What It Takes

Orlan Johnson

Orlan Johnson has forged a reputation as an under-the-radar deal maker in a town that runs on deals. Johnson, now a partner in the Saul Ewing law firm, cut his teeth on the law while interning on Wall Street for the late power broker Reginald F. Lewis, the Baltimore-born former chief executive of Beatrice International, the Fortune 500's first black-owned company. He worked at the Securities Exchange Commission and for Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.

In 2006, Johnson met then-Sen. Barack Obama. Soon afterward, he signed on as a supporter at a time when many believed Obama's chances of getting to the White House were slim. He served as a member of Obama's national finance team, bringing the candidate to Prince George's County in October 2008 in a move that raised the profile of the nation's wealthiest black jurisdiction and cemented its support for the Chicagoan. Last year, Obama appointed him chair of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, an entity responsible for ensuring investors get their money back if a brokerage firm collapses.

Johnson, 48, has been married for 20 years to Zina Johnson, a gospel musician. They have three children -- Nia, Adam and Jair -- and live in Bowie.

Why he's successful: "I think the most important thing is meeting as many people as you can. I try to network in as many circles as I can so that I can meet people and learn how to engage in business from many points of view. I also attribute my success to my religious convictions. I just always have faith that the Lord is going to put me in the right place at the right time and He's always been there to lead and direct me."

Biggest obstacle: "Having access to enough knowledge to be the best. So many things revolve around who you know and what you know, and having access to information at all levels was the most difficult task. For example, wanting to go to law school is one thing, but having the opportunity to meet someone like Vernon Jordan and having him explain what it was like to get to law school and be successful really helped give me a perspective on how I should approach law school. When I worked for Reginald Lewis, he explained why the proper balance between business and politics gives you the best opportunity to be successful in your career, no matter what it might be."

First job: Johnson, who is one of three children, was born in Costa Rica to a human resources administrator and teacher/administrator and he was raised a devout Seventh-day Adventist. He attended religious schools in Long Island after the family emigrated and a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school as a teenager.

"My first job, when I was 9 years old, was going out on painting jobs with an individual named Mr. Ralph Harris. I got paid by the project, sometimes $20, sometimes $30. I used to cut lawns for $5, then I realized I could work for Mr. Harris and make a whole lot more."

Worst job: "My first year of college, in France, I had a job working in a greenhouse. Every day, I had to pull dead leaves off about 1,000 plants, then water them. That was the worst. I got paid $500 for the school year. It was on campus at Collonges, in Saint-Julien, right outside Geneva. I wanted to learn to speak French fluently and I had heard that immersion was the best and fastest way, so I went to France."

Best job: Johnson transferred to Andersonville College, then to Howard University Law School. To give back, he has served as an adjunct professor there since 1994. "Teaching at Howard has been my best job. I enjoy the interaction with students and sharing practical experience with them ... My [former] students include the current mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and a number of businessmen and women and politicians at all levels."

Smartest move: Interning for Lewis. "I really learned to love securities work, transactional work and corporate work. It helped set the tone for the kind of practice I would engage in for the rest of my career. Now I am a transactional lawyer specializing in corporate securities work. I do deals ... I'm a guy who negotiates transactions and papers those transactions so the deals will close."

What inspires him: His family. "That's what inspires me the most to get up and do what I do every day. I'm also inspired to hopefully influence young people to understand the importance of every choice they make in life and to make the right choices."

Things for which he is grateful: "I'm grateful to have family and friends who allow me to have a life where I can have peace of mind. To me, there is nothing more important than the ability to have a restful mind ... It's more important than money. It's more important than power."

What's next: "Maybe, at some point, running my own business, something completely different from the law. I'm not sure what yet."

Advice to the aspiring: "Meet as many people as you can and never treat any of them poorly because you never know where you might see them in the future."

Biggest contribution: "Probably working on President Obama's campaign and to be one of the original members of his finance committee. Early on, I had the opportunity to meet a guy I thought would someday do something very special. Little did I know he would someday be president of the United States."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  September 15, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Great success story. After reading the horrific info at toyotarunaway org this one is a little more pleasant and uplifting.

Posted by: Moley2 | September 16, 2010 8:55 PM
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I woul say - Meet as many people as you can and never treat any of them poorly because - it's the right thing to do.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | September 16, 2010 6:15 AM
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