Robert Johnson knows the power of good partnerships.
In 1980 he launched Black Entertainment Television, the nation's first TV network aimed at black viewers. Johnson credits his then-partner, cable TV magnate John Malone, with providing financial and professional backing that helped the venture succeed.
And as the majority owner of RLJ McLarty Landers Automotive Holdings, he credits partners Steve Landers and Mack McLarty -- and his own prudent risk-taking -- with guiding the company through the recession while doubling its number of dealerships in the process.
"I've been in business for a very long time and I've seen the ups and downs of the economy and the impact it has on business, jobs and overall consumer confidence," Johnson says.
Johnson, although an automotive retail novice compared with longtime dealers Landers and McLarty, is a business magnate in his own right.
He founded the RLJ Lodging Trust, a hotel real estate investment trust that began trading publicly in May 2011 and owns 140 hotels.
He is the founder and chairman of RLJ Cos. of Bethesda, Md., which owns or holds interest in several businesses. Among them:
-- Bobcats Sports & Entertainment, including the Charlotte Bobcats NBA team and arena operations. Johnson was the majority owner before selling all but 15 percent in 2010 to former basketball superstar Michael Jordan.
-- Caribbean CAGE gaming company. It holds licenses in Caribbean island nations to operate video lottery terminals.
-- RLJ Equity Partners private equity fund. It buys and invests in small and mid-sized businesses.
Johnson's RLJ Cos. has other holdings in financial services, insurance services and asset management. It also owns a film production studio, Our Stories Films.
Johnson was born in the small town of Hickory, Miss., the ninth of 10 children.
He was just a toddler when his parents moved to the family to Freeport, Ill., where he grew up. He received a master's degree in international affairs from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a press secretary before landing a job as a lobbyist for the cable television industry.
Exposure to that industry planted the seed for Black Entertainment Television, he says. But he lacked the money to make it a reality.
Johnson got a break when Malone, then CEO of Tele-Communications Inc., liked the idea and invested with Johnson.
"He asked me how much I needed; I told him $500,000 -- this was in 1980," Johnson recalls. "He said we would invest and buy equity in it and provide debt financing.
"That $500,000 became the foundation on which [Black Entertainment Television] grew into the successful business it is today."
Of all his companies, Johnson is best known for the one he no longer owns. He took Black Entertainment Television public in 1991 and sold his stake in it to Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion.
Johnson says that although he invests in a variety of businesses, all of the ventures are based on trust and are committed to building value for stakeholders.
He adds: "That's why I feel that no matter what business I'm in, the core principles are the same."