The 'accidental' owner
Sheila Johnson's interest in golf came later in life, but after buying Innisbrook, her passion has taken the Valspar Championship to new heights
March 06, 2018
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
When Sheila Johnson bought a floundering Innisbrook Resort for a reported $35 million in 2007, she became what she calls an "accidental hospitality owner in the golf business."
Not for long, though.
Johnson is a savvy businesswoman who recognized the value of the resort and its four 18-hole courses, including the signature Copperhead, which hosts the Valspar Championship this week. She green-lighted the necessary enhancements, and the property in Palm Harbor, Florida, now forms the cornerstone of her portfolio of luxury hotels and resorts across the southeastern United States.
But Johnson, who was named to Forbes Magazine's 2015 list of America's richest self-made women, is so much more than her Salamander brand.
She was a concert violinist in her youth, graduating from the University of Illinois with a bachelor of arts in music. She was the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television. She's produced four documentaries and helped finance "The Butler," which was nominated for three Screen Actors Guild awards in 2013.
Johnson also is the only African-American woman to hold ownership stakes in three professional teams -- the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics -- and the first to serve on the USGA's Executive Committee. She held that position for five years, the latter three as its secretary.
"I know she shies away from being called a 'pioneer,' but Sheila's accomplishments make that label entirely appropriate," PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan says. "So we feel extremely fortunate to have her connected to the game of golf -- and to the PGA TOUR, specifically, with Innisbrook being the home of the Valspar Championship.
"Not only does she have incredible business acumen and insights, she also absolutely loves the game of golf. Her passion is evident through every interaction, which has helped elevate the event as a whole."
Two weeks ago, the uber-busy 69-year-old was in New Orleans, where she owns the NOPSI Hotel. Just before taking some of her VIP guests on a swamp tour, Johnson carved out some time to talk with PGATOUR.COM. She had plenty to say when discussing a variety of topics.
Music has always been, and always will be, a part of Johnson's life.
"It's taught me discipline, it's taught me how to focus, it's taught me organizational skills. It has made me reach a level within myself where I have really gotten to know myself better. Some people may find that strange or a little weird or something, but I love music. I love all forms of music, from classical to jazz to rock, pop. But I just find something within music that just keeps me alive, and I love it.
"And from that music, because, you know, it's taught me how to listen and have a critical eye in watching and just trying to get things done, it has latched over into the media business, it has latched over into the hotel business. It has helped me pay attention to detail, and really be able to achieve the success that I want to achieve."
While the arts are her passion, Johnson is no dilettante when it comes to sports.
"Sports has always been in my life, from elementary school all the way through college. In high school, physical education was a requirement, unlike the way it is today. So I ran track, I was on the synchronized swim team, I was a cheerleader in elementary school, high school. I was the first African American cheerleader at the University of Illinois. And so I've always had my hands in sports, and this is all before Title IX. So I've been very, very involved in sports.
"My mother was a sports nut. I mean, she never missed a Cubs game. I am telling you, she traveled with me to every competition, whether I was involved in it or whether I was cheerleading. She loved the football, she loved the basketball. My kids are sports nuts. My son played football all through high school against Russell Wilson. My daughter is a professional show jumper. So we're a sports family. We are a sports family. So it's all been part of that, yeah. So that has been my introduction to sports, and golf has really been something new that has come into my life in the past 15 years I have to say."
Johnson admits she faced a learning curve when she bought Innisbrook.
"I didn't know anything about golf, and as an African American woman it was never on my radar screen because we were never allowed in private golf clubs, and that's where all of this golf course stuff started. It was segregation. We were segregated out of golf clubs, so we never had the networking opportunities to learn to play golf. So I'm an accidental hospitality owner in the golf business. …
"I have to say, it hit during the recession. I was trying to build a resort in Middleburg, Virginia, and it took a lot longer than I thought to get the entitlements, to get it through, and there were other obstacles there that we don't need to get into, but I had hired this dynamic team of executives to help me get my company started. So here I am totally stalled, and I'm like, what am I going to do with them? Well, first of all, I bought a small little intimate resort outside of Charleston, South Carolina, called the Woodlands. It won Forbes five-star reviews three or four years in a row. But still, it was too small to make money. And then a broker came to me with Innisbrook because it was in bankruptcy. And so it was under the golf trust, so they approached me, and once I went through the gates of that campus, I fell in love with it. But more importantly, what I saw was not only the bones of an incredible run-down resort, but also the passion of the employees there.
