By Tina Irgang
Juanita “Busy Bee” Britton displayed an acumen for business at an early age, when she turned her lemonade stand into a neighborhood franchise. Since then, Britton has always had her hand in some business operation or another.
Today, she heads BZB International, Inc., a PR company whose clients include the American Bar Association and the Department of the Navy. She also operates 21 restaurants and stores at two Washington-area airports, Reagan National and Dulles International. She is also active in several philanthropic initiatives, and holds the title of Queen Mother of a village in Ghana. In the following interview, Britton shares a few stories from a truly busy life.
You started a franchise of lemonade stands in Detroit at the age of 10. How did that come about?
Britton: I had had a lemonade stand for two summers, probably about 120 days each, because I remember not wanting to go on a vacation in the summer — I wanted to start right away, the Saturday after school ended.
All of my friends were always hanging around while I was having this experience. … So at the end of the second year, two different friends wanted to take a different corner. They wanted to do lemonade too, but they didn’t have the extra money to buy lemons and sugar. They knew their moms wouldn’t let them take cups and cups of sugar out of the house. So I bought everything and said, you’ve got to pay me back. I ended up buying different-colored cups for every stand — one had a red cup, one a blue cup and I had a yellow cup. That’s how the franchise began.
The next summer, I actually rented a 30-passenger bus through my mom, and I took everybody in the neighborhood on a trip to [concert venue] Music Park in Ohio. That was just part of the fun — sharing the money with everybody.
I never thought anything about it, and then that third summer — about when I was 13 — that’s when we sat on six different corners, and then everybody had their own lemonade business, and we called it Busy Bee Lemonade.
Is that when you acquired the nickname “Busy Bee”?
Britton: That happened before. My grandmother said that as a small child, I would have two or three little stations of toys, and I really would not appreciate if anybody touched anything in any area, because I really was going to get back to it. I could do several things at once. So that’s why that nickname came about. It was my grandmother’s nickname for me.
I’ve been challenged that it isn’t professional, and told not to use it. I once met President [Ronald] Reagan. I was told to not use my nickname when I introduced myself, but because it’s so natural for me, I said it, and he took a second glance and said, “I’ll never forget that.”
How did you come to move from Detroit to DC?
Britton: I got accepted to a Howard University graduate program, and I always wanted to be in Washington, DC, because I knew I’d meet a lot of international people, and I knew I could fly everywhere from Washington. That was my main goal — to get to DC.
How did your entrepreneurial career develop after that?
Britton: I’ve always had a business on the side. When I was an undergrad, my grandfather bought me an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it was the first typewriter that came out with a corrector bar. … So this typewriter situation was a big deal because I was a resident adviser (RA) in the dorm, and I ended up buying a second typewriter, and people could come to my room and type their papers for a dollar a page. It was a big deal because it was a Selectric. You didn’t have to backspace and correct it, or retype your whole paper, so that was very lucrative.
And because I had a private space, being an RA, … I had a little hair business. People used to have the perm and you’d have to roll your hair, so I did those things. I just loved money, loved making it and loved doing things with my friends. That was really the basis of my entrepreneurship. …
When you’re in the entrepreneurial world and you’re kicking around, one thing leads to the next. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one passion that drives you — it’s just the drive to be independent. I love a lot of things, so I’ve always been involved in a lot of things. I’m older now and I’ve narrowed it down, but even now, I’m in real estate, … and then I have 21 stores in two airports. …
The airport business came about because I was what you call a secret shopper, and when [shop and restaurant center] National Hall at Reagan Airport opened up, a friend of mine had the contract to do all the retail development. Those stores needed help being staged, as well as customer service training.
So those are the things that got me in the airport. I would happen to be around when bigger opportunities came up. If you keep your nose clean and save your money and spend time with the right people, something is bound to happen.
How do you keep on top of so many different operations? How do you split your time?
Britton: I have a great management team, first of all. So I’m not completely responsible for everything. I also manage my time. It’s mainly about priorities. What is most important is next. And I do use my time wisely — I am rarely idle, but when I take a break, I take a really great break. I do sleep about six or seven hours, and then there’s a lot of walking. I’m not much for going to the gym, but I walk probably 15,000 steps four or five days a week in the airport.
In 2012, you were named Queen Mother of a village in Ghana. How did that come about, and what does the role entail?
Britton: What an honor it was. An old friend that I knew well, I travelled with him back and forth to Ghana on several occasions. I knew he had kind of a pomp-and-circumstance life, but never knew he was part of a royal family. I continued to go, and every time I went, I would visit his mother. When it became his mother’s time to have a male in the family take the role of king, she insisted that I be his first Queen Mother. It’s like being the number-one board member. Usually, they only pick blood relatives for this role, but because we had known each other for over 20 years and I’d stayed in touch with the mother all the 20 years, … she insisted.
So I’m there four times a year, and because I’m entrepreneurially minded, that’s what I have the village working on — small business. I’ve gotten families to connect and run businesses together. …
We’re also about to open up a marketplace with more than 40 stations. It’s a big deal because we’re going to add a market where there was not one, and people from about 100 villages pass this particular place where our market will be to go to a larger market. So this will be a major station once we get it up and running.
Besides your work in the village, what other causes are important to you?
Britton: I have this program called Up, Up and Away. I like to work with fifth or sixth graders. [The program] exposes young people to the airport — airport retail and aviation — and it also has a golf component, where I take kids to the golf course. …
These are things that urban young people are not exposed to. I have young people I take to the airport who have never flown, and they don’t have an idea about how big a plane is or that they could be a pilot or a flight attendant or work in a shop at the airport. There are so many wonderful shops at the airport, and it’s just so vibrant and beautiful, so big and light and airy. So twice a year, I bring about 75 kids to the airport and do all those things, and then serve them lunch. So that’s really important to me.
And then I have adopted three kids. Two are grown, and one is just finishing college, and he went to college on a golf scholarship because of the Up, Up and Away program.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email email@example.com.