Reginald F. Lewis was born on December 7, 1942 in an East Baltimore neighborhood he once described as “semi-tough.” Lewis was strongly influenced by his family. His parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts always encouraged Lewis to “be the best that you can be.”
Reginald’s grandmother would teach him the importance of saving, even cutting and peeling strips from the bottom of a tin can and nailing it to the floor of a closet to protect his savings.
At the age of ten, Lewis set up a delivery route to sell the Afro American newspaper. After building the business from ten customers to more than a hundred in two years, he sold the route at a profit.
Reginald attended Dunbar High School, where he distinguished himself as an athlete on the playing field and a hard working student in the class room. He was quarterback of the football team, shortstop for varsity baseball, a forward on the basketball team and was team captain of all three.
Lewis was also elected vice president of the student body. Despite the demands of sports and studies, Lewis also worked nights and weekends at a local country club to cloth himself and eventually purchase his own car. In 1961, Lewis entered Virginia State University on a football scholarship. After an injury cut his football career short, he shifted his focus to school and work. One of the jobs was as a photographer’s sales assistant. He generated so much business that he was offered a partnership.
Reginald declined because he had bigger things in mind for the future. A handwritten schedule that he kept says: “To be a good lawyer, one must study HARD.” And he did, graduating on the dean’s list his senior year.
In 1965, the Rockefeller Foundation funded a summer school program at Harvard Law School to introduce a select number of black students to legal studies. Reginald lobbied for his acceptance and got in.
He made such an impression that Lewis was invited to attend Harvard Law School that fall—the only person in the 148-year history of the school to be admitted before applying. His senior year thesis on mergers and acquisitions received an honors grade.
After graduation (HLS ‘68), Lewis landed a job practicing corporate law with a prestigious New York law firm. Two years later he, along with a few others, set up Wall Street’s first African American law firm.
Lewis focused on corporate law, structuring investments in minority-owned businesses and became special counsel to major corporations like General Foods and Equitable Life (now AXA).
Mr. Lewis was also counsel to the New York-based Commission for Racial Justice and represented The Wilmington Ten. He was successful in forcing North Carolina to pay interest on the Wilmington Ten bond.
A desire to "do the deals myself" led Lewis to establish TLC Group, L.P. in 1983. His first successful venture was the $22.5 million leveraged buyout of McCall Pattern Company. It was a struggling business in a declining industry.
Lewis streamlined operations , increased marketing, and led the company to two of the most profitable years in McCall’s 113-year history. In the summer of 1987, he sold the company for $65 million, making a 90-to-1 return on his investment.
Just months after his first successful exit, Reginald F. Lewis’s unknown two man team outbid huge firms like Citicorp to secure the purchase of Beatrice Foods (64 companies in 31 countries). At $985 million, the deal was the largest leveraged buyout of overseas assets by an American company at that time.
As Chairman and CEO of the new TLC Beatrice International, he moved quickly to reposition the company, pay down the debt, and vastly increase its worth. By 1992, the company had sales of over $1.8 billion annually, making it the first black-owned business to generate a billion dollars in annual sales.
“Reginald Lewis accomplished more in half a century than most of us could ever deem imaginable. And his brilliant career was matched always by a warm and generous heart.”
FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR
The remarkable life and career of Reginald F. Lewis was cut short by his untimely death after a short illness in January 1993. He was 50 years old.
Lewis is survived by his wife Loida Nicolas-Lewis and his two daughters Leslie Lewis and Christine Lewis Halpern. The family continues to support educational programs and organizations dedicated to equipping underprivileged students with resources to succeed.