tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations Bloomberg January 29, 2023 2:00pm-2:30pm EST
[laughter] then i started interviewing. i watched your interviews. i know how to do interviews. i watched how leaders made it to the top. >> i ask how much. he said 250. i did no due diligence. david: and how they stay there. you don't feel inadequate being only the second wealthiest man in the world. the first african-american to become a billionaire was bob johnson, he did not by building black entertainment television and selling it to viacom, buying the charlotte bobcats, the first african-american to be a major sports team owner, selling to michael jordan. today, he is involved in business ventures across the u.s. i sat down with him in palm beach to talk about his career and what is next. when you became the first african-american to be a billionaire, what was that like? people telling you how great you are or asking for money all the time? bob: nothing like that.
i ran bet for over 20 years until i sold it to viacom. so, bet has become a business success story. as a result, people see me as an entrepreneur doing something pretty good at that time. and so, by the time i got to where it was sold to viacom, it was sort of expected that it would be worth something. david: so when you sold it to viacom, after that you bought the charlotte bobcats, an nba team, the first african-american to be the owner of a major sports team in our country. what was that like? was that thrilling to own an nba team, or, did you just see it as a business venture? bob: i saw it as the idea of being first. there has been throughout black business history, if you were the first black to do something, you gained visibility, notoriety, and access to other
people, particularly white business people who knew you by your reputation, so when there was a team coming up for sale in charlotte, i said, you know, why not be first? i had the capital from the sale of bet to viacom, so i said, why not? i decided to make a bid and got a call from some of the business people in charlotte who said we would like you to be the majority owner of the team and we will be minority owners and work with you, so it seemed to be the right place and the right time to do something that i thought would be part of being a strategic approach to being first. first. david: so, you owned the team for 11 years then sold it to somebody called michael jordan. bob: i sold it to mj, yes. david: after that, you begin to build a small business empire with investments in private equity, financial services, fashion, lodging, hotels, real estate, and my own firm did
something with you in private equity, so is that what you are trying to do now, build a mini empire and what are the most important parts? bob: what i did when i sold bet, i decided i would not just sit around and do nothing. i decided one way to build value for yourself was to take your own knowledge, your own strategic vision, and deploy your capital and your brand to acquire assets that you could run with very talented people to help you do it, obviously, and align yourself with people who shared your vision and your culture about creating what i call wealth in the black community, and demonstrating to african-american talent with capital and strategic partners like i did with john malone when i started bet could be successful and create value for yourself and investors.
david: so, you have been very involved dealing with black entrepreneurship and business owners. do you think today it is easier for a black owner to start a company or no more easy than 20 or 30 years ago? bob: i don't think it is necessarily easier, i think there is a mindset in the white business community, and to some extent the country at large, that this definition of equity and diversity ought to see money flowing, capital flowing into black entrepreneurs for investment and startups of business. it is just not easy. there is a theory it ought to happen. i think if it were easy, you were to see more bob johnson's, michael jordan's, magic johnson's, oprah winfrey's, and the like.
i think it is a misnomer to say it is easy. it is correct to say that people think about it more, but do they do more? that is the problem. david: after the george floyd murder, i thought many people in the white business community said we have to do much more to get blacks on boards. has that happened? bob: the sad secret is while companies have announced they will put $1 million into diversity and investment in black businesses, among the people i know and a lot of people say i got money from here and there and other places, it is not really happening. i saw something in the media that said there has been something like $50 billion of pledges made, but less than 5% of that has ever been implemented, and to me, it is a real sad story, because it is
not happening. and i would know, because no one has called me, and i have been successful, as you know, and the only thing i have done that with, david, and i am most proud of is the partnership i created with vanguard, fidelity, and one other entity to create a 401(k) portability business called portability network, whose sole purpose is to keep black americans reduced cashing out of 401(k) accounts when they change jobs. those two or three companies put their commitment to diversity, opportunity, and closing the wealth gap in a relationship with me. that is what i'd like and respect, but i can tell you the black community and entrepreneurs that i know are very disappointed with what i call these press release announcements with no results.
♪ david: when you sold the charlotte bobcats, price of nba teams had not risen to the billion dollar range. any regrets about selling it when you sold it? bob: i definitely regret that. i tell michael about that all the time. ♪ david: so a young, black entrepreneur who says i want to be the next bob johnson, what advice would you give to that person about how to build a business empire and be successful? bob: i give this answer all the time. first and foremost, you have to believe in yourself. you have to believe in yourself that you deserve the opportunity to be successful. the second thing you have to understand, that nobody does anything alone. you have to find talented people to go on that voyage with you or share your vision, and you have to make sure they participate in your upside.
