The vision of Sheila Johnson and Salamander Resort
Eleven years later, having outlasted an economic recession and initial concerns about growth, Johnson now sits in the library of the completed project having overseen a successful launch and planning new ventures and new projects.
“You look at interior design drawings, but once it’s all done it’s even better,” she smiles.
Johnson cuts a wide swath through the business world. A co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, she later became the first African-American woman to be an owner or partner in three professional sports teams: the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. As CEO of Salamander Hospitality, she manages resorts in South Carolina, Florida and Virginia.
Even so, you’ll see her at the front door greeting guests at Salamander or even jumping behind the register to help a clerk in her gift shop. Every big business owner started as a small business owner, and Johnson remembers her own experiences starting off small.
As a woman in business
Given the breadth of her career, it’s important to remember that Johnson began as a small business owner herself. After graduating college, she accepted a job teaching music at the Sidwell Friends School in D.C., but found her initial salary less than what she could live on.
“I had to figure out ways to supplement my income,” she remembers.
So Johnson began giving music lessons door to door and in the basement of her home, later saving enough money to buy a house and start trading in real estate. Teaching herself tax law, she found how much money she could save by writing off household expenses in a home-based business. Audited by the IRS, she was thankful to have kept her receipts, learning that she was actually owed money on her taxes.
Warning that it is still hard for women to receive financing – particularly for start-up businesses – Johnson thinks it’s okay to start small. “Do it realistically and take baby steps. Even with Google and Microsoft, they started in garages. You don’t have to go out and rent office space. Start in your home.”
With her origin in the arts, Johnson has encouraged other business leaders to weigh the benefits of an artistic background when hiring. Often asking potential employees about their arts background, she believes that experience in that arena helps them become better problem solvers.
This appreciation of artistic creativity does come with balance. Johnson, who sits on the Board of Governors for Parsons School of Design in New York, encourages artists and designers to understand business principles as well.
“You may not be able to make enough money just being a musician, but you’re the CEO of your own life. That’s what’s important. You’ve got to treat yourself like a business whatever you’re doing. If you’re not making ends meet, how can you take the core of whatever you’ve learned and build upon that?”
As CEO of Salamander, Johnson feels women bring a special set of skills to the business world and goes out of her way to mentor her female staffers. Warning that many companies have failed to see the value in gender and racial diversity in business, she considers it short-sighted for those who want to compete.
“I think women are able to juggle a bit more. I think they’re often more visionary, more creative. They’re a little more patient. They’re more willing to make changes and they’re more resilient. I really admire the women I have around me.”
For all her employees, Johnson encourages the freedom to create and be decision-makers. In her words: There’s nothing wrong with failure. If they fall on their face, let’s go back and figure out another way we can do this.
Looking at the issue of women in business, Johnson advises women to put a plan together and look for something that no one else is doing.
“And they have to know what their strengths and weaknesses are,” she advises, recalling her own difficulty early in her career.
A big believer in background checks and being extremely careful during the hiring process, Johnson advises everyone in business to be wary of what she terms “energetic vampires,” those who’ll jump on your coattails and take advantage.
“That’s what happens and you’ve got to be able to recognize it and get rid of them,” Johnson warns.
What does she look for during the hiring process? Character is her first response.
Hire slow and fire fast is her message. She also believes in how critical the Human Resources function is, calling it “one of the most important people in any business.”
It can stifle a business, Johnson believes, if the HR department doesn’t understand people, the law and the positions they’re hiring for.
As an African-American
Johnson first came to public prominence as the co-founder of BET, started with then-husband Robert Johnson. While being the chief spared her from much of the gender discrimination that sometimes occurs in business, she says that she did see a different type of minimalization in her role there.
“I was always ‘the wife of.’ It was a different type of pushback and it wasn’t fun. I felt stifled,” she said, “The ex was always getting the satisfaction and success level, whether I did it or not.”
