Magic Johnson Kicks Off AGS Conclave With a Feel-Good Keynote Speech



The sports star turned tycoon shares his passion for winning in business and life

The American Gem Society (AGS) kicked off its annual Conclave educational event on Wednesday with a slam-dunk keynote speaker. Basketball legend and business tycoon Earvin “Magic” Johnson spoke to a keyed-up crowd composed primarily of jewelry retailers Wednesday at the Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, Calif.—the site of this year’s five-day industry event.

The MVP launched into a humorous motivational speech punctuated by anecdotes from his youth, when “everyone told me there was no way I could be 6’9″ and play a point guard,” he recalled. He then asked the crowd, “So how did I get to that level of winning all these championships? I wasn’t the fastest, and I couldn’t jump higher than everyone else. But what I did was outwork everyone. I really worked hard at it.”

Keeping an eye on the prize was a recurring theme in Johnson’s speech, which included a Q&A session that saw the former Laker—and current co-owner of the Dodgers—answering audience questions tableside, after graciously posing for cell phone pictures.

“I want to win so bad all the time,” he said, sharing that he regularly plays one-on-one with his daughter and gets flak from his wife, Cookie Johnson, for not letting her win. “We play to 10, and I let her get to nine, then I gotta crush her,” he said with a laugh.

“You’re in business to win, to be successful,” he reminded the audience members, “so remember to always use best practices—keep doing things the right way. There are no shortcuts to winning championships or in business. I didn’t take any myself, and still don’t. I love to over-deliver. If the contract says I need to deliver 10 things, I do 20.”

Magic Johnson posing with a retailer during his speech yesterday at AGS Conclave.

Johnson, who has advocated and built businesses and services for urban black communities since retiring from the NBA, also recounted meeting with Starbucks’ Howard Schultz: “I told him, ‘You know, black folks…we drink coffee, too. The growth of your business will have to be in urban America, because you already have one in every suburban neighborhood.’ ”

Johnson, whose current companies include a food-service business with 40 contracts including Delta Airlines, ultimately partnered with the CEO on three Starbucks in urban areas, tailoring the locations to the then-new clientele. “Yes, black people will pay $3 for a cup of coffee. But we don’t know quite what scones are,” he said, which elicited a huge laugh from the audience. “Sweet potato pie, pound cake, those things we put in. I also had to take the Eagles out of my store and put in Motown. I know my customer. We all have to know our customer and deliver to that customer.”

He challenged AGS members to reconnect with their passion for business. “All of us have been in business a long time,” he noted, asking, “Are you still bringing the fire every single day? Are you still learning…how the market has changed? Are you ready for change? You have to embrace change, because we want our businesses to have sustainability.”

And he urged jewelers to stop profiling in their stores—consciously or subconsciously: “Make sure you start looking at urban America, because we like diamonds, too.”

Conclave’s emcee, JCK senior editor Rob Bates, sat down with the superstar at the start of the Q&A portion of the presentation, asking the icon who his favorite jeweler is. “You can name some of these people,” joked Bates.

Johnson deadpanned, “I shop with all of them,” before sharing that he relies on “three or four different jewelers in L.A.” Cookie Johnson loves diamonds, he added, and “I love when the jeweler will help me and give me…that personal touch, saying ‘Hey, Earvin, let me show you 10 or 15 things, and let me show you why they’re great.’ Because I need that kind of help.”

The lifelong athlete doesn’t personally wear jewelry, having been chastised as a kid for leaving his watch at the park after playing hoops all day. “I ran back to park and it was gone,” he remembered, “so from that moment on, all the diamonds and watches and trophies I had went into my trophy room at home. I remember my mom was mad.”

When asked which of his many endeavors owns the biggest chunk of his heart and soul, Johnson cited his Magic Johnson Foundation, his nonprofit organization that serves ethnically diverse, urban communities.

Because at the end of the day, “it’s not about me making all the money,” he said. “I just want to have a great life, and I have that. I think, Let’s go out there and win for a long time. I played basketball the same way.” 

JCK Magazine Editor