking to him gives you hope.

Video Interview

The "I Am" Q&A

What car do you drive?
DB 9 (an Aston Martin)

What's your favorite place to go?
The ocean.

What website do you like to visit?
I'm not into the web business.

What was your worst moment in business?
That's a tough question. I don't know the answer.

What's your favorite drink?
Vodka straight.

What's your favorite food?
French Fries.

What's your idea of fun?
Eating French Fries at the beach.

And at work?
Making money.

What personal weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
Not making a decision when they should.

What business weaknesses do you forgive?
Not making a decision when they should.

What movie star do you like?
Denzel Washington.

Who's a business hero of yours?
John Malone.

What personal qualities do you admire in business?
Integrity.

And in life?
Integrity.

What was your greatest moment in business?
Going public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991.

And in life?
In life...having two kids.

What is your dream?
To be a United States Ambassador.

Do you have a motto?
Yes. Make money and have fun.

What is your present state of mind?
Worried about my basketball team making the playoffs.

Transcript


CNBC:
You talked about building BET as a brand. To some, Bob Johnson is a brand. What does the Bob Johnson brand represent?

BOB JOHNSON:
For me anyway, it represents someone who’s committed to creating opportunities, and through opportunities, creating value and particularly value that’s created by the talent within the African American community. And demonstrating to everybody that African Americans deserve the right to participate in the economic success of this nation, by proving that they could create unique value within the broader US economy.

CNBC:
So what do you call this phase of your career?

BOB JOHNSON:
I call this phase of my career my second act. The first act was Black Entertainment Television, BET, which I created some twenty-five years ago, built into an iconic brand serving African American audiences on cable television and others for that matter. And demonstrating that you could create tremendous economic value within the black community with talented executives running the operation. The second act is to do the same thing, essentially in a different field, financial asset management and financial services. I’ve assembled a talented team to get involved in hotel private equity, private equity, hedge fund or funds, a bank, and other businesses that demonstrate we, this second act can be as successful and as exciting and as fun as the first act.

CNBC:
We happen to be in the location of one of your second act businesses right now. Where are we?

BOB JOHNSON:
We’re here in Charlotte in the Bobcats Arena. This is a, fun part of the second act. Owning an NBA team as one of thirty owners in the NBA; the first African American majority owner of an NBA team, it’s a lot of fun; to watch talented, young professionals play at the highest of their ability. To create a sports brand in Charlotte, it’s a great city. And more importantly, to be partners , with one of the greatest basketball players in the world, Michael Jordan.

CNBC:
You have had a lot of firsts. First African American company on the stock exchange, first black cable network, first African American owner of an NBA team. What does that that mean to you?

BOB JOHNSON:
What it means to me is that if you seize an opportunity and you put all of your talent to it and identify with the right people and the right partnerships, this country affords you the opportunity to achieve. And by being first, it simply means that you show the willingness to take a risk. And this is an opportunity that like all the others, to be the first owner of a basketball team, is something I'm proud of and I'm looking forward to other firsts.

CNBC:
Do you think you're an American success story?

BOB JOHNSON:
I think America opens its doors to entrepreneurs to be the best that they can be. I believe like no other country in the world, the American economy offers an opportunity for entrepreneurs to go from being nobody to being somebody in terms of their economic success. I'm very pleased that I’ve had that opportunity.

CNBC:
You were the ninth of ten children. Your family moved from Mississippi to Illinois to provide better opportunities for you. You were the first in your family to go to college. Tell me just a little bit about how you think your background has influenced your business strategies.

BOB JOHNSON:
I think what it did for me being nine of ten children with parents who believed in education, who believed in hard work, that there’s no work that was not honorable, I think it prepared me to commit myself to be the best that I could be and not be afraid of hard work, not be afraid of being diligent, about trying to achieve and not be willing to give up when you face adversity. And I think that’s something that all entrepreneurs share; a willingness to take the risk, work as hard at achieving their goals and never give up.

CNBC:
What do you think is the most important thing for an entrepreneur? The idea, the execution, how do you see that?