After their divorce, Johnson recalls the difficulty in convincing outside media that she had been a true partner in the enterprise, “It was a period where I really had to prove myself and if it were a man, it wouldn’t happen.”
Johnson has since been vocal in her criticism of the current programming on BET, particularly its entertainment focus and its portrayal of women.
“The reason for starting that network was to give African-Americans a voice. Yes, you can have entertainment, but you also need education. You need critical dialogue. African-Americans are losing their voice,” says Johnson.
Even so, there’s a pride in Johnson’s voice as she recalls her work there, particularly in its Teen Summit program. The show attempted to deal with everyday issues with an optimistic viewpoint. Her brainchild, Johnson had to support the show with grant money.
Asked about what parts of her career she is particularly proud of, Johnson points to Teen Summit. In particular, she takes pleasure is recalling how she continues to run into former panelists who have used the experience to improve their own lives.
This desire to ensure that the black community has a voice is part of the motivation for two recent projects she’s undertaken.
Working with Harvard University in an institute named for her, Johnson is about to embark on a five-year program mentoring 10 future leaders per year. The goal is to ensure that there is a new generation of minority leaders trained to work at a national level. Johnson wants to move the needle and recognize people who are going to be “do-ers” and be able to tackle the issues of the future.
“I’m going to teach them to play in the same sandbox I’ve learned to play in.”
The desire to see serious works addressing the black experience also led Johnson to try her hand in the movie business with her investment in “The Butler,” a film starring Forest Whitaker which details the true story of Cecil Gaines, who served as White House butler for 34 years.
Grossing over $110 million with its release, Johnson said the film’s financing wasn’t easy initially. No movie house would take it, according to Johnson, because it was an African-American movie with a very serious subject matter.
“This was one of those roll of the dice decisions. I had the accountants read the script and that’s what sold them,” she said.
Her experience working with “The Butler” has had an unexpected benefit for the people of Loudoun County with the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival this pst October. And rather than being solely Salamander-focused, the screenings opened up the town to visitors with movies playing at the Hill School, the National Sporting Library and the Middleburg Community Center. She also transformed the former gas station into a reception area complete with red carpet.
Having been told by Robert Redford, himself the creative impetus behind the Sundance Film Festival, that the location could work for this type of exhibition, Johnson’s vision appears to have paid off. Screening around 17 films, the festival was sold out a month prior to kickoff.
As the salamander
Named as a nod to the prior owner, a World War II fighter pilot and prisoner of war who had received the codename Salamander, Johnson also notes that in myth the Salamander is the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive.
Viewing the comfortable surroundings at Salamander Resort with obvious pleasure, she is quick to point out that the project was not a pie in the sky vision. Before any plans were made, she had a feasibility study conducted and did research to ensure that there wasn’t this type of destination resort within the region. The combination of a spa core with an equestrian feel makes it unique and Jonson believes a draw for the Washington area. She hopes to help Middleburg harken back to the Kennedy years when the first family used it area as a regular weekend retreat.
Despite initial fears of reckless development, Johnson sees Salamander as a complement to the rural environment, maintaining the authenticity of the area.
With artwork highlighting the region’s equestrian past, Johnson seems dedicated to it, saying, “These 340 acres, I want to keep it pristine. It’s under a conservation easement, but to have this oasis up here where you can come and just relax and de-stress. Enjoy good food, but also enjoy the transitional area with Middleburg and the wineries … Things can be done that don’t change the landscape.”
Her desire was for Salamander to feel less like a hotel and more like a grand manor. It fits into the neighboring countryside without the institutional feel of many large projects. Showcasing local wines and culinary teaching classes, everything at Salamander was planned to mix grandeur and comfort. Employing 280 locals from the area and already attracting both local and destination visitors, Johnson says the feedback has been phenomenal.
