The Amazing Ascent Of Reginald Lewis

April 14, 1991|By MARY COREY | MARY COREY,Mary Corey is a features writer for The Sun.

Notes from a staff meeting:

Reginald F. Lewis dashes into the boardroom, throwing off his jacket and grabbing a puff of his Cuban cigar. He allows a moment for pleasantries -- a simple apology for keeping his assistants waiting. Six men have been sitting around this table anxiously, their calculators, yellow legal pads and expensive fountain pens poised to tally the figures and record the thoughts of their leader.

Mr. Lewis doesn't disappoint. The chairman and chief executive officer of TLC Beatrice International Holdings, a multinational food company, dives in.

He skips continents the way other people switch TV channels. A check-in with operations in Spain, Puerto Rico and Paris . . . The dairy division in Southern Europe could be adversely affected. . . . He throws out figures most could only envision if they won the lottery. . . A $70 million operating budget . . . Another million out of Holland? Excellent. . . . And he issues orders in a quiet but firm voice. . . . We're committed to a significant level of investment, but we've GOT to see a return.

Notes are scribbled, calculators whir, heads nod as these men try to keep pace with him. In less time than it takes to finish off a cigar, the meeting adjourns. As the others file out, Mr. Lewis lingers a moment at the head of the table, his hands folded in front of him, gold cuff links gleaming in the sunlight, wearing -- for the first time in nearly 30 minutes -- a smile on his face.

If you were to paint this moment as, say, one of his favorite artists, Francis Picabia, has painted the picture behind him, you'd begin with Reginald Lewis' brow; a brow so furrowed it creates a crease clear across the bridge of his nose and gives the impression he's either constantly frowning or concentrating. Then you'd fill in the eyes -- dark, deep-set, penetrating eyes. Finally you'd finish it off by putting a favorite Monte Cristo cigar in his hand (although he refuses to be photographed with one now) and showing a glimpse of the white silk pocket scarf peeking out from his navy jacket.

And when all is said and done, you'd title the work "King of the Hill." If the name fits -- and in this case it does -- then multimillionaire Reg Lewis should wear it.

As the head of the largest black-owned firm in the country, he's regarded by many as America's most influential black businessman. He moves in heady circles, counting New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Jesse Jackson and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder among his close friends. Since 1988, he's donated $4 million to charity through a namesake philanthropic foundation, and what he's kept for himself reportedly exceeds $100 million.

"He's top of the line, the best," says Mayor Dinkins. "He demonstrates what can be done with intelligence and ingenuity and perseverance. . . . He has the capacity to have faith in his own judgment and convictions. That's tremendously important. For him, the sky's the limit."

Not bad for a working-class kid from West Baltimore whose first job was delivering the Afro-American for $15 a week.

Not bad, you could say, is a vast understatement.

"He's probably the most important African-American success story in America," says longtime friend Mathias J. DeVito, chairman, president and chief executive officer of the Rouse Co. "Here's a guy from the U.S., from a modest environment, and now he's on the world stage. That's very impressive."

But despite his accomplishments, Mr. Lewis has been reticent to discuss his life publicly -- either professional or personal -- opting instead to let his actions speak for him.

The baby pictures behind his desk are about as close as you get to knowing his family. For security reasons, he hesitates to talk about his wife of 20 years, Loida, whom he met in New York through a law school friend; or his daughters Christina, 11, and Leslie, 18. (Leslie recently was named to the board of his charitable foundation.)

"It's important to have the ability to focus on one's work with as few distractions as possible," says the 48-year-old Mr. Lewis. "I focus on setting challenging goals and achieving them. The emphasis is really on success . . . so I prefer to have the achievement set the example."

Achievements like the 1984 leveraged buyout of McCall Pattern Co. Within three years, what he'd bought for $1 million in equity he sold for more than $60 million. That however, proved to be small change, merely a prelude to his 1987 coup -- a $985 million leveraged buyout of the Beatrice Co.'s international divisions, the largest of its kind at the time.

"He knows how to play in the big leagues," says Leonard `D Teitelbaum, first vice president of Merrill Lynch in New York. "He stands absolutely between the prudent risk-taker and the risk-avoider."

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