PALM HARBOR, Fla. – One of the first tricks that a guest at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club learns is to be ready to go right after ringing for one of the trams that moves folks around its sprawling grounds in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.
If the shuttle isn’t there immediately, it’s usually within eyeshot and has a driver who will chat or fire off jokes on the way to Packard’s steakhouse or the clubhouse at the Island golf course, where chances are you will meet a charming employee, who will initiate a giggle or five from a resort guest.
Their attitudes and efficiency hasn’t escaped the eye of the boss.
“From the moment I decided to buy Innisbrook, the bricks and mortar were great, the grounds were wonderful, but what moved me to buy it were the employees,” said Sheila Johnson, who first began
checking out the property in January, 2007, just as the Pod Championship PGA Tour stop had concluded.
“I have never been to a facility where the employees were so passionate about a property,” added Johnson, who closed the deal in mid-July to bring Innisbrook under the umbrella of Salamander Hospitality LLC, which she serves as a chief executive officer and emphasizes the importance of her front-line folks.
With her employees as a cornerstone, Johnson was immediately willing to lead by example in her efforts to raise the stature of Innisbrook to one of the top resorts in the United States. Within a day of closing the deal, extensive renovations were being made to the Island course.
“Within 22 hours, the earth-moving equipment was on the golf course and in a little more than 90 days, we had completely renovated the Island golf course and modernized it,” said Doug Schmidt, director of membership and golf public relations for Innisbrook.
“The golf course now plays 7,310 yards, par 71,” said Schmidt. “We have a par four 11th hole now, one of the longest par fours, certainly in Florida.”
Other changes included new Tif Eagle greens, cart paths, signage, irrigation systems, tree plantings and landscaping on a course that can leave you with plenty of awkward shots should you be even slightly awry.
The renovations to the Island course offers Innisbrook a powerful one-two punch in golf courses, with the presence of the Copperhead course, home the PODS Championship and lauded by several PGA Tour players. The Highlands North and Highlands South courses round out the extensive offerings for golfers.
In March, a new full-service spa will open to go along with a new fitness centre and extensive renovations to the tennis centre, clubhouses and meeting spaces, among other changes.
Johnson says she is a firm believer in the old adage about spending money to make money. “I want to make money, too. I’m not stupid,” said Johnson, who is believed to be America’s first African American female billionaire.
“I really believe that, if you put the quality into something and you really put your heart behind something, it’s going to come back to you,” said Johnson, who can back that up with personal experience.
The reason she chose Salamander as her company name is that it’s a lizard that can walk through fire and still survive. This survivor has faced the heat before.
An accomplished violinist and music teacher, Johnson is best known for starting Black Entertainment Television with former husband Robert L. Johnson, a former cable industry lobbyist, with the support of investor John Malone, in 1980. While the rise of BET resulted in her current fortune, it wasn’t easy.
“It’s just like any new idea,” she recalled. “We thought our idea would catch on among all African American businesses.
“Still, there was that unbelievable doubt that we don’t trust what you’re doing, we don’t quite know what you’re doing, we don’t understand what you’re doing and the fear factor of committing advertising dollars to a network that may or may not work.”
That’s why the backing of Malone played an integral role in the development of BET, including getting the network on satellite. “John Malone was really smitten with the idea of starting a cable network targeted at African Americans,” she recalled.
However, she recalls looking under cushions to find change to do her laundry and cutting out coupons to do the grocery shopping. “My goal was to try and buy a week’s worth of groceries for $25 and when I could do that, I was just so excited,” she recalled. “It was lean, let me tell you,”
The drive and passion paid off over 20 years later when BET was sold to Viacom for a reported $3-billion, which was split when she and her husband divorced. Despite those billions, she realizes she has work to do, just like those she employs.
Her greatest challenge may be getting Tiger Woods to play Innisbrook, either at the PODS Championship or just for a look-see. That may be impossible considering how selective Tiger is, but then again, Johnson has a history of getting things done.