Business Mogul Bob Johnson Vows To Help Rebuild Haiti

Nearly six months have passed since a massive earthquake caused unspeakable devastation in Haiti. The January disaster left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced from their homes. Bob Johnson, founder and chairman of RLJ Companies and founder of Black Entertainment Television, recently announced plans to aid in rebuilding efforts. Johnson says Haiti needs the world’s attention now more than ever.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Why were the Asian and Inuit characters from the animated TV series "The Last Airbender" cast with Caucasian actors in the live-action movie version coming out tomorrow? And do you care? We'll ask two people who follow the movies and other cultural things in just a few minutes.

But first, though, back to Haiti. We're coming up on the six-month anniversary of that massive earthquake that caused such devastation in Haiti. It left an estimated 230,000 dead and millions displaced from their homes. To make matters worse, a U.S. Senate report says that while humanitarian needs are being met, the rebuilding efforts have practically stalled because of land disputes, disorganization and now from tropical storms during the hurricane season that just started.

Amid that discouraging news, a prominent American business leader just announced plans for two new factories in Haiti that is hoped will help Haiti rebuild by actually making the materials needed to rebuild.

Joining me now to talk more about this, a familiar name to many and certainly not a stranger to this program, Bob Johnson, founder of RLJ Companies. Many know him as the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, and he's with us now. Welcome back, I should say.

Mr. BOB JOHNSON (Founder, RLJ Companies): Michel, delighted to be with you.

MARTIN: And you're just back from - was it Port-au-Prince or from Cap-Haitien this time? This is not your first trip to Haiti.

Mr. JOHNSON: No, this is not my first trip to Haiti. This time it was Port-au-Prince and obviously much of the devastation and death took place in and around Port-au-Prince. The countryside up around Cap-Haitien was largely untouched, because of the spread of the population and housing there. But what I saw in Haiti was basically a lot of destruction from the earthquake that has yet to be removed, debris and that.

And then the second was the thousands of people who are still living in makeshift tent communities that have to be addressed. But I also saw sparks of people coming back to life and shops and people selling things. And even outside of one tent on about a three-by-four-foot plot, I saw someone growing corn, you know, saying, you know, we're going to be here for awhile, let's, you know, let's get back to planting and feeding ourselves.

So, the spirit of the people of Haiti will help the revival of this country. It'll be tough, it'll take a lot of outside support and it will take the political leadership. And I had a chance to meet with President Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive to talk about that.

MARTIN: And how did you get the idea for this project? And I should mention that we last spoke to you about a project in Haiti, I'm sorry, in Liberia, which is also a joint venture. This is also a joint venture. In Haiti you built a resort and spa, a major kind of hotel and resort complex. How did you get the idea for this project?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, all of this, Michel, grew out of my involvement with the Clinton Global Initiative and President Clinton, who's been a longtime friend of mine. And what we did in Liberia proved that investment with the support of the government can help to turn the country around.

And when I met with President Sirleaf, the one thing she said she needed was a hotel for people to stay, whether they're government officials, international organizations, NGOs or whatever, and would we do that as a way of symbolizing Liberia was open for international development and investment?

And we did that and that hotel is now very successful and it'll be more successful because just about a month ago, Delta Airlines announced that they will be starting direct flights from Atlanta or New York to Monrovia.

MARTIN: And so talk to me about this project.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, this project is...

MARTIN: I mean, it's intuitively obvious. You think people - what's the one thing that people really need? They need a place to live, but they don't have anything to build with. So...

Mr. JOHNSON: Build with. And they need a commitment from management to talent to come into Haiti and help. I mean, Haiti has a lot of donor money sitting on the sidelines, so money right now is not the biggest issue, it's execution of projects that the donor money could fund.

I met with President Preval and three things I came away with: One, he is committed to free and open elections as planned. There's no question they will have elections as scheduled. The second is he's committed to providing and rebuilding the infrastructure for the people of Haiti. And that means everything from schools to roads to telecommunications to all kinds of government facilities and most importantly from the standpoint of the people living in tents and other makeshift dwellings is housing.

And then the third thing is to send the word out that Haiti is open for business. The government is being very transparent in everything they're doing. And people should seek to invest in Haiti.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, I wanted to ask you, is this venture, which you are participating in with Global Building Solutions and Royal Caribbean Cruises, which is interesting. You said it's the second largest private investor in Haiti, which, you know, who knew? Is this intended to be a successful business enterprise on its own? Is its primary purpose to do good or to do well or to do well by doing good?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's a combination of the two, Michel, that we think there's -obviously there's a massive need for housing and reconstruction. And this technology that we have, which is a fiber cement kind of technology that is strong as real cement, but much lighter and much more durable and much more viable in Haiti's environment.

For example, it is earthquake resistant, hurricane resistant, mold and mildew resistant, fire resistant and can be built, because of its weight, you don't need huge slabs to place it. And certainly it's not going to hurt anybody as significantly if it falls on them from a future earthquake.

So, it's the right product for Haiti. The factories themselves will create jobs. It will stimulate business from development of other facilities. And it will aid in the displacement of Haitians or a decentralization you might -which you really call it - from Port-au-Prince into other areas that need economic development, particularly Cap-Haitien where Royal Caribbean has a major resort property there for the people who come over on cruises.

MARTIN: And final question to you, you're saying in part that, you know, you're a business person. You're not an NGO and part of - you're doing this to, you know, make money. What's your message to other investors who might still be hesitant about entering this area? Is there a special expertise, a perspective needed, do you think, to do well there?

Mr. JOHNSON: You got to have a commitment to help Haiti. That's the first thing, and you got to be willing to work with local Haitian businesspeople as we are with the Mev family in Haiti. And you got to believe that the government is committed to creating a viable opportunity for businesses to be successful.

MARTIN: Well, we'd love it if you'd come back and report on the plans as the plans go farther down the road.

Mr. JOHNSON: I would be delighted to, thank you.

MARTIN: Bob Johnson is founder and chairman of RLJ Companies. He recently announced plans to construct two facilities as part of joint venture to manufacture building materials in Haiti and he is just back from there and he joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Bob Johnson, thank you so much.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

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