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Billionaire Sheila Johnson has vision for Innisbrook golf resort

Billionaire Sheila Johnson is co-founder of the BET network and CEO of Salamander Hospitality, a company she founded in 2005, which owns the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor. As for her golf game, she says, “I can putt.”
Published Mar. 17, 2012


Sheila Johnson, America's first black female billionaire, has her fingers in a lot of different pies.


The co-founder of the BET network, Johnson has a stake in three sports teams: the WNBA's Washington Mystics, the NBA's Washington Wizards and the NHL's Washington Capitals. Her burgeoning Salamander Hospitality company is set to open another luxury resort and spa next year in Middleburg, Va. She is also producing a movie starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and designing her own line of scarves.


But recently, her attention has been focused on Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor, the host of this week's PGA Transitions Championship, which ends Sunday. Transitions Optical did not renew its contract to sponsor the event, making it the only televised PGA tournament without a title sponsor for 2013.


Johnson is out to find a new sponsor and promote the resort, which she bought in 2007.


She sat down with the Tampa Bay Times this week to talk about her goals, the hotel business and her golfing skills.


What are your goals for Innisbrook in 2012?


To get the (PGA) sponsor, that's my first goal. My second goal is to continue to expand the membership, to get the word out to the public that everyone's welcome here. My goal is to make this place one of the best destination resorts in the Tampa Bay community, in Florida. I want people to look at it not just as a golf course, but as a place where their family can come, a place for healing and wellness, relaxation, destressing.


How did Innisbrook do coming out of the recession?


Last year we broke even, and this year we hope to do even better than that. And there's a lot of properties that can't boast that kind of record. We are crawling out of some very tough times, but I don't want to use that as an excuse. I know we can make anything work. Ever since I bought the property, we have been going uphill. It's just terrific. One thing I want people to understand, this is not an exclusive resort where people are shut out. We're open to the public. People can come here and dine, they can play golf, they can use the spa. We're open for business here. We're no longer just a golf resort, we're a resort for families.


Obviously, Innisbrook gets a lot of national attention as the host of a PGA tournament, but you are also looking to bring an LPGA event here. What do you have to do to get one?


Find a sponsor.


What are you doing to replace Transitions Optical as the title sponsor? Are there any prospects for a new one?


Everybody is a prospect. I have been calling in my chips and everybody I know that sits on corporate boards. I've been in very close touch with the PGA; they're helping us look. We're doing as much as we can. I'm making phone calls to major corporations, and they're interested. We're waiting for some to get back with us. It's the story of my life: I'm always looking for sponsors.


If you don't find a sponsor, would the tournament have to move?


I don't want to think about it, I really don't. I really believe we're going to find a new sponsor, even if we have to find two sponsors. If I have to do five sponsors, I want to keep it here. It's important. We play a huge role in this state. It's not only important to us, but I think that it's important to the world of golf that we're able to keep this tour here.


Are you a big golf fan? Do you ever play?


I knew you were going to ask me that. I can putt. I have a little putting place on my farm back in Virginia. I don't have time to practice. I'm such a perfectionist. With my violin, I used to play four and five hours a day. It's just my DNA. Unless I can do something well, I'm not going to sit here and say I can play golf. I know how to hold the club, I can putt, I can hit a ball. Every time they ask me to hit a ball in front of the camera I do it and I don't look stupid. I've taken enough lessons that I make myself look good. One day, once things level out, I'm going to really get into it.


You are a very successful businesswoman and entrepreneur. What sort of advice do you have for local businesswomen?


I have so much advice I don't know here to start. First, hire slowly, fire fast. Always watch your bottom line. Make sure you bring in people that you trust that can share your vision. Because there's too many people that will come in with another agenda in mind. You have to be very astute, and you have to really be able to use your intuition. Keep your eyes open, don't just look straight ahead. Watch everything and everyone around you to make sure that they are sharing your vision and it's not about them.

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