you have to give them a stake in the game to make sure they feel like you have their interests and the interests of their family close at heart, and you do that and they work hard, they will work hard with you. david: today, for a young bob johnson starting out, it is easier for an african-american to get capital, or know easier honestly that it was 25 years ago? bob: it is easier, in the sense that there is a belief that there should be more diversity of opportunity, whether diversity of opportunity as sponsored by the government, or diversity of opportunity in the form of esg that some corporations give lip service to. so the theory is if you ask someone to be a partner, they are more inclined to give you a hearing, but the ability to get the right person - and the right amount of capital is still very hard.
my relationship with john malone, and we still have it today, was extremely unique. i, i can't imagine that one out of 1000 black entrepreneurs, kids today, can find them a john malone. ♪ david: so, let's talk about your background. where did you grow up? bob: i was born in hickory, mississippi. it is a real small town, one stop sign kind of town. david: what did your parents do? bob: they were workers. my father was a worker, a lumberer, timber, cutting down timber in mississippi, and a little bit of farming where he lived. and my mother was a teacher in a small school system in mississippi. when they migrated up north to the small town of freeport about 100 miles northwest of chicago, they became factory workers. david: so you went to college
where? bob: university of illinois. david: what did you study? bob: i was a history major. david: what did you want to be? bob: a diplomat. ambassador. david: what year did you graduate? bob: 1968. david: then you went to woodrow wilson school at princeton, and that is to do further diplomatic knowledge kind of thing? bob: yeah, i got a masters degree in international affairs, and again, the fascination was history and global affairs. david: you get a graduate degree from princeton, and the u.s. government says we are ready for you to be a diplomat or what happened? bob: all of a sudden, they ask you if you want to go to the foreign service. you have to take a test, and the test requires you to be literate in things that a kid from hickory, mississippi, freeport, illinois did not know about, so
they had a question -- i will never forget this, they asked me a question, what is a wedgwood? i thought it was, wedgwood was a dresser. david: so, you are not familiar with wedgwood. bob: [laughter] it's plates. david: you ultimately came to washington, and what did you do? bob: i came to washington, d.c., princeton -- and the connections with former graduates, including a good friend of ours, jim johnson, so i started making the rounds, people referred me to this person. i went to senator mondale's office, senator kennedy's office, the princeton mafia, so to speak, and finally somebody, after i went to one of the offices, referred me to the corporation for public broadcasting. got a job at the corporation for public broadcasting for a while, changed jobs from there and went and worked for the local urban
league in washington, d.c., and from there became a lobbyist for the cable television rate -- trade association, where i met all the guys in the cable industry, ted turner, but most importantly, john malone. david: john malone was your principal backer when you want to start bet? bob: absolutely. i will never forget this. i was a lobbyist. we were trying to deregulate cable. cable was heavily regulated to protect broadcast television on the fact that broadcast was free and cable was paid, and if you didn't protect free television, everyone would have to pay, which was supposedly not good for people. my job was to argue for deregulation, so i met john malone and he said, bob, if you ever have an idea, come out to denver and talk to me. i said, yeah, john, i will do it, and that's where the idea for bet came from and i took john up on his invitation and
went out to denver and made my pitch about getting financing for bet, so john said to me, bob, here is what i will do. how much do you need to start this? i said $500,000. he said, bob, here is what i'm going to do. i'm going to buy 20% of your company for $180,000 and loan you $320,000, and bob, you will be 80% owner and i will be 20%, is that a deal? i said, john, that is a deal. what he didn't know is if he had reversed a number, i would have said that was a deal. he did not say that. he kept putting money into bet while it was growing. he never put it in his equity. he put it in his debt. the debt got paid back. one day i asked him about it. he said, bob i knew you would work harder for yourself than you would for me.
so john never sold the share of bet, so when i sold bet to viacom, for approximately $3 billion, john's $180,000 of equity of course got paid back and netted him over $700 million because we did a stock for stock deal. david: what was the theory behind bet, that african-america should have a cable channel devoted to programs that would be appealing to them in particular? bob: yeah, what cable was offering to the community was basically diversity. once rca put a satellite in the sky that could orbit on a geosynchronous orbit that allowed it to send signals all around, cable became a competitor to television in the big markets, and in order to do that, they had to get some big cities who by that time in the 1980's had black city council
members and maybe a black mayor. so while they were offering programming to everybody else, mtv, cnn, espn, black city councilmembers saying, "what are you offering for my community?" that is where bet became a must-carry product for cable, and the diversity product, but bet was really an extension of what john johnson did with ebony magazine, except his was print. david: how many years did you bet before you sold to viacom? bob: 20 years. david: $3 billion, ultimately. what it be worth more today or less today because the cable world has changed so much? bob: it would be less today, because once streaming came along and the technology allowed people to have streaming wherever they could carry content, on your phone, on your laptop, in your home, wherever you go, it change the paradigm -- changed the paradigm of
of cable, and it allowed people to sort of pick and choose a la carte what they wanted to watch. only want to watch netflix, just get netflix. cable, you are paying for a bundle even though you didn't watch all the channels. if you are not a sports fan, you're paying $.30, $.40 for espn, but if you did not watch espn, you had to pay for because it was part of a bundle. david: you then bought the charlotte bobcats, a new team. you did not know much about running a basketball team, i assume, so you brought in a guy named michael jordan. how do you tell michael jordan he does not know much about basketball if it's not working out perfectly? can you say, michael, i played in grade school and i know something about basketball. how do tell michael jordan things are not working perfectly, if it doesn't work perfectly? bob: you don't. david: ok. you just let him run the team and you owned it and he was the manager?
