Resort CEO headlines business luncheon

By Ryan Cornell

WINCHESTER — Philanthropist and entrepreneur Sheila Johnson shared the journey behind opening her Middleburg resort and the way it’s shaped the town at the Business at the Bloom Luncheon on Wednesday.

A co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television network, Johnson currently serves as a partner in ProJet Aviation and as CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts.

In August, she opened Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, where she now resides.

“There was nothing in Northern Virginia, and especially this area, no destination for people to shop and stay at,” she told the hundreds of people packing the Sprint tent on the Winchester Medical Center campus.

She recounted her experiences of opening the resort and spa at a time when the economy was tanking, and said it now pays the town of Middleburg between $80,000 and $100,000 a month in taxes.

“After a year and a half, I think we’re starting to get out of this recession,” she said. “You’re starting to see things happen.

“In the luxury business, people are starting to get out of their silos and want to live again.”

After encouragement from Robert Redford to launch a film festival, she hosted the town’s first ever Middleburg Film Festival in October.

The film festival premiered a variety of movies, including “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Philomena,” “August: Osage County and “Nebraska,” as well as its main star Bruce Dern.

Johnson said the festival brought about 2,500 people into Middleburg and “completely sold out” her resort.

“It was very Hollywood-sexy,” she said. “And it helped out the businesses. They said they made all the money that weekend that they usually make all year.”

Another special guest at the film festival was the conservatory symphony from Shenandoah University, which performed a tribute concert to score composer Mark Isham.

“And I’m telling you, I cried the whole evening,” Johnson said. “It was just amazing, and I’ll tell you, the Shenandoah Symphony was probably the best symphony I’ve heard in a long time.”

Johnson also serves as president and managing partner of the Washington Mystics and as vice chairwoman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals.

Johnson said everyone should play sports, adding that it teaches skills from teamwork, confidence and competition that can easily translate into business.

“Women need to have these skills…these are skills you will never get anywhere else in life,” she said.

Johnson credited her father, who was once one of only 11 African-American neurosurgeons in the U.S., and a mother who was her “biggest cheerleader,” for her success.

“My parents taught me to never say ‘no’ or ‘I can’t,’ and that I could do anything that I wanted to do,” she said. “They’re the ones who built my foundation.”

Miles Davis, dean of the Harry F. Byrd School of Business at Shenandoah University, served as moderator for the discussion.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com