REGINALD LEWIS’ HARD CHARGE
Cash in: Reginald Lewis, the Baltimore-born businessman turned sweat and sense into millions
By Jed Graham
Reginald Lewis had been a star quarterback at Baltimore’s Dunbar High School, but was relegated to
third string at Virginia State College.
His shoulder ached, his scholarship was in jeopardy and the usually cocksure Lewis was
demoralized. But Lewis refused to give in to failure, and set his sights even higher.
“What the heck would you like to do if not play football?” his roommate asked.
“You know, I’d like to pursue my law degree, but I’d really like to have my own business,” Lewis
“You gotta be crazy - nobody does that,” his roommate said, as recounted in the biography “Why
Should White Guys Have All the Fun? How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion Dollar Business Empire.”
A quarter-century later, Lewis became an overnight sensation when he won a bidding war for food
conglomerate Beatrice International in a $985 million deal that in 1987 was the largest offshore leverage
buyout. With nearly $2 billion in annual sales, TLC Beatrice International Holdings immediately
became the nation’s top black-owned business, with nearly 10 times the revenue of the second-ranked
But Lewis regretted the news accounts that made him appear to be an “overnight success.”
“It took 25 years of hard work to get where I am,” he said.
Nor did he like being compared to other black business owners. “Too often in our society, we try to
pigeonhole people,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “Unconsciously, we typecast them. So when we say,
‘He’s a black businessman,’ to many people, but not all, that’s a label that’s meant to confine, to
Lewis, born in Baltimore in 1942, rose to the top because he refused to believe in limits.
“He was the most determined man I ever met,” Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told
Newsday upon Lewis’ 1993 death at age 50 after a bout with brain cancer. “And he never once said that
he wanted to be the most successful African-American. For him, that wasn’t the arena of competition.
The arena of competition was the world.”
When Lewis saw an opportunity, he was relentless. In his senior year at Virginia State, Lewis
learned that Harvard Law School was beginning a summer program to introduce students at black
colleges to the law. Each school was invited to send up to five applications, and Harvard would select
one student to attend.
Lewis quickly developed a plan to maximize his chances of success. Because Lewis had a rotten
freshman year academically, he decided to supplement his application with letters of recommendation.
“I spoke to a couple of professors,” Lewis wrote in an unfinished memoir that is weaved into “Why
Should White Guys Have All the Fun?”
“I told them that this was my shot at the big time,” he wrote. “I said didn’t want a letter that just said
‘he’s a nice guy,’ but a real substantive letter….I gave them a biography, grades, everything.”
One of Lewis’ professors consented and walked the letter over to the president’s office. The college
was just about to send off applications for four students - all of whom had higher grade-point averages
than Lewis. But since the professor had gone to so much trouble, Virginia State added Lewis’
Harvard liked his straight A’s in economics and the recommendation and selected Lewis to attend.
“The Harvard summer program opened a door on a new world for Lewis,” wrote biographer Blair
Walker. “Characteristically, he kicked the door open instead of waiting to be ushered in.”
Reprinted from Investors Business Daily The night he got the letter, Lewis told his roommate: “Come September I will be in the incoming
class at Harvard Law.”
Lewis read everything he could find about the law before the summer program and was rated at the
top of the class in a mock trial. Once he had proved himself, he suggested to one of his Harvard
professors that “an association between Reginald Lewis and the law school would be mutually
beneficial,” Walker wrote.
The admissions department agreed. It invited him to attend even before he filled out an application.
Lewis would repay the school in 1992 with $3 million gift, and the schools international law center
was named in his honor.
Lewis wasn’t satisfied with success. He kept on reaching for new challenges.
After graduating from law school in 1968, Lewis landed a job at Paul Weiss, a prestigious New York
law firm where he specialized in corporate law. After two years, Lewis was ready to leave his
comfortable position and strike out on his own. With a few other attorneys, he started a practice geared
toward helping the black business community.
Lewis would build up a successful practice structuring investments in minority owned businesses by
major corporate foundations.
Again, success wasn’t enough. He wanted to be on the other side of the table - executing deals
instead of representing clients.
In trying to break into the ranks of corporate titans, Lewis met with one failure after another. In
1975, when Lewis was just 31, his attempt to buy Parks Sausage for $3 million failed when Lehman
Bros. selected another buyer who was offering a comparable price.
Two years later, an 18- month pursuit of Almet, a maker of aluminum beach chairs and umbrellas,
fell apart when the company president walked away from the $7 million deal at the last minute.
A 1983 attempt to buy a group of financially troubled radio stations for $ 3 million also fell apart.
But Lewis wasn’t one to give up easily. He studied others’ successes and analyzed where he went
In the process, he became a “prospectus junkie,” continually advancing his knowledge by reading
the details of all public deals.
Now Lewis went after McCall Pattern, a maker of home sewing patterns whose parent company
had been acquired in a hostile takeover.
When a rival bidder emerged, Lewis told team members he would double their fees if the deal
got done soon. In early 1984, after a decade of trying, Lewis finally pulled off a major transaction.
Lewis ran the business the same way he tried to get into Harvard. He set an ambitious plan and
judged people based on their performance. In three years’ under Lewis, McCall’s earnings doubled.
Having bought it for $22.5 million, Lewis sold it in 1987 for $65 million. Including proceeds
from a recapitalization, dividends and a real estate deal, the New York Times reported that Lewis drew a
90-to-1 return on his $1million investment.
Keep At It
Before the McCall sale closed, Lewis was invited to lunch by a Bear Stearns banker who told
him about the coming auction for Beatrice International. Exhausted and now rich, Lewis was ready to
take a rest. But by 6 a.m. the next day, Lewis had analyzed the opportunity and was ready to bid-and
Within weeks, Lewis’ TLC Group had submitted an offer for $950 million. But Lewis needed
big guns to back him up.
He turned to Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert. After a meeting in Los Angeles,
Milken was sold. Lewis had done his homework and knew the deal inside and out.
“My feeling was that (Lewis) knew Beatrice better than I knew Beatrice,” Milken said, “In fact,
he knew it better than the people who ran it.”