Johnson BETs on Wall Street
Does BET billionaire Bob Johnson have what it takes to conquer the world of finance? The Carlyle Group thinks so. Here's why.
By Nadira A. Hira, FORTUNE writer/reporter

(FORTUNE Magazine) - "My obit's already written," says Bob Johnson. "I can read it to you right now." He puts down his silverware. "Bob Johnson, the founder of BET, died yesterday. He was the first black billionaire, but throughout his career he was criticized for putting music videos on TV."

Sitting in a jazz club in Charlotte, Johnson traces the imaginary newsprint with his index finger as if the type has already been set.

Bob Johnson is building the first black-owned full-scale financial services operation
Bob Johnson is building the first black-owned full-scale financial services operation.

Coming off his 60th birthday, Robert L. Johnson is, of course, very much alive. And one gets the sense that he's not content to let "music videos on TV" be the last words written about him. Johnson's epitaph would, it should be noted, include a few other facts.

First black majority owner of an American pro sports franchise (the NBA Charlotte Bobcats). First CEO to take a black-owned company public on the NYSE (Research) (he eventually sold it for $3 billion). A consummate dealmaker who oversaw a mini-empire encompassing everything from a jazz label to a hotel company to a lottery operation in the Caribbean.

What his obit would not say - at least not yet - is that Bob Johnson changed the face of Wall Street.

But he's on it. Five months ago Johnson announced the formation of RLJ Asset Management, an umbrella under which he plans to assemble what he says will be Wall Street's first black-owned full-scale financial services operation. He's starting with a private-equity fund backed by the ultra-exclusive Carlyle Group; a hedge fund that invests in other hedge funds, which will be launched with Deutsche Asset Management; and the Urban Trust Bank, a small Orlando institution Johnson recently bought to target urban and "underbanked" areas. (He intends to relaunch the bank this summer and eventually take it national.)

His plan? To hire top black money managers and analysts - most of whom, Johnson says, struggle for traction in mainstream finance; round up investors from his inimitable network of entertainers, sports stars, and businesspeople; and convince pension funds, university endowments, and other institutions that if they're serious about diversity, they've got to do business with Bob Johnson.

"I love the notion of presenting the question to America: Why shouldn't we invite these individuals into the mainstream of economic empowerment in America?" Johnson says, in his made-for-radio baritone. "The answer is, 'We must.'"

New territory

There is just one small matter: Johnson has never managed money, overseen a hedge fund, or operated a bank. "Bob can't hit a 25-foot jumper either," quips Kevin Parker, the global head of Deutsche Asset Management, "but he owns a basketball team."

True enough. But Johnson has thrown up his share of air balls. There were the dubious plans to expand the BET brand via clothing and theme restaurants. The failed bid in 1995 for Washington's NBA franchise (which, in an odd twist, his ex-wife, Sheila, ended up owning part of). The 2001 plan to merge United Airlines (Research) and US Airways (Research) into the first black-owned carrier. ("We'll see if it flies," FORTUNE wrote in a skeptical article at the time. It didn't.)

Sitting aboard one of NetJets' Falcon 2000 time-shares en route to Charlotte for a basketball game, Johnson himself ticks off the reasons people on Wall Street think he'll fail in the money business.

"You're a first-time fund. You don't know anything about financial services. You're not capitalized enough. You don't have connections to source deals. You can't raise the money. You can't find talented people." Johnson spreads the fingers of his left hand. "I've just got to knock those doubts down," he says, striking each finger emphatically. "Knock down, knock down, knock down." He opens his arms wide. "Then it has to be: 'Well, you're black. We just didn't want to say it. But you're black.' And they're not going to say that."

Wall Street's color barrier has been hard to knock down. While prominent African Americans like CEOs Stan O'Neal at Merrill Lynch (Research) and Ken Chenault at American Express (Research) run major blue-chip firms, overall only 2 percent of America's private investment dollars are managed by minorities, according to the National Association of Investment Companies, a diversity-focused trade group.

Jesse Jackson's Wall Street Project, an effort to open Wall Street's doors to minorities, initially generated a lot of buzz but last year lost its NYSE sponsorship.

