Reginald F. Lewis, the Harvard-educated lawyer who gained fame during the 1980s takeover craze and built the nation’s largest black-owned business, died of a cerebral hemorrhage Tuesday after a short battle with brain cancer.
The quick decline of the chairman and chief executive of TLC Beatrice International Holdings, who turned 50 last month, came as a shock to Lewis’ friends and colleagues. Many learned of the extent of his illness Monday, when the multinational food company revealed that Lewis had been hospitalized in Manhattan and was in a coma.
The company said Lewis last week devised a transition plan naming his 41-year-old brother, Vice Chairman Jean S. Fugett Jr., to head a new three-person office of the chairman to run the New York-based company. At the request of Lewis’ family, the company released no other details about his illness, including the name of the hospital where he died.
Lewis, who maintained homes in New York and Paris, was a lawyer who made his fortune with two big leveraged buyouts: McCall Pattern Co. in 1984 and Beatrice International in 1987. Along the way, he developed a reputation as a tough negotiator and a demanding boss.
TLC Beatrice, which is 55% owned by the Lewis family, repeatedly heads the list of top black-owned U.S. businesses that is published each year by Black Enterprise magazine. Company revenue reached $1.5 billion in 1991, the most recent year for which the figure is available.
Lewis in 1991 was the first African-American businessman to be included in Forbes magazine’s list of the nation’s 400 wealthiest people. Forbes estimated Lewis’ personal fortune to be at least $400 million and quoted him as saying, “One man’s greed is another man’s incentive.”
“Lewis emerged into one of the nation’s most prominent black businessmen,” said Earl G. Graves, editor and publisher of Black Enterprise. “His achievements in the business world and his contributions to the African-American community were many, and he will be sorely missed.”
Robert Johnson, president of the Black Entertainment Television cable network, called Lewis a role model.
“He will be remembered as a guy who challenged the system and won,” Johnson said. “People respect him for doing that. I think there were people who were very proud to know there was a black man who had a company that was national in scope.”
Former junk bond wizard Michael Milken, who helped Lewis engineer the 1987 Beatrice deal, said: “Through his lifelong pursuit of knowledge and his ability to recognize opportunities, for me, Reg Lewis embodies the American dream.”
Lewis began his entrepreneurial career at the age of 8 with a newspaper route around his family’s middle-class Baltimore neighborhood, according to Lorraine Spurge, a Beverly Hills-based consultant and former Milken associate who profiled Lewis in a book titled “Portraits of the American Dream.”
Lewis attended Virginia State on a football scholarship after turning down an offer to play baseball for the Washington Senators. But a sophomore-year injury shifted his focus to studying, Spurge said.
Lewis went on to graduate from Harvard Law School, and joined the New York firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, specializing in corporate and securities law. Five years later, he founded his own firm, Lewis & Clarkson.
In 1983, Lewis turned to the world of investments, founding TLC Group. A year later, he closed his first big deal by acquiring McCall Pattern Co. through a leveraged buyout in which nearly all of the $22.5-million purchase price was borrowed. Lewis sold the firm in 1987 at a profit of more than $50 million.
But that was small change compared to the next deal, a $985-million leveraged buyout of Beatrice International. Lewis teamed with Milken and Drexel Burnham Lambert in that transaction.
Lewis, who was actively involved in the management of TLC Beatrice, streamlined operations and used asset sales to cut debt.
Sales grew from $1.02 billion in 1988 to $1.54 billion in 1991, and debt fell from $513 million in 1988 to $151 million in 1991. The company became profitable in 1989 and it earned more than $50 million in net income in 1991. (The company has blamed a 20% drop in earnings for the first six months of 1992 on the recession in Europe.)
Lewis was heavily involved in civic and charitable activities. TLC Beatrice officials said his Reginald F. Lewis Foundation donated about $10 million to a long list of charitable, educational, medical, artistic and civil rights institutions in the United States and abroad during the last four years alone. Lewis recently donated $3 million to Harvard Law School--the school’s largest gift ever--to fund the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center.
At the time of his death, Lewis served on several boards, including WNET (Channel 13) in New York and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He was also a member of the Business Roundtable and of the economic advisory committee of New York Mayor David Dinkins.
Lewis is survived by his wife, Loida Nicolas Lewis, and two daughters, Leslie and Christina. He is also survived by his mother, Carolyn C. Fugett; stepfather, Jean S. Fugett Sr.; two sisters, and three brothers.