First Black Billionaire Gives His Two Cents on Everything from Making Movies to Making Money
Robert L. Johnson was born in Hickory, Mississippi on April 8, 1946, the ninth of ten children born to Edna and Archie Johnson who later moved the family to Freeport, Illinois. Bob 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.
BJ: Hey, Kam how are you?
KW: I’m fine, and you?
BJ: Just fine, thank you.
KW: 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.
KW: 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.
KW: 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.
KW: 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 comedies…
KW: Why all comedies?
BJ: That’s the genre that’s most appealing to African-American viewers.
KW: 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.
KW: 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.
KW: 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 step back. It’s certainly a dialogue that’s already started.
KW: 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.
KW: 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 pushin’ 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.
KW: 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 public.
KW: 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.
KW: 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.
KW: Yeah, Jason Richardson was a very dynamic force with the Warriors.
BJ: He can put some points on the board, he’s exciting, and we think he’s going to make a big impact on the Bobcats.
KW: 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 autobiography?
BJ: [Laughs] 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 that.
KW: How about making a movie abut 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.
KW: 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.
KW: What advice do you have for youngsters looking to follow in your footsteps?
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.
KW: Is there any question you’ve always wanted to be asked but have never been asked?
BJ: [Chuckles] I’ve actually been a press secretary, and the one thing I learned early on, is if you can end on a question that you’ve just answered, don’t ask for another one, because it may not be one you want to answer.
KW: Well, I really appreciate the time, and good luck with Who’s Your Caddy? and all your other ventures.
BJ: Well, if people go see Who’s Your Caddy? I think that’ll translate into an opportunity for a lot of people to tell stories that aren’t being told at all today.
KW: Thanks again.
BJ: You got it.