Leadership

5 things to know about Robert Johnson, America's first black billionaire

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Out of the 2,043 people who appear on the 2017 Forbes list of billionaires, only three are African-American: Oprah Winfrey, Robert Smith and Michael Jordan. But before any of them appeared on the list, Robert L. Johnson, 75, became the first African-American billionaire in 2001 thanks to the sale of his cable station Black Entertainment Television (BET), Forbes reports.

Today, Johnson is the owner and chairman of asset management firm RLJ companies, which he founded in 2004. He also sits on the board of many prominent organizations including Lowe's Co. and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET).
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET).

The Forbes billionaires list currently includes media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who made her debut in 2003 and has an estimated net worth of $2.8 billion, former basketball player Michael Jordan, worth $1.7 billion, who joined the list in 2014, and investor Robert Smith, who became a billionaire in 2015 and is worth $4.4 billion.

While Johnson is no longer a billionaire, according to Forbes' estimates, he made history as the first African-American to join the exclusive billionaire's club. As Black History Month comes to a close, here are five things to know about him:

1. He's the founder of BET

Johnson created BET, a prominent cable station targeted toward an African-American audience, in 1980. He got his start in cable television after working in pay TV, where viewers pay through a subscription to watch a particular channel. There, he learned both the business and technological side of television.

"I said, 'Wow, you could take this concept of technology and target black programming,' which has always been a dream of various individual black media types — creating a black-oriented network," he told Fortune in 2002.

In the spring of 1980, Johnson took out a $15,000 loan and set out to launch his own business.

"My big break came when cable magnate John Malone, then CEO of Tele-Communications Inc., the country's third-largest cable company, decided to invest in my company, even though I had no experience running any business, never mind a national media company," he told Fortune.

In 2001, Johnson became a billionaire after selling the station to Viacom for $3 billion, which catapulted his net worth to an estimated $1.3 billion. At the time, BET reached 62.4 million homes.

He held onto the role of president and CEO until 2005 when Debra L. Lee took over as chief executive.

2. He had the first black-owned company on the NYSE

In 1991, BET became the first black-owned company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange, according to CNN Money. Much of the money raised in the public offering was used to pay off debt and buy back stocks that were owned by another media conglomerate, Great American Broadcasting.

"I was not afraid of getting my hands dirty." -Robert Johnson, Founder of BET

Six years later, Johnson and his business partner offered $300 million to buy back the 35 percent stock they didn't already own, making the company private once again.

"John and I were looking at the business, and the market wasn't giving us the valuation it did to others," Johnson told Fortune in 2012. "We were at $32 a share. We ended up buying the company back at $62 a share."

Shortly thereafter, Viacom reached out expressing interest in the company and they sold. "I thought there would never be a better time to maximize our returns," said Johnson at the time.

3. He came from humble beginnings

For the first few years of Johnson's life, his father chopped and sold timber while his mother taught school in Mississippi. His parents eventually moved to Illinois in search of a better life and soon found factory jobs in a working-class town.

Although he says his family was not exceptionally poor, Johnson frequently joked that he had to push his way to the dinner table "to get his fair share," according to the Washington Post.

He was also the only child out of ten to attend college, first obtaining a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois followed by a master's degree at Princeton University.

4. He once owned the NBA Bobcats

Johnson became the first black majority owner of an NBA team with the purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2003, he completed a deal with the city for a $265 million arena that was to open in time for the 2005-2006 season.

In 2010, he sold his majority stake to Michael Jordan in a $275 million bid due to a steady decline of the team's value and an annual loss of tens of millions of dollars. Prior to this, Jordan had been a minority stakeholder.

"The best decision I made since acquiring the Bobcats was to convince my friend Michael to become an investor in the Bobcats and to appoint him as managing member of basketball operations," Johnson said in a statement at the time. "As the new majority owner of the Bobcats, his dedication will be stronger now more than ever."

5. His first business was a paper route

Johnson told CNN Money in 2012 that his only entrepreneurial experience was a paper route as a kid. However, this gig taught him many valuable lessons.

Though he disliked waking up early in the morning, the newspapers had to be delivered between 6 - 7 a.m., which forced him to get dressed and begin work.

The job also taught him to run his own business (he had to sell subscriptions), how to deal with rejection and how to finish what he started.

"I always worked," he told CNN Money. "I was not afraid of getting my hands dirty."

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