BOB JOHNSON:
Two things, really. Vision to see over the next hill before somebody else sees it and then leadership to convince people to follow you over the hill on that crusade. And if you could surround yourself with talented people and you have that vision, then I think you can achieve any goal that you set out for, money and all the other things are available in abundance. But vision and leadership, those are the top priorities.

CNBC:
You once said that you don’t perceive things as obstacles or challenges. Basically, an obstacle is an inanimate thing. Can you articulate that idea?

BOB JOHNSON:
I look at life very simply. I mean everything out there is something that you can overcome if you have enough fortitude and enough commitment. So to me, to wake up and say ‘I can achieve’ despite the obstacles is sort of second nature to me. I don't believe that there are insurmountable obstacles. I believe there are some challenges but challenges can be overcome with talent, with relationships, with perseverance. All of these things can make opportunities exist where they would not exist before.

CNBC:
How important do you think partnerships are in business?

BOB JOHNSON:
I'm a fundamental believer in strong partnerships. My success, is written through partnership relationships. My first partner at BET, John Malone , gave me the capital, gave me the support, gave me the mentorship. All of these things were vital to my success and I believe that in every business I go in, I look to see if I can find a partner who shares my values, shares the vision, and believe that working together, we can achieve more in partnership than we can achieve , separately.

CNBC:
People are approaching you now with business opportunities, investment opportunities… Why are they coming to you? What is it that they believe you can add to them?

BOB JOHNSON:
I think people approach people based on, ‘do they share their values?’ ‘Do they demonstrate integrity in business relationships?’ ‘Are they people or a person of their word? ‘ Most relationships in business start with personal relationships. And I think people like the fact that I understand how to create value, that I give my word. My word is my bond; that if I say I'm going to deliver on something, they know that I'm going to work real hard to make that happen. So it’s people who believe that I'm a good partner because I'm going to do everything that they would do to make , our business opportunity a success.

CNBC:
You once talked about business being personal; making your friends before you need them.

BOB JOHNSON:
I’ve always been told and I’ve always believed that every time you meet somebody, there’s an opportunity for a relationship. And when I got my job at the cable industry one of the gentlemen who was head of the association said to me, my advice to you is make your friends before you need them. And that simply means that when you meet people, you treat them with the kind of respect that you’d like to be treated with; you build up some currency in the way that they associate with you and that’s something that you can bank. You can draw on that currency and build stronger relationships because they respect what you stand for and what you believe.

CNBC:
Is managing a basketball team different than managing other kinds of businesses? How do your business goals and strategies apply in managing a team?

BOB JOHNSON:
In fact, they’re very much the same. I mean in any business I go in, I try to find the best management people, people who can do a job better than I could do it and give them the leadership to do it; the direction to do it and the resources to do it. My running a basketball team is no different than running a hotel company or running a bank. You find the most talented people and that’s why we have talented executives who are running the basketball operation. And that’s why, when I wanted somebody to make decisions about where to find the best players, the best coach and how to put that combination together to put a winning basketball team on the court, that’s why I'm delighted to have Michael Jordan working with me with that responsibility.

CNBC:
Please describe the advantages and disadvantages for minority businesses.

BOB JOHNSON:
Well obviously the advantage is, to being a minority businessperson is the same as any businessperson. You're a businessperson. You think like a businessperson, you act like a businessperson. Where the disadvantages come in is that society has not fully embraced opportunities for minorities the way they’ve done the general population. Minorities have to overcome challenges that don’t exist, in some cases, for businesspeople who are not minorities. In my opinion what that does is, it gives you an added incentive because you’ve got to be better than, in some cases, to be as good as. And that prepares you to take on the challenges of being a minority business because you know you're sort of under the microscope. And so you perform better. You deliver more effectively. You create more value; you become more successful. And to me, you translate those disadvantages into drivers to make you more dynamic in what you're trying to do.

CNBC:
You had another mission besides just making money and creating businesses. Can you talk a little bit about your personal mission? And how has the success actually helped that? I think some people think that to do good things, they have to be in a nonprofit or something.

