Juanita Britton traipses through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, exchanging greetings with shop managers, kiosk employees, TSA workers and travelers.
In the truest sense of the word, Britton, known to Washingtonians as Busy Bee (BZB), has become an ambassador of sorts at each of the region’s three airports, operating 21 businesses — including five restaurants — and employing hundreds of local young people in the process.
According to Deven Judd, director of customer and concessions development for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the commitment to long-term investment in cultural awareness extends beyond Black History and Women’s History Month at the airports, and offers travelers, especially those from outside of the U.S. or areas with few African-Americans, a few shining examples of Black culture.
And like a modern-day Clara Barton or Annie Malone, Britton has meticulously invested profits from a single business into several money-making ventures, all the while cultivating a well-spring of potential clients, partners and employees.
As a partner and senior vice president of Paradies-BZB, DC, LLC, the company that operates Brooks Brothers, Heritage Booksellers, SPANX, Washington Pour Bar, Brighton and a host of other businesses in WMAA, Britton is the “it girl” of the airport business hubs.
“I’m a southeast D.C. girl who has spent 20 years working within a tight-knit community of businesses,” she said. “I formed a collective and have insisted that all members work together because the biggest part of getting wealthy, is no doubt making money, but also, to bring the community along with me and that’s what I do.”
Gaining wealth, particularly within the closed ranks of an airport economy that Judd said has a $23 billion annual impact on the D.C.-area, marks no small feat. But Britton said that with keen business acumen and being in the right place at the right time, opportunities arose to place her footing.
“Opportunities at the airport, not for the faint,” she said. “I happened to be a partner with a conglomerate. It’s not a business where you can open a store and if the money gets tight, you can finesse through it. You cannot tell vendors and employees that you will pay them next week. The reward comes in being able to employ people from my community and worldwide.”
Britton employs over 14 nationalities and works tirelessly — on site at some locations as early as 5 a.m. — to assist with managers and assess business margins.
“I strive to do training for young people in my community within retail, as it is a career you can have while in school, between school, or even as a full-time career,” she said.
“There are a lot of kids who need that type of career counseling and from the day they get employed, they know me,” Britton said, stressing that it remains important for her to know her young employees and for them to know her.
Nivlem Dickens, general manager at the Washingtonian retailer at Reagan National, told The Informer that rising up through the ranks of Paradies afforded her an opportunity to learn from different cultures and experience a type of diversity within training that lends itself to a model of respect alongside profits.
“I love working for Juanita, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world and it’s been more than 15 years,” Dickens said. “It’s not just the people I work with and the travelers who come through the terminals that make the job worthwhile, it is also that we strive to ensure each of our customers has an enjoyable experience and that is the type of example set by Juanita that we’ve been happy to follow.”
That model, pinned as one of the most successful in the industry by Paradies, caught the attention of Cassie Nelson, Paradies Lagardere Travel Retailers vice president of food and beverage operations, who was on hand at Reagan National on Feb. 27 along with French investors to meet with Britton.
“We traveled here to showcase this great operation,” Nelson said. “We wanted to understand the challenges and opportunities in this platform because there are different challenges and opportunities in every platform that we operate. DCA is one of the larger platforms that we manage in and we wanted our partners from Paris to see that.
“The environment in airports has changed drastically in the last 10 years — there are more local brands that are being brought into the airport that you would normally see on the streets of that city,” Nelson said. “Local businesses are able to broaden their brand awareness and what develops are great mixes of local businesses with national brands as anchors in the same space. It is a great opportunity for minorities to come in and make a contribution to their community and to personally grow and flourish financially.”
That mission has served Britton, her employees, partners and customers well.
“Building up young people as managers or going on to have their own stores, working with them to get a kiosk or to whet their palettes for entrepreneurship, is a must,” Britton said. “I want to activate that in them. My first airport store was Brooks Brothers at National in 2001. I was good with one and then to six and different opportunities came. I kept the credit right, saved money, stayed in the know — information is power — and I stayed in the loop with information. That’s how we win.”
Britton serves as annual host and facilitator for the BZB Holiday Gift & Art Show, where African- and African-American-themed items are sold for the holidays. Additionally, she manages BZB International Tours, an educational and recreational travel service, and Up, Up and Away, a program that educates young people by exposing them to golf, aviation and airport retail industries. This is done in conjunction with her parent company, BZB International, Inc., which coordinates special events and works with small businesses on retail development, marketing and strengthening consumer and community relations.