Reginald Lewis (1942-1993), Self-Made Business Success
• First African-American businessman to make Forbes list of wealthiest people
• In 1992 donated largest gift from an individual in Harvard Law School’s history
Reginald F. Lewis was born on December 7, 1942, in Baltimore, Maryland. His parents separated when he was quite young, but he had a strong moral upbringing from his mother and grandparents who instilled in Lewis the philosophy of working hard and saving money.
When he was ten years old, Lewis took on a newspaper route and his grandmother taught him the importance of saving much of what he earned. As a teenager, he worked alongside his grandfather who was headwaiter and maitre d’ at a private country club. His grandfather advised: “Know your job and do it well.”
Lewis’ mother, Carolyn Fugett, reinforced these messages. On a television broadcast, An American Legacy, recorded shortly after his death in 1993, she said she always told him: “Put spikes on your shoes and keep on climbing.”
In 1961, Reginald entered Virginia State University on a football scholarship. When an injury sidelined him and cost him his scholarship, but he got a job to pay for his education. In his senior year, he was invited to Harvard Law School to attend a summer program for a select few black students. At the end of the summer, Lewis was invited to apply to the law school. He graduated in 1968 with a specialty in securities law.
After law school, he was recruited by a top New York law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. Two years later, Lewis left to start his own firm, the first African American law firm on Wall Street.
He took on social causes when his expertise could be helpful. He was of counsel to the New York-based Commission for Racial Justice that represented The Wilmington Ten and was able to force North Carolina to pay interest on the Wilmington Ten bond. (The case concerned violence over school desegregation; the Wilmington Ten were given prison sentences that were eventually overturned when a 1977 CBS 60 Minutes segment indicated that much of the evidence was fabricated.)
After 15 years as a corporate lawyer with his own practice, Lewis creating TLC Group LP. His first major deal was the purchase of the McCall Pattern Company, a home sewing pattern business. He raised money from family and friends and borrowed the rest from institutional investors. In the summer of 1987, he sold the company for $65 million, making a 90 to 1 return on his investment.
That year he put together another major deal, buying the international division of Beatrice Foods, a giant snack food, beverage and grocery store conglomerate. This made Beatrice International the largest business run by an African-American and the first company to reach a billion dollars in sales, with a black man at its head.
In 1992 Reginald Lewis was included in Forbes Magazine’s list of the nation’s wealthiest people; the magazine listed his personal assets at $400 million.
Lewis donated millions of dollars to various institutions including the schools from which he graduated. In 1992 his $3 million donation to Harvard Law School was the largest single gift from an individual in the school’s 175-year history. Harvard named its international law center in his honor, making it the first building at Harvard to be named for an African-American.
In the program about Lewis on An American Legacy, one of his friends noted that Lewis was investigating the purchase of Paramount Studios, a move that would have changed the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer and died 6 months later.
Lewis’ motto that he both followed and taught was “Keep on going no matter what.”