bob: he was the general manager and he decided who he would hire as coach, which players he was going to draft, and how the team would be run. i was the payee, not the payer, in this case. david: when you sold the charlotte bobcats, the price of nba teams had not risen to the $1 billion range. any regrets about selling it when you sold it? bob: definitely. i tell michael about that all of the time. but, nobody could have predicted that don sterling would say what he said about black people, and that led to the nba commissioner to say we have a huge racial problem if we are going to keep him as an owner, and basically forced donald sterling out, but being forced out to walk away with $2 billion. a lot of people would like to be
forced out of the team for that price, so that was it, but michael was always my first choice to sell the team. we had been friends. 10 or 15 years before he owned the team. david: really? bob: if anybody, if i wanted to sell the team to come if i was forced to sell, it would be to michael. david: there are rumors that washington commanders might be sold, and nfl teams are expensive. any interest in getting back into sports? you are a native of washington, well, not a native, but you have lived there a long time. bob: these teams are so rich. if you could get one, it's the closest things to a license to print money, but you have to pay up for it, because it is a great sport asset, one of the best in the world, may be even better than some of the hockey teams, although pretty close. david: do you have an interest
david: you have been involved advising presidential candidates, i assume presidents as well, do you have an interest serving in the federal government, or running for office? bob: absolutely, unequivocally, no. david: the aggravation factor is not worth it? bob: it is the aggravation factor, but more importantly, i don't believe there is any integrity in it. david: but you do give money to campaigns. bob: i think to be honest, i think there is a need for a multiparty system in the u.s. to give more people a choice about where they can go to vote their support and political support, but also to cause the country to come together by having everybody have a role in deciding what is in the long-term the best interest of the country. i have often believed that black americans as a people and as a voting block should adopt the same position that the original founders of the congressional black caucus had in early 1970. their philosophy was enunciated
like this, black americans should have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. and if we voted like that, we would be able to leverage that block. it is a consistent block. in our long-term interest rather than be addicted to one party and ignored by the other party. david: do you have officials or people asking you for advice these days? bob: i don't think they ask so much as i tried to go to them to try to suggest to them what they should consider, particularly as it relates to what i call -- i have a formula i call business solutions to social problems. i'm not a big proponent of government handouts. i've never been in favor of government subsidies. i like the idea of government providing a pathway to regulatory freedom and balance
to allow companies to create it, but there has to be some focus on economic benefits, in my opinion, to the black community. and for example, real quickly, i have members of the congressional black caucus to support something i call the boost act. it would give investors in black businesses a tax preference if they would invest in these businesses. i called legislation and was introduced to a congressman from baltimore, who would put $30 billion of treasury money aside for preferences for myself or you, who would go to company and say, i am going to invest in your business x number of dollars. when you exit the business or do a sale of that business, i will get preference on my capital gains. the whole idea is that it was not a mandate or required, it was only voluntarily.
to me, that is better than all of these pledges that are not being implemented, and that is the way. it is the same as what i did with the auto portability. david: you are one of the best-known black entrepreneurs and business leaders in the united states, and one of the wealthiest. you have faced discrimination in your daily life or business career, do you think you're still discriminated against, still in that situation, others are, but you're so well-known you do not face that discrimination? bob: you face discrimination in terms of what i call biased discrimination, where people just recognize you as black first, bob johnson second, and wealthy bob johnson third. so, when you get in that situation you will find cases like this. for example, i can go to a
restaurant and if i am standing outside waiting to go in, after i am giving my car to be parked, someone will come up to me and ask me to get their car. david: what do say when that happens? bob: i say, can i take it and their intellectual bias assumes, one can be can afford this -- one, you cannot afford to be at this restaurant. two, you are standing next to valet parking. you must be a parking lot attendant. david: as you look at the u.s. economy today, are you worried we are headed into a recession of some type that will hurt like businesses and all businesses? bob: i think the economy has to have a recession in front of it until we stop the huge amount of fiscal spending that comes out of the government, and i see
nothing in the government that would change the trajectory on spending. and that is the part where i think we have to face a recession, because if you keep dumping money and chasing fewer goods, it is a textbook description of heading towards a recession or worse something that i call stagflation, where you have spending going up and productivity going down, because it puts you in a problem, so yeah, until something changes on that equation, yeah. david: did your parents live to see your success as a business leader? bob: they did in terms of bet. i had not sold it. i still owned it. i had not done all the other things. david: did they tell you, you are terrific and we knew you would be successful, or you are just the same as our other nine children? bob: that one.
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