In the beginning, Johnson admits, she
was willing to do whatever it took to close
meeting deals at the property.
“I’d offer my services as a motivational
speaker to open the meeting, sit on a panel
during the meeting, or even close the
meeting,” she said.
Today, Innisbrook Resort employs 600,
and since Johnson’s Salamander Hotels
& Resorts took over, group bookings have
grown to account for 50 percent of the
overall business at the hotel.
The successful turnaround at Innisbrook led to Salamander—named after the
amphibian that in myth was born in and
able to walk through fire—management
contracts at Hammock Beach Resort, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort in Palm Coast,
Fla., and Reunion Resort, a Salamander
Golf & Spa Resort in Orlando, creating the
Salamander Golf Collection.
With that kind of track record, who
better to add substance to a meeting as a
motivational speaker than the co-founder
of cable network BET (Black Entertainment
Television)? The 2001 BET sale to Viacom
for $3 billion allowed Johnson to focus
on hotels, catapulting her to be the most
successful women in the history of the
Today, when speaking to corporate
groups, she provides an unparalleled
◗ Vice chairman of Monumental Sports &
Entertainment, where she has ownership
in three professional sports teams.
◗ Movie producer and founder of the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia.
◗ Board member of the Jackie Robinson
◗ CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, a
collection of seven luxury properties.
Not bad for a woman who said she went into
the hotel business mostly because, “I like to
travel and know what I like when I travel!”
A Stellar Work Ethic
There’s no doubt Johnson also has an
admirable work ethic. She credits this to
her neurosurgeon father and accountant
mother. Johnson remembers that her
parents gave her love and latitude, but expected her to toe the line. To this end, she
was required to put dinner on the table for
the family two to three times a week.
“That’s where I learned the basics and
I’ve never forgotten it,” she said. “My father
was one of 11 African American neurosur-
geons in the country yet couldn’t practice
in white hospitals. We moved 13 times
and finally settled outside Chicago in May-
wood, where he practiced at the Veterans
He even took his daughter to watch sur-
geries, hoping his love of medicine would
rub off on her. Her mother, who graduated
from Temple University, stayed home until
Sheila was in seventh grade. Her parents’
love of music also influenced their daugh-
ter; she would later graduate with a music
degree from the University of Illinois.
Two years before graduating college in
1971, she married Robert Johnson,
who had started work at the Public Broadcasting Corp., while she, after graduation,
taught violin at both the prestigious Sidwell
Friends School and out of their home in
In 1979, the couple started BET, where
Johnson, in addition to other duties, pro-duced Teen Summit, a show where African
American youth discussed the issues of the
day. When they decided to sell the cable network in 2002, the network had become more
about music videos than an educational vehicle, and Johnson admits her decision to sell
was driven, at least in part, by her discomfort
of the way women were portrayed in videos.
Up daily at the crack of dawn, Johnson
starts her busy day with a workout at her
home gym at Salamander Farm in Plains,
Va., or walking her dog around the property, where she lives with her husband, the
Hon. William T. Newman Jr.
“I start by getting my day in order. I am
extraordinarily organized,” she said. “When
you have a lot of projects, it’s essential to
focus on proper time management.”
She used to prepare evening meals in the
mornings for the family, but now that her
kids are grown, that’s gone by the wayside.
Her children, Brett, 27, who has his own
fashion line, and daughter Paige, 31, a
champion equestrian, are excited about
the hospitality industry but not enough to
be involved, she said.
“They are more enamored of what I do.
Even in the BET days they never watched
the network much,” she said.
While Johnson’s involvement in her hotels does not include sitting in on employee
interviews (except for her corporate executive committee), she said the company
looks for work ethic and character.
“It’s about hiring the right people who
share your vision, and it’s hard to find people with the same credo as the Salamander
name implies,” she said. “The name Salamander stands for perseverance, courage
Sheila C. Johnson
From launching a growing hospitality empire to her work in the film industry and incubating the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs,
Sheila C. Johnson is a study in success. Following are
some of her many achievements:
◗ Founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts,
with luxury properties in Virginia, Florida, Louisiana
and South Carolina.
◗ Vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
◗ On the executive committee of the United States Golf
◗ Partner in Mistral, maker of bath, body and home
◗ Co-founded WE Capital, a venture capital consortium
to support and empower female-led enterprises to
advance transformational social change.
◗ On the board of the Greater Washington Partnership,
which seeks to strengthen the region’s global position
as a center for commerce and innovation.
◗ Producer of four documentary films: Kicking It, which
premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival; A
Powerful Noise, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca
Film Festival; She Is the Matador; and The Other City,
a critically acclaimed portrayal of the HIV/AIDS crisis
in Washington, D.C., which premiered at the 2010
Tribeca Film Festival.
◗ Honoree at USF MUMA College of Business 2017
Celebration of Free Enterprise.
◗ Helped finance the Screen Actors Guild; her film The
Butler, featured Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for Forest Whitaker, for lead actor, and Oprah
Winfrey, for supporting actress.
◗ Founder and chair of the Middleburg Film Festival, an
annual celebration of independent film inaugurated
◗ On the Board of Governors of Parsons The New
School for Design in New York City.
◗ Member of the Leadership Council at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
◗ Board member of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
◗ Board member of the International African American
Museum in Charleston, S.C.
HONOREE AT USF MUMA 2017 CELEBRATION OF FREE ENTERPRISE