Jean Fugett's toughest job yet: replacing brother Reginald Lewis at TLC Beatrice

TOUGH ENOUGH

January 31, 1993|By Kim Clark and Ian Johnson | Kim Clark and Ian Johnson,Staff Writers

Jean S. Fugett Jr. was a big, nice kid. Too nice, the football coach at Cardinal Gibbons High School thought.

So when the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound senior asked for a tryout, Coach Robert Patzwall told him not to bother. "I told him he wasn't tough enough to play football, and I wasn't kidding," Mr. Patzwall said.

Mr. Patzwall was wrong. Mr. Fugett never turned into one of those "nasty kids" who enjoy knocking players down on the field, but he was plenty tough, Mr. Patzwall recalled.

The speedy tight end led the high school team to a 7-1-1 record. Four years later, he became the second Amherst College player ever to turn professional. Once a pro, he overcame odds again, becoming an all-star for the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.

Now, as Mr. Fugett, a 42-year-old lawyer, takes over the leadership of America's largest black-owned company, he again faces doubters. His new job, as chairman of the billion-dollar TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc., drafts him out of relative obscurity. His first important business venture, a Baltimore law firm, dissolved after a few years. Now, Mr. Fugett, most recently a sports agent and a radio talk-show host, must confront one of the toughest of all business leagues -- the international food and beverage industry.

It would be a challenge enough to replace Reginald F. Lewis, Mr. Fugett's 50-year-old half brother, who died this month of a brain tumor. Mr. Lewis was a high-flying entrepreneur, a skilled negotiator and a role model for millions of Americans, all the more so for being black.

But Mr. Lewis named Mr. Fugett his successor just as TLC Beatrice confronts economic recession and industrywide consolidation overseas. No longer the huge conglomerate that Mr. Lewis bought in 1987, TLC Beatrice is a lucrative but slimmed-down company whose ice cream, potato chip and other businesses face competition from European giants such as Nestle.

Mr. Fugett, however, may have opportunities denied to Mr. Lewis. Three times over the past four years, TLC Beatrice tried to raise cash publicly but was rebuffed by an investment community leery of Mr. Lewis' reluctance to yield control of his company.

Now, with a less obstinate management, some analysts believe, TLC Beatrice may be able to issue stock or bonds to raise money and expand. Or, Mr. Fugett could sell out to a bigger competitor -- as many investors believe he might.

Trans-Atlantic deal-making is heady stuff for the son of a working-class Baltimore family, someone who grew up in the shadow of a remarkable half brother. But those who know Mr. Fugett say that although he lacks Mr. Lewis' intensity, he is up to the task.

They describe him as a friendly and funny companion, able to put strangers at ease despite his size and achievements. And they say he is well-organ- ized, good with numbers and able to make tough de- cisions.

Mr. Fugett, who declined to be interviewed for this arti- cle, has told others that Mr. Lewis was the most influential person in his life.

It's easy to see the pattern. Both were outstanding athletes and students. While Mr. Lewis was finishing Harvard Law School, Mr. Fugett was entering Amherst College at 16, later to become the youngest member of the class of 1972.

While he was winning football and basketball games at school,his facility with numbers earned him a footnote in Baltimore Orioles history.

In the summer after his sophomore year, he worked in the Orioles' front office, keeping manager Earl Weaver's statistics -- a mind-numbing task of computing the batting average of each Oriole against every American League pitcher.

As the Orioles moved toward the World Series -- and National League competition -- Mr. Fugett left for school, taking the statistics with him because they no longer seemed to matter. But then Mr. Weaver discovered that one Cincinnati Reds pitcher had been acquired from an American League team. So he put in an emergency call to Mr. Fugett's dorm room.

Mr. Fugett dug the papers out of his closet -- where they were buried under his laundry -- did the calculations and called back: Chico Salmon was the man to pinch-hit against that pitcher. Sure enough, Mr. Salmon hit a clutch pinch-single, sparking a five-run rally to lead the Orioles to a 6-5 victory. The Orioles won the series.

Mr. Fugett graduated cum laude from Amherst at age 20 and deviated from his brother's path by passing up law school to try out for the Cowboys.

At training camp in 1972, recalled Roger Staubach, Mr. Fugett wasn't expected to make the team. "He came from a small school. . . . The odds were against him."

"But," Mr. Staubach said, "Jean is very smart, and he can catch the football."

So well, in fact, that he won a starting spot as a rookie, alternating at tight end with Mike Ditka. He soon became a star, catching a career-high 38 passes for three touchdowns and 488 yards in 1975.

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