Sheila Johnson's Third Act
The multi-hyphenate Sheila Johnson: concert violinist, co-founder BET, author and CEO Salamander Hotels & Resorts (Photo: Naphtali Junior)

Salamander Hotels & Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson has just arrived in Montego Bay from Anguilla. Eschew all thoughts of an extended Christmas/New Year vacay. It was a quick business trip. Aurora Anguilla Resort & Golf Club on Rendezvous is at the behest of owner Richard Schulze, the founder of Best Buy, under the management of Johnson's luxury hospitality management company. Johnson, the first billionaire African-American woman and the only black woman to own stakes in three professional sports teams (WNBA Mystics, NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals), saw "white space in the market to provide accessible non-traditional luxury without skimping on comfort" and has not looked back from her memorable first acquisition.

In 2002 Johnson was offered a 340-acre horse farm near Middleburg that had belonged to the late Democratic Party activist, diplomat and socialite Pamela Harriman and located an hour from Washington. It was a brutal 10-year-long acquisition that would leave her bruised but hardly broken. She describes it as a "history lesson, especially for people of colour". "Yes, I went into it with my eyes wide open," she explains. Perhaps, she adds, "I was a bit naive or simply forgot that I was south of the Mason-Dixon line [in the US pre-Civil War period it was regarded, together with the Ohio River, as the dividing line between slave states south of it and free-soil states north of it]." I looked at a town that was bankrupt and saw how I could be an anchor in that town, and put a business model in there, [plus] change the thought process of people living there... it needed to become much more diverse."

To say that Johnson got resistance would be an understatement. She describes it as "probably one of the most painful racial fights" of her life. "I mean, I've been through a lot, but that was a 10-year-fight that finally got pushed through by one vote... one vote! That one vote carried me over the finish line."

It's no idle boast. A win, even a scrappy one, is still a win and the indomitable Johnson segued from Act 1, concert violinist, to Act 2, co-founder of BET, to her third: haute hospitality. Salamander in September 2022 took over the management of one of Washington, DC's most iconic properties, the 373-room Mandarin Oriental which has now been rebranded Salamander DC.

Style Observer's interview takes place in the Great House Ocean Suite with a breathtaking sweep of the Caribbean Sea. The iconic Half Moon Resort is managed by Salamander. Future plans, Johnson shares, include building client base. "You see how busy it is! Above all else I'm glad tourism has come back. The place is fully booked and that's what gives all of our employees the comfort of knowing that we're now in a sustainable business. Many saw COVID-19 as the nail in the coffin... I didn't think that way. I saw the novel coronavirus as an opportunity to pivot to do some deferred maintenance until we were ready to open up again, to make our resorts, our hotels, even better. And to continue to tease over a website to say, look, this is what's happening here while you're at home."

As if to immortalise her three acts Johnson has, in between acquisitions, found time to pen Walk Through Fire, a book she describes as a lesson for both men and women. Adversity, she sees as important to one's life. It's the only way, she tells SO, "to become stronger and reach your goals... it gives you the motivation to move forward."

What would her response be to those desirous of following in her footsteps? "First of all, know who you really are and what gets you out of bed in the morning" is her immediate reply. There's a slight pause before she continues: "If you can't answer those questions, that's not even a starting point! But you need to find a focus in your life, know who you are, what you want to be. And they have to have patience. This [my success] did not come overnight." Johnson is speaking from her own lived experience. "I even have to still learn patience... There are times... for example, even just acquiring the DC Hotel. I am impatient because I know what I want. I'm waiting for these designers to clarify my vision so I can approve it and we can get started."

What motivates Johnson each day is the fact that no two days are alike. "I set up these little mini goals every day... what I have to do, what I need to get done, and what I am going to do. At the end of the day I say, 'alright... I got everything done that I wanted to get done'."

When it comes to balancing a successful career and family, Johnson declares that the jury's still out! "Being a mother and a businesswoman is very tough, because they do look to me for everything and I try to motivate them and talk to them. Sometimes they don't want my advice and there are times when it's, like, 'Mom I need your advice on this'. But it's more of listening to them and trying to understand what they want in life and what they need in life. Need is not [necessarily] materialistic but more of support of their ideas.

Johnson's son Brett is a menswear designer with major showrooms in Milan. She will lend her support at the end of February at Fashionweek. Her daughter Paige, she adds, "is a retired equestrian, so she's trying to figure out what she wants to do next... They are both wonderful children. Just absolutely incredible".

The woman who likes to get everything that she wants to get done in a single day must now ready to attend a celebratory cocktail event for Half Moon General Manager Shernette Crichton. Crichton made history when she was, in 2019, appointed the resort's first female boss. Johnson and her team are here to laud the woman who Johnson sees as having broken the glass ceiling. "I have watched you all the times I have come here," Johnson publicly said to Crichton later that evening. "Your energy, your inspiration, the gratitude you show everyone — you are the most amazing woman I have ever met."

Quite a compliment from a woman not afraid to walk through fire, chart new courses and inspire so many along the way.

The Eclipse arrival experience at Half Moon Hotel (Photo: Half Moon Resort)
Johnson is the first billionaire African-American woman (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Salamander Hotels and Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson (right) and Jamaica Observer Senior Associate Editor, Lifestyle & Social Novia McDonald-Whyte (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
The living and dining area of the Great House Ocean Suite at Eclipse, Half Moon (Photo: Half Moon Resort)
Salamander Hotels & Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson was named CEO of the Year by The Washington Business Journal on December 8, 2022 at the Four Seasons Washington, DC. (Photo: www.bizjournals.com)
Salamander Hotels and Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson and her menswear designer son Brett Johnson.
Johnson's retired equestrian daughter Paige Johnson (Photo: Robert J Nelson)
Salamander Hotels and Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Sheila Johnson (second left) and members of her ace team (from left) Executive Vice-President John Speels; Chief-of-Staff Giardy Ritz; and President Prem Devadas (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
Salamander Hotels & Resorts CEO Sheila Johnson (left) lauded Half Moon Jamaica General Manager Shernette Crichton with the following words: "You have broken the glass ceiling...I have watched you all the times I have come here... your energy, your inspiration, the gratitude you show everyone. You are the most amazing woman I have ever met." (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
"There's been a need for a new luxury, a luxury that makes you feel comfortable and welcome but that is not overdone." (Photo: Naphtali Junior)
"Why do something that everyone else is doing? I have a strong arts background and I like thinking outside the box." (Photo: Naphtali Junior)

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