NEW YORK (Reuters) – Most people would be thrilled to succeed in one field. Sheila Johnson has triumphed in some remarkably different ones.
The range goes like this: accomplished violinist, co-founder of popular cable network Black Entertainment Television, co-owner of professional sports franchises, CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts.
For the latest in Reuters “Life Lessons” series, Johnson, 68, sat down to share a few ingredients in her secret recipe for success.
Q: How did that start in music help shape your business career?
A: Things don’t come overnight in life – you have to persevere and stay focused. Music does that for you. It also teaches you to be a better listener and communicator. If you are part of a string quartet, you have to be focused on the conductor and know exactly when to come in, because if your mind wanders in the least, you are finished.
Q: How did you transition from that world to co-founding BET with your now-ex-husband Bob Johnson?
A: It was tough, because no one else was doing it. We had a vision of bringing the African-American voice to the cable world, and at first, we couldn’t get any advertisers to believe in that vision. But we had an angel investor, John Malone, who believed in us and funded us all the way through our eventual sale to Viacom. Without his $500,000 in startup money, we might not have made it, because no one else thought we could pull it off.
Q: How did you handle that success with your personal portfolio?
A: I make sure to have a personal CFO. It is a true checks-and-balances system. With my company, a CFO runs it, and three other people working under the CFO watch everything I buy and make sure no one is abusing credit cards. Some things I have learned about investing: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, trust no one and keep an eye on the bottom line. Even today, I sign all the checks at my company personally.
Q: Any particular type of investment that attracts you?
A: I have an investment manager at JP Morgan who keeps tabs on everything and watches my back. But there is one women’s investment fund that I participate in, called WE Capital. Twelve of us have pooled our money – ranging from half a million to over a million each – to invest in companies started by women, owned by women and on their way to making a real social impact. That is how we pay it forward. It is not charity, though – it is business.
Q: With the teams you have a stake in – the NHL’s Washington Capitals, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics – what has been the big lesson?
A: When I first came into owning the teams, I was so excited, but felt so much pressure to make it a success. Ted Leonsis once said to me, ‘Sheila, don’t get too close to the players, because they will break your heart.’ And he was right. There is no loyalty in sports. Whenever we trade a player, they never speak to me again. Even if I baked them cookies!
Q: How do you make your philanthropic decisions?
A: I get that constantly. But I know in my heart where I want to help people. For instance, I help 50 fellows at Harvard’s Kennedy School. These are handpicked students from underserved backgrounds. I’m their safety net.
Q: What have you learned so far from the hotel business?
A: Patience, patience, patience. I always knew it was going to work, but it has been 10 years to get it up and running. It was a risky project, and it cost me a lot of money, but now it’s paying off. Eventually we would like to get up to 10 or 15 hotels in the luxury market.
Q: What life lessons do you pass along to your kids?
A: It is all about character, integrity and the way they conduct themselves. They are two of the most hard-working kids I know. My daughter is a show jumper who runs her own business and travels the world. I don’t have to do a thing for her. My son is a menswear designer who just had his first show for New York’s Fashion Week. So I’m very proud of them – but even if they fell on their faces, they should never be ashamed of it. Failure only helps you grow.
(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Dan Grebler)