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RLJ Companies Riding Out Economic Storm

1/5/2012, 11:06 a.m.

During a keynote speech before more than 500 guests at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce's Annual Meeting and Chairman's Inaugural Luncheon held Thursday, Dec. 15, businessman Robert L. Johnson used his companies as a palette from which to draw a compelling picture of the state of the American economy and some of its challenges.

Johnson, 65, formed the RLJ Companies after he sold Black Entertainment Television (BET) for $3 billion to Viacom in 2000.

Johnson made a steady rise professionally before becoming chairman and chief executive of BET. After earning a master's degree from Princeton, he moved to Washington where he worked for the National Urban League and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and served as press secretary to then-D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy. He also was a lobbyist for what was then the National Cable Television Association. All the time he was building contacts and a network that would prove invaluable later on. One of Johnson's primary benefactors and supporters in the early days of BET was John Malone, chairman of Liberty Media, who provided Johnson with much of the more than $500,000 seed money which was part-loan, part-equity. And thus BET was born.

Johnson's political friendship with and support of then-Mayor Marion Barry produced dividends as Johnson skillfully pulled the D.C. Council into his corner and it selected his group from among a trio of competing minority-owned companies to start a cable company in the District.

Johnson calls the post-BET phase of his business life his "second act." His company, which manages $5 billion in assets and employs 10,000 people, owns or holds significant interests in 15 portfolio companies which are focused on asset management, creating the climate to enable overlooked or undervalued companies to become profitable, and making inroads into underserved markets. RLJ is based in Bethesda, Md., with operations in New York, Florida, Los Angeles, Monrovia, Liberia and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The title of the event was "Waiting to Exhale" Where is the Business Recovery? and Johnson used the lyrics to poke fun at the Republicans, the Washington Redskins and Herman Cain's much-vaunted and much maligned 9-9-9 plan. Then, he offered a financial forecast.

"The winds? Lehman Bros. collapsing and the world went to hell in a hand basket," said Johnson. "We're still here, so we can exhale."

Johnson said America and the rest of the world is dealing with a number of issues, primarily Europe's debt crisis, while here at home, the country is faced with bringing the unruly twins of the national debt and the deficit under control, sorting out issues surrounding healthcare, as well as "the unintended consequences of other issues."

"We are growing the economy in a competitive global environment," he said. "I think it [the country] will get there but not before the 2012 election."

Johnson, who was born in Mississippi, said he anticipates America's gross domestic product (GDP) to grow at between 2 percent and 2 1/2 percent in the coming year, with corresponding growth in Asia and a dip in Europe.