Reginald F. Lewis was a pioneering businessman from Baltimore, MD who rose through the corporate ranks to become America’s first Black billionaire. One of the richest Black men in the world during the 80s, Lewis blazed a trail in his short five decades on earth and opened the doors for other Black businessmen and women to come through afterward. Today, Lewis has a museum named in his honor in Baltimore that explores the accomplishments and historic contributions of other African-Americans in Maryland.
Earlier this year, it was reported that his bestselling autobiography, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?, is being made into a film of the same name, produced by MACRO’s Charles D. King, Jelani Johnson and Poppy Hanks. Lewis’ daughters Christina and Leslie Lewis and his widow, Loida Lewis, have also come on board to serve as executive producers.
Let’s take a look at Lewis’ remarkable journey and examine 5 useful things we could all learn from America’s first Black billionaire, Reginald Lewis, courtesy of the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation:
The importance of developing financial acumen at an early age
“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.”
How to develop an impeccable work ethic
“Reginald attended Dunbar High School where he distinguished himself as an athlete on the playing field and a hard-working student in the classroom. He was the 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.”
Maximize every opportunity
“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.”
Prioritize ownership and never be afraid to take risks
“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’ 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.”
Leave a legacy
“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 M Lewis and Christina S N Lewis Halpern. The family continues to support educational programs and organizations dedicated to equipping underprivileged students with resources to succeed.
In 2013, Christina (a former journalist for The Wall Street Journal) launched All Star Code in honor of her father's legacy — it is the first non-profit that focuses on helping young men of color to navigate the tech industry by providing mentorship, industry exposure, and intensive training in computer science.”
Thank you for your lasting contributions Mr. Lewis! Because of you, we can!
5 useful things we could all learn from America’s first Black billionaire, Reginald Lewis. Photo Courtesy of PBS/@LewisMuseum/Instagram