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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Bob Johnson Encourages Charlotte's Black Leaders To Eliminate Racism

Bob Johnson Shoots (off), Perhaps Finally Scores With Charlotte's Black Leaders

Years from now, when we replay highlights from the Bobcats' 2010 NBA season, some of us will note that at least one cat's shining moment is missing from the reel.

We all know the play: It unfolded off court, off camera at a garden-variety minority business banquet at the Westin.

That's when some 200 local Charlotte Black business people tossed the ball to Robert L. Johnson.

Anticipation hung heavy in the crowd that night: Could Bob Johnson, having failed to gain mass appeal in Charlotte, get off a redeeming message to the city's blacks at the buzzer, or would he dribble it off his foot - again?

Expectations were not high. Maurice Wilson, president of Wilson Wealth Management Group, sat in the audience and texted a friend.

It read: "Isn't Bob a little overexposed by now?"

Then it happened.

The man who had become persona non grata in this town quietly made history by saying some things that many in his audience had long been thinking, but few had the power - heck, the guts - to ever say publicly.

Bob Johnson would serve his thoughts to Charlotte's Black Leaders raw (and, yes, with a few sour grapes).

"Charlotte is a very, how would I call it, close-knit, arrogant, sometimes incestuous town. ...," he said. "It's close-knit, and if you come to this town, and you look like you're one of those people that might break some glass ... it's going to be tough for them to relate to."

Bob went on to say: "I am surprised at the number of people ... that come to me looking for financial backing that they haven't been able to find in the business community.... I'm surprised that there aren't more substantial alliances between larger white businesses and minority-owned businesses."

So there it was, Johnson's final play in Charlotte, a classic give-and-go: Here's my opinion, now deal with it.

Wilson left the dinner mesmerized. "He was so engaging and honest," he says. "In those few minutes, he changed everything I said I thought about him."

Echoes Brian Willis, incoming president of the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Charlotte: "Race is always the big pink elephant in the room. If he said something that didn't have legs, then it wouldn't still be getting discussed. There's something there."

The sad reality is this:

With few exceptions, Black Entrepreneurs have been slow to gain traction or significant scale doing Business in Charlotte.

"This is not a town where you have a real robust business community of African-Americans," says Harvey Gantt, owner of architectural firm Gantt Huberman Architects. "In a city this size, we should have 50 to 100 black businesspeople who are, on average, grossing $50million to $100 million."

Ask anyone to name top black businesses and you'll get a lot of hemming and hawing and then a handful of names will start trickling out: from Gantt, the city's first black mayor and one of its most successful black entrepreneurs; to Darrel Williams, another architect; to Deitra Benton, operator of several quick-service restaurants; to commercial real estate owner Chauncey Mayfield; to veteran builder Ron Leeper; perhaps a few more.

One reason, of course, is that Charlotte, N.C. is simply a corporate town, with Bankers driving its modern narrative of growth and success.

That may be true. But as Ron Leeper, a former Charlotte City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem says: "There is still a lot of the good-old-boy system in place. Minorities in the community haven't had access to the resources that others have had."

Leeper isn't really complaining. He knows how to beat odds that have often felt stacked against him - even if it means sending one of his white employees to do his bidding when he senses a potential client's discomfort with doing business with a black firm.

"They'll be talking to him and not even looking at me," Leeper says. "For the next meeting, I'll send him. I don't care whether or not the other guy knows I own it - just give me the business."

Time was, Charlotte's black-owned businesses had Charlotte government more firmly behind them, thanks to programs aimed at helping minority-owned businesses receive city contracts. But back in 2003, the city jettisoned its Minority- and Woman-Owned Business Development program when a group of contractors threatened a discrimination lawsuit.

"That sounded a death knell for black businesses in town," says former city councilman and community activist Malachi Greene. "The ambiguity caused a freeze due to concern about getting sued."

We can speculate all we want about why Charlotte's black business community looks so anemic compared with cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Chicago, or Houston.

But as one black businessman told me recently, this city has all the necessary strengths to compete globally: the educational institutions, good geography, a global profile, industry diversity, investment capital, and the will to win.

What we lack, he said, is a truly united community when it comes to business. If that wasn't so, why the need for a Charlotte Chamber and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce?

Bob Johnson, rightly, took it on the chin for, among other things, not moving to Charlotte and making himself part of the community.

Still, the criticism brings to mind Bill Simms, the black businessman who in the '90s became hot stuff in Charlotte's high-end business circles.

An executive with insurance giant Transamerica, Simms breezed into Charlotte in 1992 and charmed virtually every good old boy. Before long, the guy was a part owner of the Carolina Panthers, a member of the all-white Myers Park Country Club, and a fixture in Charlotte's philanthropic life.

That was all fine until it came out that Simms was a Great Pretender - his education, Olympic gold medals and even donations to charities all fabrications. The hoax did not help the cause of well-heeled black transplants in Charlotte.

Shortly after Bob Johnson purchased the Bobcats, Congressman Mel Watt took him and introduced him around town, particularly to black businesspeople. Johnson, I'm told, was gracious enough, but mostly standoffish. At least a couple of them tried to follow up with Johnson for a private meeting but could never get through.

"It took an act of Congress just to get a letter through to him," grumbles one black business owner.

"Look, it's difficult to get people connected, but you always try," Watt says. "That kind of thing is always hit or miss."

He adds: "I'm disappointed that Bob wasn't as successful as he wanted to be."

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Which brings me back to that night at the Westin.

Sure, Bob Johnson may have been his own worst enemy in Charlotte. But let's face it, he didn't go rogue in his remarks that night; he was preaching to the choir and he knew it. He had likely heard many in the audience privately airing those same grievances.

Johnson also said a few other things that didn't make news.

He encouraged minority businesses to gain scale by merging with each other. He used security firms as an example, saying that rather than several tiny firms slugging it out in the market they should meld and go after large corporate contracts. In the same vein, he said, successful black businesses should be investing in and looking to potentially acquire other black businesses.

And he said that black businesses should stop letting Fortune 500 companies take them for granted, to hold them accountable for supporting minority-owned businesses in their procurement.

He basically said, "Stop thinking small", recalls Willis of 100 Black Men. "Given the culture, we need to be more strategic."

Nobody can argue with that.

In fact, Leeper recently told me that he and several other black business owners have been meeting lately to discuss the possibility of purchasing tracts of urban real estate - together. And Terry Jones, chairman of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce, says the organization has begun reaching out and networking with local Asian and Hispanic business groups.

All of these are great steps. Maybe, just maybe, Bob Johnson's real purpose in Charlotte is starting to be fulfilled.

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Sources: McClatchy Newspapers, MSNBC, The Grio, Youtube, Google Maps

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