“Keep Going No Matter What”-Reginald F. Lewis
He was a shot caller when BET was just a fledgling network. He was taking risks when Robert Smith was on Wall Street. He ascended to the heights of power without many of us ever knowing that he was there or even who he was. But like the other movers and shakers profiled in this series (Master Capitalist), Reginald F. Lewis was not born into a world of power and privilege. He entered into this world on December 7, 1942 by way of the segregated ghetto of East Baltimore, MD at 1022 E. Dallas Street. His upbringing was an all too familiar story in Black America: fatherless, working class, living in a decaying neighborhood with lofty dreams of power and success. However, the difference was that young Reginald woke up and went to work on making his dreams reality.
His strongest virtue seems to have been the ability to use every set back as a springboard to advance his goals for success. The most powerful indications of his iron will came from the relationship he had with his own mother. Young Reginald was able to bear his mother’s strong willed nature without losing his balls or his autonomy. It would appear that at times, he saw his mother as his representative instead of his guardian. For example, while he was a paperboy in East Baltimore, he went away to camp during the summer. He made an agreement with his mother to work his route while he was away in camp. When he returned, he requested the money from the route. Unsurprisingly, his mother refused. When he reminded her of their deal, his mother responded: “you didn’t have a written contract!” Young Reginald’s response to his mother’s denial for payment was not recorded. So the only thing that we can speculate for sure was that he was not happy. However, we do know that based on this perceived injustice, and after graduating from Virginia State College, he went to Harvard Law School where he was accepted without applying.
After graduating at or near the top of his class, he found himself swept up into the whirlwind of social revolt during the 1970’s Civil Rights Movement in Wilmington, North Carolina. In the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., school integration became a driving issue across the country. In Wilmington, the city closed the all black Williston Industrial High School in favor of sending black students to all white high schools located in the city. Inevitably, clashes between white and black students resulted in arrests and expulsions. The Ku Klux Klan later appeared on the scene and began a campaign of intimidation. But the black community responded and street violence broke out between them and the Klan.
A boycott was planned against the high schools in January 1971. In February, the United Church of Christ sent its’ pastor, the Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., to work with the students on a non-violent boycott against the school system. Rev Chavis and the students regularly met at the Gregory Congregational Church in Wilmington to organize the boycott. On February 6, 1971, Mike’s Grocery, a white-owned business, was firebombed. Firefighters responding to the fire alleged that they were met with sniper fire from the rooftop of Gregory Congregational Church. City officials concocted a conspiracy between Chavis and 9 other people at the church when the police allegedly found ammunition on church grounds. The ammunition was never introduced at trial. Instead, the city chose to go with the testimony of 2 black men. One of which, had been bribed with a minibike, and the other reportedly recanted his testimony on the stand during cross examination.
Chavis and the other activists were charged with arson in connection with the firebombing. Even though they had little to no prior criminal records and with questionable testimony, the activists received a total of 282 years in prison. The activists appealed the convictions. Their lawyer was no other than Reginald F. Lewis. Lewis secured the release of the activists during the appeal by negotiating with the State Attorney General for an interest earning surety bond, in lieu of a cash bond. The amount of which, paid his legal fees. Lewis later won the appeal when the 4th Circuit concluded that the activists’ 5th, 6th, and 14th constitutional amendment rights had been violated.
As the 80’s began, Lewis turned his attention to the world of international business and finance. In 1983, he created a venture capital firm named the TLC Group L.P. To cut his teeth, he purchased the McCall Pattern Company, for $22.5 million. With a vicious boardroom negotiating game, he managed to negotiate the price down to about 14 million; raised $1 million; and borrowed the rest from the First Boston investment banking firm. He proved to have the midas touch when he took the company into the stratosphere by freeing up capital assets, increasing productivity by finding new uses for machinery during downtime, and recruiting managers from rival companies. Through innovative strategies in cost containment, quality control and exporting his products to China, he quadrupled the company’s value in less than a decade. And he was just getting warmed up. Using vertical integration, he added 6 million in real estate assets to the company which he later sold for $90 million. The profits had his investors creaming in their pants. Lewis took home over $72 million from the subsequent 90 million dollar sale of McCall.
But the power move that made him an immortal occurred in 1987 when he bought Beatrice International Foods for $985 million. As TLC Beatrice International, it was the largest black owned and managed business in the U.S. To help finance this incredible venture, he sold off some of the division’s assets at the time of his purchase. In other words, he bought the company using its’ own money! His masterful hustle game and endless grind thrived where the stakes were highest. To this man, risk was just another 4 letter word. So not surprisingly at the end of 1987, TLC Beatrice International reported an annual revenue of $1.8 billion, making it the first black-owned company to have more than $1 billion in annual sales.
His philanthropy seemed beyond limits. He donated 3 million dollars to Harvard Law School, which was the largest donation that Harvard had ever received from a single person at that time. The Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center was named in his honor. It is the only building on campus named after a black man. He donated 1 million to Howard, and over $10 million to various non-profit charitable causes through his foundation.
In the last year of his life, Reginald F. Lewis was negotiating the deal of the century. He was negotiating to purchase Paramount Studios in Hollywood. With that kind of power, he could have quite literally, changed the complexion of Hollywood Studios forever. In a world where the images of African-Americans are usually controlled and disseminated by whites, Lewis stood on the precipice of the greatest power move in American history: the power to define reality. However, fate would rob him of the greatest power grab of the 20th century when in 1992, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Before dying at the age of 50 on January 19, 1993, while at the height of his power and success, Reginald Lewis asked a rhetorical question that became a best selling book: Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun? In it, he clearly advocates that the heights of money and power are not for whites only endeavors. But he cautions the reader that it’s not all cake either. Instead, he compares it to a version of his favorite poem by Langston Hughes: Mother to Son. But through all the tacks, splinters, torn up boards and places with no carpet (read the poem), Reginald F.Lewis has one very simple piece of advice for us: “KEEP GOING NO MATTER WHAT!”
Tony Maceo is a senior blogger at the Negromanosphere and the Chief Blogger at Power and Strategy.com. For more articles go to power and strategy.com and join the mailing list. Like, share and subscribe to the You Tube Channel or the FB page, or become a patron @ powerofstrategies on Patreon for articles not on either the Negromanosphere or Power and Strategy.com. Till next time i’ll holla!!!