"Now, you have to understand, Innisbrook was really the hub of over 700 employees. I mean, it was the real economic engine for employment there. And if it closed, you had over 700 employees out of jobs. So I took a complete tour of it, and the property was so depressed that it was like the perfect buy -- the perfect buy -- because it was really inexpensive. And so I bought all 900 acres, the 1,100 condos, and what I needed to do was put about $26 to $30 million into that property to turn it around, and that included improving the golf courses.
"As the years have gone by, our latest improvements have been the restoration of Copperhead, and that's Mr. (Larry) Packard's prized golf course. … I wanted it to be a shining beacon of the PGA TOUR, and so I put another $4.2 million into that golf course, and I'm telling you, it is better than ever, and we made some slight changes to really challenge our best golfers that were coming in there on the TOUR."
Johnson played golf with former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida.
"That was really my first entry onto the golf course. She said, girl, you're going to get out and play golf with me. I said, well, I've taken lessons, but I don't really know the game that well. She said we're going to go through it. And we played all 18 holes. We played best ball. And then like the second or third day we were out, it was torrential downpour, pouring down, it was sideways rain. She said -- this is in Condoleezza Rice fashion -- we're getting back out there to hit the ball. And her secret service was saying, look, I'm going to tell you something, if you think this woman is going to quit, forget it. I was soaked to my britches by the time we finished, but she never gave up. And just watching her as she evolved with the game, she's now part of Augusta [National Golf Club], I mean, she was just one of the biggest motivating factors for me to get out on the course and start learning the game."
Rice introduced Johnson to the USGA. In 2017, Johnson finished her fifth and final year on the Executive Committee, which was her third as the group's secretary.
"For the first two or three years as I was learning the ropes of the rules committee and walking the course with some of the finest players and just sitting at Augusta, and my first time able to be at Augusta and sit on a hole all day long, you know, to be able to pass a ruling, I learned so much from that.
"But the thing that really haunted me was the lack of diversity. So I finally found my voice probably around the end of the third year, and I finished it out by writing a white paper on the importance of diversity for the health of the game of golf. I wrote that white paper, I disseminated it to the USGA and the PGA [of America], and for them it was eye opening. The PGA has really run with it. I am so proud of what they're doing and the initiatives that they are starting up. I held a retreat at one of my resorts with Deloitte talking about how we need to open up our minds and understand the importance of diversity, because there are a lot of African Americans that enjoy the game of golf, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, and they want to feel included in that.
"So this was really a monumental decision that I wanted to make, and this was going to be my mission in the golf world, and it still is. So the PGA has just been incredible in working with the USGA in trying to get the mission of diversity and how we can start really including everybody and opening the doors, not only the public courses but the private courses, as well, to really include everyone, because the reality is there are so many courses closing down. There's so many private clubs closing down, because they have not been inclusive. And it's not just with people of color, but even the millennial group. They do not see the joy in really wanting to be a part of this old boys' network. And so we have to come up with really innovative and creative ways in which to open up this game and make it fun again, where they can learn the discipline of learning to play the game, because there's so many lessons just in learning to play the game of golf that are life changing and it can also help them in business later in life.
"I have students that I'm putting through school at the Kennedy School from underserved communities and are in the same position that I started out in, and you know what I give them as graduation presents? Golf clubs. And they all have a set of golf clubs. And I said, you go out and take lessons. You go to a public course, you learn to play. So they are all on a mission of learning to play golf so they can be in the conversation and learn to play in the same sandbox as some of our most successful CEOs, COOs … because I want them to be on the same playing field being able to do that."
While Johnson says she is all about the business of golf, she does enjoy playing. She just doesn't have much time to devote to the game.
"When I'm in Innisbrook, I do get out there, and I'll play like nine holes until I get a call pulling me off the golf course and telling me what I need to do. I have a pitching, putting green on my farm, and when the weather is nice, I get out and work on that. Just not as often as I should."
Johnson says having a PGA TOUR event at Innisbrook brings visibility to the resort and touches all segments of the community.
"It puts Innisbrook on the map, and I cannot begin to tell you how valuable NBC has been to us. I do interviews with them. I love hearing over the air how good the golf course looks, and Valspar has been an incredible partner and sponsor of this. It also brings other corporate sponsors there, brings new eyeballs to a tournament, and I also have to tell you, you have no idea, and we can never underestimate the social impact that we have on the Tampa Bay community. I mean, there's over $2 million of charitable donations that we're able to make, but the corporate partners have just been fantastic in stepping up, and we try to touch everyone. It's not just a golf tournament, but it is an experience, and we attract so many millennials. We do … a little 5K run/walk to promote health. We try to touch everything. We've worked with Habitat for Humanity. I love pampering the golf wives. We take them to the spa. We do their laundry. We try to do things that a tournament is going to do. We give a concert on our pitching and putting green, which we can really hold almost 7,000 people, and it helps bring the crowds. We sell out. It is just an experience. It's an entertainment experience. I cannot begin to tell you, every hole is colorful. It's the most colorful tournament of the PGA TOUR. … It is an amazing, amazing event."
