The Right StuffSuccess is more than being in the right place at the right time. You also have to be there with the right stuff. The 2003 honorees of the Washington Business Hall of Fame had the vision to see opportunities and the abilities take advantage of them. Theodore Lerner started out selling houses and then sold Washington on shopping malls. Bob Johnson had more moxie than money when he created the first cable network devoted to African-Americans. Ed Mitchell turned an energy crisis into an opportunity to diversify an energy company. Austin Kiplinger made money journalism pay. John Tydings convinced a government town that business also was its business. The Washington Business Hall of Fame was founded in 1988 by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and The Washingtonian for the benefit of Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area. Junior Achievement sent more than 500 business volunteers into more than 750 classrooms last year to build students’ business knowledge. The volunteers served as role models for 24,000 kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. The 2003 laureates will be inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame at the Washington Hilton on November 18. They prove that business leaders with the right stuff can do the right thing for their community.
Robert JohnsonHow Do You Spell Billionaire? B.E.T.
Bob Johnson, billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, owes a debt of gratitude to the late congressman Claude Pepper of Florida. Johnson was a young lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Part of his job was escorting cable bigwigs to Capitol Hill. One day Johnson’s mission was to get Pepper’s support for a cable network aimed at senior citizens.
The idea triggered something in Johnson. Why not start a cable channel for blacks?
“My feeling was, boy, if I didn’t do this and someone else started the first African-American-oriented cable channel, I’d be kicking myself the rest of my life,” Johnson says.
In 1979, Johnson left NCTA to start BET. Although he had no business experience, he convinced John Malone, then head of a cable network, to invest in his venture. With a $15,000 bank loan, Johnson launched his company.
Johnson did not have capital to invest in content for BET. He realized that another cable network, MTV, owed its success to rock videos, which record companies offered free to promote their artists. But except for Michael Jackson, MTV seldom featured black artists. So Johnson started featuring African-American performers. BET’s audience grew.
By the time Johnson sold BET to Viacom in 2001, his network was worth $3 billion. The company had expanded into radio, movies, books, and the Internet.
Not bad for a kid from Hickory, Mississippi, who was the only one of ten siblings to go to college. Johnson graduated from the University of Illinois and has a master’s in international affairs from Princeton.
Viacom insisted that Johnson stay on at BET for five years. But America’s first black billionaire was already widening his financial interests to include real estate, hotels, fast food, gaming, and entertainment. This year, Johnson realized a lifelong dream when he became the first African-American owner of a National Basketball Association franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats.
The recipient of many cable-industry and community awards, Johnson feels he hit the jackpot with the Bobcats. Unveiling the team logo, he told a crowd in Charlotte, “This is the proudest day of my life.”
John TydingsPutting the “Great” in Greater Washington
In 1969, on his first day at the Greater Washington Board of Trade, John Tydings got stuck in a broken elevator. That same week, he went into a meeting, leaned back in his chair, and felt it collapse under him.
“There’s a lot to fix around here,” parking-lot magnate Bud Doggett told Tydings.
For the next 32 years, that’s what John Tydings did. Under his leadership, the Board of Trade expanded its reach from downtown DC to the region and widened its focus beyond business to concern for the whole community.
“His network of contacts includes every facet of the community’s public and private sectors,” says John Derrick, chief executive of Pepco and former chair of the Board of Trade. “He has built his effectiveness on two key ingredients—competency and trust.”
Tydings grew in Anacostia—a diverse neighborhood even then, he says. He studied history and psychology at the University of Maryland, went back for graduate study in finance and accounting, then headed to New York to seek his fortune.
His New York state of mind lasted four months. Tydings came home to look for a job in DC, ran into a Pepco recruiter he had met at University of Maryland, and was hired to work for the utility’s personnel-services group.
In 1968 Pepco lent Tydings to the White House and the National Alliance of Business jobs project. NAB sent Tydings to run a summer-jobs program at the Board of Trade. Tydings never went back to the utility business.
The Board of Trade that Tydings joined was largely white, male, and rooted in a city still reeling from the 1968 riots. Under Tydings’ leadership, the BOT built housing units and started recreation centers. He recruited leaders from around the area and concentrated on regional development. The Board of Trade’s science-industry committee helped lure technology firms.
Tydings was a founder of Leadership Washington and helped Junior Achievement develop here. He is deeply involved with Heroes Inc. and is president of the National Capital Area Foundation.
Tydings retired in 2002 as president of the Board of Trade, but he is still a major booster of the Washington region.
“This community is so rich in human talent,” Tydings says. “Our diversity is our strength. We have the capacity to solve any problem if we set our minds to it.”