But even more, Johnson sees Salamander Resort as an agent for change, hoping to bring in conferences and speakers to look at larger issues of wellness and mindfulness. Her intention is to transform it into “a think-tank and a “do-tank”
Johnson has a wide a varied assortment entrepreneurial ventures and interest – from film to hospitality, from her role as owner of three sports franchises to her work designing scarves. When asked about why she separates her time between these different businesses, her answer is simple. “That’s how I cast my net wider to meet people and bring them into my world.”
That’s the vision of Sheila Johnson.
The women of Salmander: Penny Kriel, Spa Director
With the Salamander Resort opening, Penny Kriel is already planning for the future.
Responsible for the lavish resort spa and fitness center, Kriel is tasked with overseeing wellness from a higher level.
Early reports from the spa have been very promising with business levels higher than expected for the new feel-good outlet. And even though the resort is less than a month old, she’s already looking at ways to expand and diversify the spa.
For local guests particularly, Kriel wants to ensure that the spa begins to offer more variety and expand their spa treatments and products.
Starting in January, the resort will also be offering executive physicals from Inova VIP 360 and looking to start a series for wellness seminars.
Resort guests can look forward to seven-day programs on weight loss, nutrition or pure relaxation.
A native of South Africa, Kriel has had an extended career in the spa industry. Originally working on cruise ships, she spent the last seven years working with the Mandarin Oriental in D.C.
Even so, Kriel says that she was always intrigued by the area and decided to move her growing family into Virginia.
In addition to her work implementing Sheila Johnson’s spa vision at Salamander Resort, Kriel is taking care of a new baby (her second) and building a home in the Haymarket area.
With a husband who travels extensively for business, Kriel says that she’s grateful for the support of her friends and family in balancing her work and home responsibilities.
“That’s our lifestyle,” she says, “and I’ve adjusted to it.”
She doesn’t see these varied responsibilities as overwhelming,
“I’m very regimented.”
During her tenure with Salamander, Kriel has appreciated the ability to create something from scratch. Working on new programs is something that challenges her creatively.
According to her, it’s just the right balance of structure and innovation.
The women of Salamander: Sheryl Jordan, Equestrian Director
Walking through Salamander Resort, it’s obvious from the art that there’s a reverence for Virginia’s equestrian history.
Part of the inspiration for the resort was to provide an opportunity for visitors to experience horse country … and actually spend time with horses.
Equestrian Director Sheryl Jordan oversees the resort’s 14,000 square-foot stable and the 9 horses currently available for riding.
Visitors have a variety of options to fulfill their love of horses – from pony rides for kids to scenic rides through the 25 acres devoted to the program.
Thus far, Jordan says, the equestrian program has been well received with 70 percent of the participants being beginners or new riders.
The new facility has also allowed her to implement her dream project, the Eqispective program.
As she describes it, “An individual gets a chance to work with a horse in the round pin with me facilitating. Through that exposure to the horse, they gain higher awareness of their authentic leadership communication and relationship style. A horse is a mirror reflection of what going on inside of you.”
With a 43-year career, Jordan grew up in Northern Virginia and began started with horses at age 12. She’s ridden with the Warrenton and Piedmont hunts and feels like she can connect visitors with the hunt lifestyle.
“Other than the Coach Stop being gone, Middleburg hasn’t changed that much. I’m thankful that so many of the local owners have conservation easements. It’s like coming home,” says Jordan.
While the resort saw an 11-year process between vision and realization, Jordan waited nearly as long to find her place in the organization.
While job hunting eight years ago, she read about the planned resort and submitted her resume – later taking an equestrian manager position at the Ford Plantation in Georgia.
Although the opening of the resort was delayed during the economic recession, Jordan received a call in the months before it opened.
Jordan didn’t hesitate. Her new position allowed her to return to Virginia and utilize both her resort and equestrian experience.
“I feel like life has brought me full circle,” she says.
This article originally appeared in the fourth quarter edition of the Loudoun Business Journal in 2013.