Johnson wasn't looking to own one sports team - much less three. But she knew better than to pass on the opportunity. Currently, the Capitals and Wizards are in the playoff hunt in their respective leagues, while the Mystics began their 2018 season in May.
"When those doors open, you have to know when to jump through them, and you want to definitely make it work. You don't listen to other outside naysayers like you're nuts to be the owner of a sports team. I'm going to tell you, I have watched men out there buy these sports team. They get instant power within a community and even on a national level, and it's a vanity purchase, there's no question about it, but I will tell you it has opened up even more doors for me as an African American woman, not only to the community but for other opportunities. So that is the reason why you do the things you do. …
"I'll tell you, I would have regretted it until the day I died if I had not made that move. And the same way with the golf industry. You know, it came at the right time during the recession where I could buy into an opportunity that I knew I could make work. Then that has just parlayed into growing my hospitality portfolio. So since then we have now got three more hotels that we have opening up in Henderson, which is in Destin; the NOPSI Hotel here in New Orleans, and then the Hotel Bennett, which will open in late summer. So I'm just saying I want these opportunities to keep growing. I'm going to be out there promoting Salamander. I'm their biggest cheerleader. My employees are the best. They're terrific. And we are trying to create the best flag out there on the luxury and on the golf level. So that's what I'm trying to do."
She's 69, an age at which many people would have long since retired. But Johnson remains motivated, both by her family and the employees who challenge her daily.
"I have to say (I'm driven by) going to work every day and being around the people I work with. My children are my passion, also. My son is a designer. My daughter, of course, is an athlete. And I want to set an example for them. I want to keep going for them. I want to be their beacon. I want them on the day that I leave this earth, I want them to be able to look back at their mother and say, I'm so proud of her, that she was able to walk through the fire, and she came out alive with passion. I just want to be a catalyst in life and to be able to motivate not only my children but others and set an example for how they should live their life and be able to move forward through adversity and whatever comes along, because adversity is what's going to really build character."
Her company name Salamander came from an estate Johnson bought near Middleburg, Virginia. The name has special significance to her, as well as to the World War II hero who owned the property.
"It wasn't up for sale, but it was looking out on probably the most beautiful scenery I'd ever seen on to the Bull Run mountains and the Shenandoah, and I went to a real estate agent, and I was going through a divorce at the time, and just trying to really get my legs back and figure out who I was. You know, after 32 years of marriage, I'm like, I've got to regroup, and I found this farm that really became my sanctuary, and it was called Salamander, and it was owned by a man by the name of Bruce Sundlun.
"Bruce Sundlun was a fighter pilot during World War II, and he was shot down over Nazi occupied Belgium. His unit was captured. He was able to escape, and he traveled across Europe and ended up in Allied territory in France. … And they said, you have got to go back, and we've got to rescue them out of this POW camp. … They gave him the code name Salamander. He said, well, why salamander? In France, the salamander is probably one of the most sacred (amphibians) because when you chop off its limbs, it regenerates, grows its limbs back. And King Louis XIV had salamanders all around his moat, and he said they stood for perseverance, courage and fortitude. …
"And what I was going through in my life at the time, I'm like, you know what, this is perfect. And I said, can I have that name? He said, yeah, I can't do anything with it anymore. So that salamander means so much to me because it really helped me sit down and reassess what my next step in life was going to be. But it also gave me the power, it empowered me to be able to move on with my life and to recalibrate and to really figure out what my next steps were going to be, but it gave me strength."
The interview with Sheila Johnson was conducted before the announcement that Tiger Woods would play the Valspar Championship for the first time in his career. We circled back and asked for her reaction to the news.
"Personally, it means a lot to me to have Tiger play at Innisbrook. While he played at Copperhead 22 years ago, his participation in this tournament has been a personal goal of mine since I purchased the resort. There was an instant buzz around the course, resort and area after he committed, and we know he will drive increased -- and diverse -- attendance. There will be people who visit Innisbrook this weekend who have never been to a golf tournament in their lives, and that can only help grow the game."