How Reginald Lewis Changed Business Forever

Reginald F. Lewis traveled a long distance during his life, though perhaps not in miles, a journey that took him from working-class Baltimore to the power centers of Wall Street. In 1987, he cracked the exclusive club of billion-dollar deal makers when his TLC Group bought the international division of Beatrice Foods for $985 million. It was then the largest-ever offshore leveraged buyout. TLC Beatrice emerged among the BE 100s in 1988 as the nation’s largest black-owned business. Its revenues of $1.8 billion roughly equaled those of the next 40 businesses on the list–combined.

Many thought of Lewis as a fascinating overnight success story. He wasn’t. He had prepared for the moment all his life: developing relationships, establishing his credibility, and mastering the art of the deal. He experienced false starts and encountered setbacks along the way. Yet, through it all, he stayed true to a favorite motto: “Keep going, no matter what.”

Lewis always kept going, and eventually made an indelible mark on business history. On this 25th anniversary of the Beatrice deal, Black Enterprise takes a look back at the pivotal moments in Lewis’s career, the play-by-play of the historic acquisition, and how he changed business forever.

Learning the Art of the Deal
Lewis always demonstrated a great work ethic and ambition. His drive led him from Baltimore to Virginia State University and then Harvard Law School. Armed with his degrees, he moved to New York City in 1968, joining the prominent law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. After two years, Lewis was told he wasn’t going to make partner so he struck out on his own, eventually setting up a Wall Street law firm.

His decision to start Lewis & Clarkson coincided with the growth of Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Cos., known as MESBICs, which directed a mix of private and public venture capital to minority entrepreneurs. It proved to be an attractive market for Lewis. “We cut our teeth on MESBIC deals,” says Charles Clarkson, Lewis’s longtime law partner. “They were often small, but we learned about things like financing, debt and equity instruments, and guarantees.”

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