Salamander’s Sheila Johnson Tells Biz Leaders to Have Patience

Strategic patience. That’s what Sheila Johnson says transformed a little idea into a successful resort enterprise.

The owner of Salamander Resort & Spa and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television told hundreds of business leaders packed into a ballroom at the Middleburg resort Thursday that it takes those two little words to make a business work.

“Patience isn’t the same as paralysis,” she stressed. “You need to persist, preserve and never give up on your vision.”

Johnson was the keynote speaker at the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce’s Lessons in Leadership luncheon, one of several events planned to mark Loudoun’s Small Business Week.

Johnson, a not-so-small business owner, said the same strategies apply to every entrepreneur no matter the size of the company. It takes passion and a bit of faith, she said. “You have to take risks—that’s what business leaders are built for.”

Her first business in Middleburg started shortly after she moved to the western Loudoun town 20 years ago. She decided to purchase a gun shop on West Washington Street. “Because every time I drove into town there was a confederate flag there, and I didn’t like that,” she said, prompting a few snickers from audience members. “I bought the gun shop and turned it into a wonderful little market,” called Market Salamander.

In 2001, she purchased the 340-acre property just north of downtown Middleburg on which the resort now sits. It took years of public hearings and cutting through red tape to get approval to build the 168-room facility, and when Johnson and her staff were finally prepping for opening in 2010, the recession hit.

“Money was tight, consumer spending was down and the economy was marked by uncertainty,” she said. “Spa became a four letter word. It was like the rug had been pulled out from under me.”

She hit pause on the project, and instead put her senior staff members to work on developing a management services program to reposition underperforming resorts. She and her team helped turn around three resorts in Florida that had been hit hard by the economic downturn.

Then in 2013, she opened Salamander Resort & Spa, which Johnson referred to as the crown jewel of her business.

“My commitment to this venture has never wavered because for me, it’s not just about business, it’s personal, ” Johnson said. “There is a love that I have for every detail of this property.”

Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis recently told Johnson that the resort helped grow the town’s tax base and annual budget, and has also created hundreds of jobs for people who live in and near the town. Last year, the property hosted 31 weddings, and this year has 65 on the calendar.

Speaking to the decision to delay the resort’s opening, Johnson said she was tempted to follow her fear of failing and scrap the idea all together. “But I kept on,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let a small obstacle like a global recession stand in my way.”

“Strategic patience has paid off,” Johnson added, noting that she wants Middleburg and surrounding communities to share in Salamander’s success. “I am committed to this place for the long term.”

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