Why Reginald F. Lewis is Important to the Future of Black Capitalism

As my crackerjack editorial staff completes our August issue–which marks the 39th anniversary of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine, the brainchild of Publisher Earl G. Graves Sr. who believes that African Americans can achieve a measure of the American dream through entrepreneurship–I reflect on how far black business has come and how far it must go. BE, along with a number of black business institutions, was launched during the era of “black capitalism.” Oddly enough, it was a program initiated by the Republican administration of Richard Milhouse Nixon, to provide financing and support for minority enterprises. Beyond government funding and capital from a score of receptive lending institutions, these enterprises were driven by the entrepreneurial fortitude of individuals like our publisher; Percy Sutton, founder and chairman emeritus of Inner City Broadcasting; Byron Lewis, founder of advertising agency UniWorld Inc.; and Ernesta Procope founder of insurance broker E.G. Bowman.

During that same period, another innovative, tenacious entrepreneur was making his presence known. Little did anyone realize that he would shatter barriers for African American entrepreneurs by creating the first black-owned billion-dollar conglomerate with operations spanning the globe. His example demonstrated to the world that African Americans could perform and win in any arena. His name was Reginald F. Lewis.

In 1970, the Harvard Law School-trained attorney left the corporate law department of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and started Lewis & Clarkson with his partner Charles Clarkson. His firm specialized in helping small- and medium-sized companies gain capital. As general counsel of American Association of MESBICS (Minority Enterprise Small Business Investment Corporations)–later renamed the National Association of Investment Companies (NAIC)–he designed an industry that provided more than $100 million in financing to scores of minority firms. A desire to “do the deals myself” led him to launch his own investment firm, TLC Group, and he set out to conquer Wall Street. The firm awed the financial establishment when it acquired McCall Pattern Co.; Lewis invested $1 million of his own capital and $24 million in borrowed funds. In July 1987, Lewis sold McCall to a British textile firm for $90 million, a 90-to-1 return on TLC’s initial investment.