"There's still a cultural blinder, to borrow a term from Rev. Jackson, that people have regarding black people and money," says Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management, the largest black-owned mutual fund company. "People have an innate negative reaction because they're not used to seeing us in that space, no matter our pedigree. We're good enough to graduate from Ivy League schools, but not good enough to manage their endowments."

But Johnson is approaching his new project less as a social crusader than as an entrepreneur. "This big banker said to me, 'Bob, I'm embarrassed to tell you this, but I can't find African Americans to manage our assets,'" Johnson says. "And here I know ten African-American guys going around the country begging for money. So the smartest thing for me to do is collect them all under my own brand and go back and say, 'Aha! I found them! So give me the money you said you'd give.'" What he's proposing is a classic arbitrage play. There's an unmet need. There's an untapped resource. And guess whose Rolodex straddles both worlds?

A powerful network

"So I e-mailed Lee Scott," says Johnson's executive assistant, referring to the CEO of Wal-Mart (Research) whom Johnson calls a "business associate." "Good," Johnson replies, dictating orders in the tenth-floor conference room of his new offices in Bethesda, Md., which house all his ventures, collectively called the RLJ Cos. "And give Shaq a call. Oh, and do we have Ludacris's contact?" He's the rapper-turned-actor who appeared in the Oscar-winning film Crash. "Check on that. And send Michael the schedule for the remaining Bobcat home games." He means Jordan, of course.

This scene could be interpreted as a virtuoso name-dropping performance. In fact, Johnson is very much at work. What you have to understand is that while Johnson may have sold BET, he held on to an arguably more powerful network. Forged over 30 years in the cable, sports, and business worlds, his network of personal contacts is his new venture's most valuable asset.

Those calls to Miami Heat superstar Shaquille O'Neal and Ludacris? Johnson ran into them at the NBA All-Star Weekend in February, and both asked about his investing ventures. Not long before, Johnson - who serves on the boards ofLowe's (Research), talent agency IMG,Strayer Education (Research), and Johns Hopkins University - lunched with William Kennard, the former FCC chairman whom Johnson knows from his cable days.

Now a managing director of Carlyle, Kennard floated the idea of Johnson joining the private-equity firm. Johnson had a better idea: He convinced his old friend they should start a fund together, investing in media, consumer products, and business-services firms.

RLJ will own 80 percent of the venture and make investment decisions, while Carlyle will own 20 percent and help with infrastructure and fundraising. Though Carlyle typically doesn't do partnerships with entrepreneurs, billionaires tend to get doors opened.

Kennard, who is also African American, says his firm "recognizes the severe underrepresentation of minorities in the investment business."

Says Johnson: "People ask, 'What is it about Bob Johnson?' It's that I can get the solid business guys, and I can get the athletes and the rappers."

Being a team owner is a key part of the persona. "There's no better way to make sure everyone knows your name," as Johnson puts it. At a recent home game in Charlotte, Johnson, dressed in a black sport coat, orange polo, and Bobcat lapel pin, was mobbed by kids shouting "Mr. Johnson!" Though it may look like leisure, he says, games are about business.

"The NBA has 30 teams times 15 guys, who make an average of $4 million. And the league is 85 percent black. You'd think there'd be some major firm entirely devoted to managing those guys' money."

Making investing cool

Having athletes and entertainers get involved is great publicity, Johnson says, plus it's the best way to communicate to the African-American community that investing is cool. "Black people have always been uncomfortable with wealth," says Johnson (never one to shy away from controversial blanket statements), "building it, holding on to it, not feeling guilty or less black because of it."

Johnson himself never seemed to. Growing up in working-class Freeport, Ill., Johnson was one of ten kids - and the only one to graduate from college. After the University of Illinois, he went on to Princeton, where he earned a master's in international affairs, then landed in D.C. as a lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

In 1980, at 33, he saw an opening for black-focused programming, took out a $15,000 personal loan, and persuaded John Malone, then CEO of Tele-Communications Inc., to pitch in $500,000. BET was born. Built on a steady stream of increasingly explicit music videos, the network's success was meteoric, and in 2001, Viacom (Research) bought it for $3 billion. Johnson reportedly pocketed $1.5 billion in Viacom stock.

