Home » Companies owned by the world’s first Black billionaire Robert L. Johnson

Companies owned by the world’s first Black billionaire Robert L. Johnson

Johnson's legacy extends beyond financial success. He shattered racial barriers in the business world, inspiring generations of aspiring entrepreneurs.

by Mfonobong Nsehe
Robert L. Johnson

Robert L. Johnson, the first Black billionaire, began his career on Wall Street, acquiring crucial financial expertise at different firms. His realization of the media industry’s diversity gap led to a significant career shift, as he sought to make a meaningful impact in business.

In 1980, Johnson co-founded BET, the first cable network targeted towards African American audiences. He navigated complex negotiations, secured funding, and built a programming strategy that resonated with a previously underserved market. This groundbreaking venture not only provided diverse content but also created employment opportunities and empowered Black voices.

Notably, he led BET’s historic public listing in 1991, a watershed moment for Black-owned enterprises. Subsequently, he brokered its sale to Viacom in 2001 for a reported $3 billion, cementing his financial legacy and opening avenues for future endeavors.

Following the BET sale, with a visionary outlook, he founded RLJ Companies, diversifying his interests beyond television networks as he engaged in a plethora of businesses spanning hotels, private equity, fintech services, car dealerships, streaming content, gaming, and sports betting, he has left an indelible mark.

Johnson’s legacy extends beyond financial success. He shattered racial barriers in the business world, inspiring generations of aspiring entrepreneurs. His philanthropic efforts through The Robert L. Johnson Foundation support educational initiatives and empower diverse communities.

Despite losing his billionaire status after a pricey divorce, Johnson continues to hold sway in the business realm. Using the proceeds from the sale of BET, he has strategically invested in new ventures, leveraging his expertise to construct a varied portfolio of companies through The RLJ Companies.

Billionaires.Africa has identified and tracked fifteen companies owned or founded by Johnson — including BET, which he sold more than two decades ago: 

  1. Black Entertainment Television (BET)
    Johnson’s founding of BET in 1980 reshaped the television industry, establishing it as a landmark Black-owned enterprise. His visionary leadership propelled him to billionaire status. In a historic move in 2001, Viacom (now Paramount Global) acquired BET in a groundbreaking $3-billion deal. Today, under the BET Media Group umbrella, networks like BET and VH1 thrive, boasting an estimated worth of around $3 billion based on annual cash flow. Despite challenges in the cable business, BET’s streaming platform, BET+, exhibits promising growth, with over 3 million subscribers.
  2. The RLJ Companies
    Founded and led by Johnson, The RLJ Companies, LLC operates as an innovative business network, strategically investing in a diverse portfolio of companies. Johnson’s interests span hotel real estate, private equity, 401k fintech services, automobile dealerships, content streaming, gaming, and sports betting, showcasing the company’s wide-ranging influence across multiple sectors.
  3. RLJ Entertainment
    In 2012, Johnson unveiled RLJ Entertainment, Inc., a leading digital channel company catering to diverse audiences via acclaimed streaming services. Notably, Acorn TV offers British programming, while ALLBLK (formerly Urban Movie Channel/UMC) focuses on urban content. Today, RLJ Entertainment, Inc. operates as a prized subsidiary of AMC Network, amplifying its reach and influence in the digital entertainment landscape.
  4. RML Automotive
    RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Holdings (RML Automotive), a top Black-owned company in the US, boasts 16 premier automotive brands spread across seven states in America’s Heartland. With 27 dealerships and 59 franchises, RML Automotive is a key player in the automotive industry, serving customers nationwide.
  5. RLJ Equity Partners
    Founded in 2006 by Johnson, RLJ Equity Partners is a leading middle-market private equity firm dedicated to achieving long-term capital appreciation. With a focus on profitable and growing businesses helmed by exceptional management teams, RLJ specializes in traditional buyouts, recapitalizations, growth equity infusions, and add-on acquisitions. Targeting North American companies with enterprise valuations ranging from $25 million to $100 million, RLJ also collaborates with strategic partners to pursue larger transactions, showcasing its flexibility and strategic vision in the market.
  6. RLJ Development
    Established in 2000 by Thomas J. Baltimore and Johnson, RLJ Development focuses on acquiring focused-service hotels in urban and dense suburban markets. Leading up to its initial public offering, RLJ Development and its two funds invested around $2 billion, acquiring 140 hotels across 19 states and the District of Columbia.
  7. RLJ Lodging Trust
    Established by Johnson in 2011 to carry forward RLJ Development’s interests and its investment funds, RLJ Lodging Trust functions as a hotel investment firm specializing in premium-branded, rooms-oriented hotels. With a focus on high-margin, focused-service, and compact full-service establishments, the company’s portfolio encompasses 96 hotels spanning 23 states and the District of Columbia, boasting approximately 21,200 rooms. Additionally, RLJ Lodging Trust holds an ownership interest in one unconsolidated hotel with 171 rooms.
  8. Urban TV (Allblk)
    Urban TV, now known as Allblk, is a pioneering subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service under AMC Networks, founded in 2014 by Robert L. Johnson, the visionary behind BET and the world’s first Black billionaire. With a focus on diverse content, Allblk offers a platform for underrepresented voices in media.
  9. Caribbean Cage
    Caribbean CAGE, LLC, a majority-owned company, excels in installing, operating, and managing video lottery and gaming terminals across the Caribbean and Latin America. Specializing in various gaming content, including sports betting and virtual sports, the company’s headquarters are in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, and Cyprus, with additional offices strategically located in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Sint Maarten.

