Johnson's magic resonates with hoteliers

LAS VEGAS — Earvin “Magic” Johnson shared lessons from his basketball career with more than 6,000 delegates to the Choice Hotels International Conference in Las Vegas this month.


By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

LAS VEGAS — Earvin “Magic” Johnson shared lessons from his basketball career with more than 6,000 delegates to the Choice Hotels International Conference in Las Vegas earlier this month. Surprisingly, those lessons resonate with hoteliers as well.

At six feet nine inches with a booming voice, not to mention his celebrity status as both a basketball star and businessman, it doesn't take much for Magic Johnson to mesmerize a crowd. But Johnson went one step further — he stepped off the podium (which is for short people) and interacted with the audience as he told his story to one person at a time.

No limits

The conference theme was “No Limits,” and Johnson said that as early as second grade, he placed no limits on himself — his goal was to play the right way and to win. From second grade to ninth grade, his basketball team won every championship. His high school had a losing basketball team, expected to come last in the division, “but we blew out the one team who were supposed to be champions.” It was as a 15-year-old in high school, that Earvin got the nickname, Magic.

The rest of his basketball career is the stuff of legend. He grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and went to nearby Michigan State University, “because I was a Mama's boy and I still got to wash my clothes at home. That was important to me!” he said.

After winning championships in high school and college, Johnson was selected first overall in the 1979 NBA draft by the Lakers. He won a championship and an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in his rookie season, and won four more championships with the Lakers during the 1980s, and finally retired in 1996 at the age of 36.

“I learned a lot from playing against Michael Jordan and Larry Bird,” Johnson said. “We asked, how are we going to make our team better, and learned that there are big competitors and preparation is the key.”

But his career didn't end after he retired from basketball. “I took attributes from basketball to the boardroom,” Johnson explained. “I did my homework and research and got me some mentors.”

He became a part owner of the Lakers for several years. “I [entertained] 25 of the Lakers seasons ticket holders. Twenty of them became my mentors, but I had to pick up the tab,” he said.

When Johnson talks about business, he talks about it on a grand scale. He earned an $18 million salary from the NBA plus several million more in endorsements. His post-basketball ventures earned dividends as well. His net worth is estimated at $600 million, according to the website Celebrity Net Worth.

Know your customer

Magic realized that while minorities and Latinos had trillions of dollars worth of spending power, few stores catered to this group of “urban Americans.” At one point he talked to Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks. “I told him, minorities, we like coffee but there are no Starbucks in our neighbourhoods. I put up half the money, and showed how I had driven ROI with movie theatres. He said that we could do three Starbucks as a trial run, to see if they were successful.

“I told Howard, the first three will be No. 1 in our area, but I have to make some tweaks. Minorities, we don't know what scones are … now sweet potato pie… we know what that is. I know my customer, and if you overdeliver to customers and give them a great stay, they will be brand ambassadors.”

Johnson asked a Caucasian member of the audience which musical artist he liked best. The man said, “Styx.” “We'll never play any of that in our Starbucks,” said Johnson. “Now Lionel Ritchie, Prince, Michael Jackson…”

Within six years, the three test stores grew to 125 stores across America in 40 different markets. “I sold the 125 Starbucks back to Howard,” he said. That sale was worth an estimated $27 million.

Pat Pacious and Magic Johnson high five.

Pat Pacious and Magic Johnson high five.

Sometimes you have to take risks…

Back at the Lakers, Johnson noted that Kobe Bryant was getting older, and he felt it was time to sell.

“Sometimes you have to take risks, but I took them only because I knew the market.”

Johnson was part of a group of investors that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 — a record breaking sale at over $2 billion.

“Everybody said we were crazy — until we landed a $9 billion TV deal. We've got a fan experience that is very important, like the customer experience at the hotel. The Dodgers were middle of the pack for attendance — but for four years we were No. 1 in attendance because we put money into the stadium and made it sexier.”

He said they targeted millennials who don't want to watch the game — they want to hang out at the game in a place that is cool, sexy and fun.

Johnson continued to work the crowd, only half joking when he spoke with a Choice award winner about a joint venture building lots of Choice Hotels, picking out members of the audience to talk to and posing for selfies. The last person he talked to was Daniel Pacious, 15-year-old son of Choice president and CEO, Pat Pacious. The session ended as Daniel, Pat and Magic Johnson stood on the stage together.

Who knew that a basketball star would have so much in common with a room full of hoteliers. It was magic.

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