While BET's content incited Johnson's critics in the black community, the sale of the only black network to corporate America upset some even more. Aaron McGruder, creator of the comic strip and TV show "The Boondocks," summed up that sentiment in an interview with the Washington Post when the sale was announced. "BET really does shoot some holes (in the) idea that a black-owned business works in the best interest of black America," McGruder said. "A black capitalist can be as evil as a white capitalist."

In 1999, Morley Safer asked Johnson on "60 Minutes" if he was a role model to African Americans. "I said, 'You know, Morley, why is it that no one has ever asked my good buddy Tom Freston (now the CEO of Viacom) if he's a role model to all the poor kids in Appalachia?' " Johnson explains, "Some black folks have always wanted me to be Robin Hood," but it's not the role for him. His goal, reiterated throughout his career, is to create wealth for himself and for those who've invested money, time or faith in him.

It took millions -$315 million to be precise - for Johnson to imagine Wall Street as his next stop. When Thomas Baltimore Jr., who runs Johnson's hotel operation (which includes more than 130 Hilton and Marriott properties), wanted to start a private-equity fund five years ago to expand the business faster, Johnson told him to go ahead but warned that he "didn't want to do anything" for it.

Still, the Urban Lodging Fund raised $315 million from the pension funds of North Carolina and Connecticut, General Electric (Research), and others in nine months, outstripping the goal of $200 million in a year.

That got Johnson's attention. So has the boom in hedge funds. Johnson noted that black investors - even famous guys like Shaq - were for the most part missing out on a huge wave of wealth creation. He told Lisa Pickrum, the COO of his holding company who had spent a decade in the private-equity world, that he wanted to start a hedge fund.

She called a friend at Deutsche Bank (Research), who agreed to offer some advice over lunch. In vintage Johnson form, the lunch concluded with Deutsche Bank agreeing to help him launch his own hedge fund of funds.

"With any business, you look for an edge," says Deutsche's Parker. "The world probably doesn't need another hedge fund of funds, but there is a lack of minority-owned firms in the space, and this will be minority owned, so maybe the world does need this one."

That's what Johnson's first hires - four well-respected if under-the-radar investors - are counting on. To run the Carlyle fund he's brought on Alan Nichols Jr., a former BET exec who landed in the private-equity world, and Daphne Dufresne, a private-equity vet who ran money at several funds on the East Coast and in Europe.

Managing the Deutsche portfolio is Carlton Byrd, an ex-Goldman trader who developed hedge fund of funds products forFriedman Billings Ramsey (Research), and Derek Saleeby, a former hedge fund manager for RAM Capital Resources who founded a merchant bank called African Private Equity Partners.

Though Johnson tends to hire based on references, he notes that all four have Ivy League MBAs. Each of the new hires also felt the draw of a black-owned firm. "There's no other entity I can think of that can attract all of us to the same place at the same time," says Byrd. "It's great to work at Goldman Sachs (Research), absolutely wonderful. But I'm not Goldman or Sachs, you know?"

For all Johnson's dealmaking prowess, of course, BET was a success ultimately because people watched. On Wall Street it's also a ratings game: Investors will judge him on how his investment portfolios perform. The goal for the two funds, according to Pickrum, is to have $5 billion under management collectively in the next five to seven years, with an initial fundraising goal of $500 million for the Carlyle fund.

Johnson and Pickrum have started pitching: Recently the two were in California meeting with Calpers and Calstrs, the nation's largest public employee and teacher retirement funds. (A Calpers spokesman wouldn't comment on Johnson's new venture, but says, "Diversity is a huge issue for us right now.")

Certainly, Wall Street has done a terrible job making room for minorities, and Johnson is positioning himself squarely on a tension point in the economy. It is a place where he's extremely comfortable.

"If I'm successful in what I do and other African Americans are successful because of that," he says, "then white Americans' minds will stretch to accept us in every role that they accept themselves in." Now that sounds like an obit Johnson could live with. Top of page