Thirty years after Reginald F. Lewis made history with a $1 billion leverage buyout of Beatrice International Foods, his widow is leading the commemoration and celebration of her husband’s never duplicated feat.
“My hope is that one or more of those who read about Reginald Lewis, in an article and in his book titled, ‘Why should white guys have all the fun?” Loida Lewis said in an interview with the Baltimore Times.
Lewis called her husband a “rock star,” and says he was the Jackie Robinson of business.
“Until he came around, no person of color would think about buying a business on borrowed money financed by equity firms,” she said. “Not too many African-Americans thought of going into finance but growing up black in America, my husband wanted to disprove the lies that a person of color couldn’t go to the highest level of economic achievement.”
In the 1980s, Reginald F. Lewis— whose name appears on the museum in Baltimore and on several colleges and schools and other monuments— was named on Forbes’ “Richest Americans” list.
A self-made man from Baltimore and the first person to be admitted to Harvard Law School without ever applying, Lewis owned a law firm on Wall Street to go along with a multi-billion dollar business empire.
Having already purchased the McCall Pattern Company for $22.5 million, Lewis made history buying Beatrice International Foods for $985 million.
At the time, it was the largest offshore leverage buyout ever.
As chairman and CEO, he moved quickly to reposition the company, pay down the debt, and vastly increase the company’s worth, according to his biography. By 1992, the company had sales of over $1.6 billion annually, and Lewis was sharing his time between his company’s offices in New York and Paris.
“For me, this was earth shaking in the sense that he was the first African-American, really the first American to do an overseas deal,” Loida Lewis said. “With racism apart of [America’s] DNA, he was able to empower his community and Latinos.”
While his legend is cemented in Baltimore through the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, Lewis’ legacy reaches further.
An exhibit in the Smithsonian National African American Museum of History and Culture features Lewis and there’s also the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center at Harvard Law School; the Reginald F. Lewis High School of Business and Law; and the Lewis College of Sorsogon City in the Philippines.
Now, Loida Lewis and others are celebrating the anniversary of the Beatrice deal, which happened on November 30, 1987.
“We want the new generation to be inspired by his work. He demonstrated his belief in and commitment to human rights, civil rights and economic development,” Loida Lewis said.
Lewis died in 1993 at the age of 50.
He doted on his daughters, Christina and Leslie, and loved champagne, which his wife says at one point the couple couldn’t afford. Instead, she would buy him a case of ginger ale to go with his meals.
Loida Lewis also said her husband was a focused and intense man who loved jazz, opera and the music of Louis Armstrong, whose “What a Wonderful World,” was played as Lewis’ casket was led out of the church at his funeral.
“He loved my daughter Christina’s jokes and he loved Lena Horne; Sade; Nat King Cole; Natalie Cole; Aretha Franklin; and others,” Lewis said.
For the family, seeing so much done to remember Lewis remains an honor.
“He lived like a rocket ship,” his widow said. “He accomplished so much but he was very much a family man.
“So, I’m celebrating his $1 billion deal 30 years later which is sort of an indictment that no other person of color, Asian, black, Latino has ever brought a billion dollar company. Hopefully, that will change.”