Brothers. At the time, it was the largest offshore transaction ever and, with $1.8 billion in gross sales, TLC Beatrice became the first black-owned company to crack the billion-dollar ceiling. (As TLC Beatrice, it held the top position on the be 100s for 11 years, growing to $2.2 billion in sales on the 1998 be industrial/service 100 list).
After completing the transaction, Lewis didn’t have time to stand on ceremony. In fact, he was uncomfortable being labeled “the Jackie Robinson of deal making.” He was a man who wanted to be measured by performance, not race. “To carry around the notion that if I fail, it’s going to mean that no other black person will ever have a similar opportunity, or that if I succeed, it’s going to open a floodgate of opportunity for other black Americans, misses the point,” he said at the time. “If our work is perceived as an indication that we can function in a global, competitive situation, that’s nice. But I’ve always believed that anyway.”
Loida Lewis frames the event this way: “Mr. Lewis was able to prove that you don’t have to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel. He was able to perform a classic LBO like the white guys.”
Whether he wanted to assume the role or not, Lewis became emblematic of the rise of the black financial entrepreneur. TLC represented an institutional model of black business instead of the more traditional, patriarch-controlled family business. After the Beatrice deal, it no longer was viewed as uncommon for an African American entrepreneur to catapult to the upper echelons of the be 100s by merging with another company or acquiring a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. In fact, one of his former managers, Dumas M. Siméus, would appear on the be industrial/ service 100 list by 1997. (Mansfield, Texas-based Siméus Foods International Inc. is ranked No. 11 on the 1999 be industrial/ service 100 list with $150 million in gross sales.)
Lewis was in charge of a complex, mammoth conglomerate of 64 food-processing and distribution companies operating in 31 countries. Dealing at the speed of light, he gobbled up knowledge of the food business, jetted back and forth to Europe to meet with his new offshore partners and whittled down the LBO debt of $513 million by shedding many of the company’s non-European sisters. He sold Beatrice Australia to Cadbury Schweppes Australia, the huge food and beverage concern, for more than $100 million, and Beatrice Foods Canada Ltd. to Onex Corp., a Toronto-based investment firm, for roughly $240 million.
He had failures along the way. He attempted to erase the company’s remaining $139 million in long-term debt by raising an estimated $194 million through an IPO of 35% of TLC Beatrice’s stock. The offering, however, was rebuffed by a volatile market and the perception among analysts and shareholders that Lewis and company insiders would profit disproportionately from the deal. (By 1990, he had managed to pare down corporate debt to less than $80 million.)
By 1992, the brilliant,