  10. Liberia Enterprise Development
    In 2007, Johnson initiated the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund with a $30-million investment. This fund aims to support Liberian entrepreneurs by providing them with access to credit, thereby stimulating economic growth and fostering regional development.
  11. Retirement Clearinghouse
    As a premier provider of employee retirement transition services, Retirement Clearinghouse (RCH) specializes in enhancing outcomes for sponsors, participants, and providers. Through innovative programs, RCH boosts plan assets, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, while mitigating fiduciary risks. Additionally, RCH offers personalized support to streamline and manage workplace retirement savings accounts, ensuring optimal outcomes for all stakeholders.
  12. RLJ Kendeja Resort & Villas
    Opened in March 2009, RLJ Kendeja Resort & Villas stands as a beacon of luxury in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. Founded by African-American entrepreneur Robert Johnson and RLJ Companies CEO Robert L. Kendeja, this four-star, 78-room resort marks a milestone in Liberia’s hospitality landscape. As the first new hotel in the country in a decade, it highlights the nation’s potential amid political stability and economic growth. The resort’s partnership with Global Building Solutions underscores its commitment to excellence and community development.
  13. RLJ Acquisition
    RLJ Acquisition, trading on NASDAQ, emerged in December 2010 as a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) aimed at facilitating business mergers. Led by CEO H. Van Sinclair, its primary objective is to execute strategic combinations.
  14. Robert L. Johnson’s Real Estate Assets
    Beyond his corporate ventures, Johnson also possesses a portfolio of valuable real estate assets. He made headlines by acquiring a luxurious mansion in Palm Beach Garden’s prestigious Old Palm Golf Club for a staggering $20 million. This opulent residence, located at 12236 Tillinghast Circle, spans 13,600 square feet, featuring five bedrooms, six bathrooms, and one half-bathroom, as documented in property records.
  15. RLJ Foundation
    Founded in 1999, the Robert L. Johnson Foundation focuses on empowering diverse communities through educational initiatives, especially in K-12 STEM education. It offers financial aid to students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), supports aspiring entrepreneurs with essential skills, and awards scholarships to talented students. The foundation collaborates with schools and organizations to develop STEM programs, provides networking opportunities for Black entrepreneurs, and advocates for policy changes to promote educational equity and social mobility.

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