BOB JOHNSON:
My mission principally, as a business person, is to create value. And if you create value, you would demonstrate that no one should be denied an opportunity to do so. The secondary mission is to show and demonstrate clearly that African American businessmen and women need to be fully integrated in the economic opportunity of this country. We can’t compete effectively on a global scale unless we have all the talented people in this country on the economic team. It’s no different from basketball. Basketball, before they allowed African American talent to be in it, was not as competitive as it is today. Football, baseball before Jackie Robinson, kept people off the field who could contribute. And so my mission is two-fold. One, to create value just as any businessperson and two, to say to this country that our economy is better. We compete globally better if we put everybody on the team competing to the best of their ability irrespective of their color. I think America is better off on a competitive basis in the global world if America has all the players on the field. And that means minorities, women, people of all ethnic backgrounds, we succeed better when all of us are competing effectively in this economy.

CNBC:
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs?

BOB JOHNSON:
First and foremost, believe in yourself. It starts there. If you believe that you can achieve, then you can convince other people that they should follow you. And if you can convince people to follow you, then support will come to you, capital will come to you, strategic partners will come to you. Your market opportunities will open up because you're able to articulate passionately what you believe. So to an entrepreneur, passionately believe in yourself and your mission becomes much easier.

CNBC:
You said once that you could have gone to play golf after you had your windfall. But you didn’t…

BOB JOHNSON:
I could have opted out after selling BET. What kept me going is the same thing that causes somebody to climb a mountain, to sail solo around the ocean or to pilot a plane around the world. It’s because it’s there and you can do it. I just believe that there are things out there that I can do. And if I can do them, why not?

CNBC:
So a passion for the act of creating new companies?

BOB JOHNSON:
I have a passion for creating deals. I have a passion for bringing people together with opportunities. I have a passion for building value through relationships, and once you feel that you can achieve that, you can make things happen by putting A together with B, by matching up this idea with that idea. It’s tremendously exciting; it’s tremendously rewarding and it’s something I think I do very well - bringing people together around ideas, around a vision, establishing the leadership and saying, lets do this together. Because it’s something that we can do, and most importantly, it adds value.

CNBC:
Could you summarize some of the new ventures and why you're in all these different diverse areas?

BOB JOHNSON:
I think the core of my businesses sort of exist on the brand, the RLJ brand that says we are committed to demonstrating that a talented management team, principally made up of African Americans can create value in any sector. The second thing is we look at sectors where African Americans are underpenetrated because the opportunities haven’t been there, and we go into those opportunities and say “here we are, we have talent, we have capital resources, we want to create value.” And the third thing is, I look for businesses that I understand, businesses that I'm comfortable with. There’s a strong correlation between basketball and entertainment. It’s a product that’s shown to the public , it’s a product that has sponsors and advertisers much like television, it’s a product that has talent, much like you do in the movie business or in the TV business. So it’s businesses I understand. Financial asset management and private equity or hotel real estate private equity is a business I understand. Raising capital , deploying capital to buy products and services and to generate returns. It’s much like any other business in running a publicly traded company. You create value for your shareholders, you do that for the pension funds. A bank is a service business. You’ve got to convince your customers that you're going to provide them with something that they need. And that they will be comfortable with dealing with you. So all of these businesses from my standpoint are aimed at building a brand identity that people identify with because they value the service you provide and they respect the leadership and the integrity you bring to the business.

CNBC:
How do you identify where African Americans are underrepresented?

BOB JOHNSON:
To me, to me it’s really simple. You just look and say, are there any African Americans in a business in this economy where I know we have the talent to succeed but something has kept us out of that business? Now take basketball. Basketball is really easy. You have to have three hundred million dollars to get into the game. So not very many African Americans are going to walk up and write a three hundred million dollar check. Hotel private equity real estate, same thing. You’ve got to have a track record. So I go out and buy hotels with my own money to build a track record. It goes on and on. So the issue for me is, you can identify it and once you become first, it adds to your brand’s equity because you get visibility, you get heightened awareness so when people want to do deals in that space, they say what African American entity is in private equity? In hedge funds or funds? And they’ll say well it’s the IRJ companies, lets call those guys.

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