7 things to know about Reginald F. Lewis, the first African American to build a billion-dollar company

BY Preta Peace Namasaba December 5, 2023 1:31 PM EDT
Reginald F. Lewis. Photo credit:

Widely recognized as the first African-American to build a billion-dollar company, 20th century luminary Reginald F. Lewis left an indelible mark as a lawyer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and CEO.

Early Years and Entrepreneurial Spirit

Reginald F. Lewis was born on December 7, 1942, in Baltimore, Maryland, into a middle-class family that instilled in him the values of hard work and education. His parents, Carolyn Fugett Lewis and William McKinley Lewis, provided a nurturing environment that fueled his early entrepreneurial spirit.

Even as a child, Lewis exhibited a keen business acumen. At the age of 10, he embarked on a venture that would foreshadow his future successes. He established a newspaper delivery route business, starting with ten customers and expanding it to over a hundred within two years. Recognizing the potential for profit, Lewis later sold the route, demonstrating an innate ability to identify opportunities and capitalize on them.

Academic Journey and Athletic Prowess

Reginald F. Lewis’s journey continued through his high school years at Dunbar High School in Baltimore. A three-sport, all-star athlete, he excelled in football, basketball, and track. Lewis’s athletic prowess earned him a football scholarship to Virginia State University.

However, a pivotal moment occurred when an injury forced him to step away from football after just one year. This unexpected turn allowed Lewis to channel his energy into other campus activities and, most importantly, focus on his studies. Undeterred by the shift in his athletic trajectory, Lewis graduated with a degree in political science from Virginia State University in 1965.

Harvard Law School Trailblazer

Lewis’s academic journey reached new heights when he became the first person to be admitted to Harvard Law School without formally applying. His introduction to Harvard came through a summer program sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, aimed at introducing African Americans to the legal profession. Lewis’s exceptional performance during the program caught the attention of the institution, leading to an invitation to attend law school that fall.

In 1968, Reginald F. Lewis graduated from Harvard Law School with a Juris Doctor, marking the culmination of his legal education. He went on to work at the prestigious law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, specializing in corporate law.

Trailblazing on Wall Street

Lewis’s trajectory took an unexpected yet groundbreaking turn when he decided to leave his corporate law position to establish Wallace, Murphy, Thorpe, and Lewis. This move marked the establishment of the first Black American law firm on Wall Street, showcasing Lewis’s determination to break barriers.

In 1983, Lewis founded The Lewis Company (TLC) Group, venturing into private equity. His entrepreneurial spirit was evident in his first major deal—the $23 million takeover of McCall Pattern Company. Using $1 million from personal savings, donations, and investors, Lewis transformed the small dress-pattern manufacturer and sold it to the British John Crowther Group for $63 million. This success marked the beginning of Lewis’s legacy as a transformative figure in the business world.

Largest Offshore Buyout in American History

Reginald F. Lewis’s acumen and boldness reached new heights in 1987 when he orchestrated the acquisition of Beatrice International Foods at $985 million. This deal was the largest-ever offshore leveraged buyout in American history at the time. TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. emerged as a conglomerate with 64 companies in 31 countries, generating over $1 billion in annual sales.

Philanthropy as a Cornerstone

Lewis’s commitment to philanthropy was unwavering. In 1987, he established the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, contributing $30 million in grants to various causes. Notable donations included a $1 million grant to Howard University and a groundbreaking $3 million donation to Harvard Law School in 1992—the largest grant in the school’s history at that time. The Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center at Harvard became the first building named after an African American.

Legacy and Lasting Impact

Reginald F. Lewis’s untimely demise in 1993, due to a cerebral hemorrhage caused by cancer, did not diminish his impact. His legacy lives on through the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore, showcasing the achievements of African Americans in the state. Additionally, his life story is immortalized in the PBS documentary “Honoring A Great American Business Pioneer”, and “Pioneers: Reginald F. Lewis and the Making of a Billion Dollar Empire.”

Reginald F. Lewis’s journey serves as an enduring source of inspiration. His early years shaped a foundation of resilience and determination, laying the groundwork for a remarkable life that transcended boundaries and left an indelible impact on the world.