Reginald Lewis remembered

Events honor businessman who overcame bias to succeed

December 09, 2007|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

The late Reginald F. Lewis had buttered up the principals of the lawn furniture company for a year, sending birthday cards to the president and flowers to his wife. The deal was finally signed, the money wired to the bank. Then the seller backed out.

Lewis was angry, his former law and business partner, Charles Clarkson, recalled yesterday. It was the legendary businessman's first big loss. But he recovered quickly, and, in typical Lewis style, declared to Clarkson, "We'll just have to work harder next time."

Clarkson was one of four former executives who shared stories on a panel celebrating the life of Lewis, who grew up poor in Baltimore and eventually became CEO of TLC Beatrice International, the first black-owned business to make the Fortune 500 list.

The discussion, held at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, was part of a weekend of events planned by Lewis' widow, Loida, to honor her husband's memory on what would have been his 65th birthday. Lewis died at age 50 in 1993 from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by brain cancer.

The weekend also included the production of a play featuring his eldest daughter, Leslie Lewis Sword, and a black-tie gala attended by some of America's most prominent African-American businessmen and women, including Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express; Earl Graves, founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, and Robert J. Johnson, founder of BET television and The RLJ Cos.

The panel described Lewis as a tough businessman who loved the rush that came with consummating a big deal. He had high expectations and spent hours in his office, reading financial papers in search of his next business conquest. In particular, he spent hundreds of hours figuring out the best price to bid on the Beatrice acquisition, colleagues recalled.

"He was intense," Clarkson said. "He had a drive that I never had. I just followed along."

Friends said he knew the color of his skin could create potential roadblocks, but he didn't let them stand in his way.

According to one story, a partner of Kohlberg Kravis and Roberts, the private equity firm that once owned Beatrice Foods, snidely asked, "Who the hell are you people?" But Lewis kept his cool, recalled former business partner Lee A. Archer Jr., now a Beatrice board member. "He knew he could convince them," Archer said yesterday.

Daniel Jux, former president of Beatrice's Paris division, recalled that on their first meeting, he was surprised to see that Lewis was African-American. But like others, he said he was drawn by Lewis' presence.

His former spokesman, Rene "Butch" Meily, said Lewis did not shy from frank discussions about race - including how hard it was for an African-American man to get a cab in New York, no matter how successful he was.

But he said Lewis always wanted to be known not as an African-American businessman - just as a businessman.

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