Black America has a rich history of successful entrepreneurs and business executives. But none had quite the success in the world of international finance as Reginald F. Lewis.
Lewis was a Wall Street financier who, through a number of shrewd business moves, became one of the nation’s richest businessmen and a major force in the world of corporate-takeover deals in the 1980s and 1990s.
A lawyer who was raised in Baltimore, Lewis gained attention in the business world in 1987, with his $1 billion acquisition of the international operations of the Beatrice Companies, a food company. With that acquisition, he formed his own company, TLC Beatrice International, and amassed personal assets of $400 million, according to Fortune magazine.
Additionally, the formation of TLC — which stood for The Lewis Company — led it to become the largest company in the United States that was run by an African-American executive.
Lewis was born in 1942 and raised in a middle-class family in Baltimore; his father was a postal worker and his mother a teacher. He often told the story of how he began in business by selling newspapers when he was 9 years old, a job that allowed him to earn about $20 a week, he said. He added that he saved $18 of that.
He was a graduate of Virginia State University and Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1969. He then joined the New York City law firm of Paul Weiss Rifkin Wharton & Garrison. Within a few years, he opened his own law firm, Lewis & Clarkson, which specialized in venture capital projects.
Overall, he had a flourishing business career that resulted from two significant business deals. The first was in 1983, with Lewis’s purchase of the McCall Pattern Company. He made headlines by using $1 million he saved from his work as a corporate lawyer to lead a $34 million leveraged buyout of McCall, a small dress-pattern company.
Lewis sold the company four years after he bought it, selling it to the John Crowther Group of Britain for $63 million in cash. He made a personal profit of $50 million from that deal.
What came after that was the deal that cemented his place as a major Wall Street financier. The Beatrice Companies placed for sale its international operations, which included a collection of 64 companies operating in 31 countries, ranging from a sausage producer in Spain to an ice cream maker in Germany. Lewis, with the assistance of the firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, put together the financing to buy the operations for $985 million in 1987.
“I'm very proud of the accomplishments of African-Americans," Lewis once said in an interview shortly after he purchased Beatrice. "And I'm delighted that people feel this accomplishment adds to that list. But to dwell on race — to see that as something that becomes part of my persona — is a mistake, and I do everything I can to discourage it.”
He lived a lavish life, with homes in Paris, Long Island and Manhattan. He shuttled from between the United States and Europe on his own jet. But he was also a generous philanthropist, contributing vast sums to a number of institutions and organizations, including the NAACP and Virginia State and Howard Universities. In his adopted hometown of New York City, he also gave large contributions to the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the scholarship foundation of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, of which he was a member.
Lewis died in 1993 of a cerebral hemorrhage related to his having brain cancer. He was 50 years old.
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(Photo: Reginald F. Lewis Official Photo)