After convincing his parents to invest their retirement funds, this man has turned that into a multi-million-dollar business

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 12, 2024 11:37 AM EDT

At 33, Sherman Lewis III discovered the possibility of owning Shell gas stations while creating a portfolio of real estate properties in the Washington, D.C. metro area. The venture cost a total of $1 million, with the majority of it being for inventory. He did not have a business background and was unable to get funding from the bank. Lewis approached his parents for help. He convinced them to invest $310,000 of their retirement funds into his prospective business.

The gamble has since paid off. That sole investment has since grown into The Lewis Group, a Shell gas wholesaler and owner of quick-service restaurants. The company generates over $100 million in revenue and employs almost 1,000 people, it is the largest black-owned employer in Houston.

Born on a farm in Oklahoma, Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Langston University. He spent two years in the military and then joined the USDA Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service.) Lewis went on to obtain a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and returned to Langston University as Director of Outreach Programs. After leaving academia, Lewis decided to venture into the private sector.

“Let me tell you, I had plenty of sleepless nights. For the first three years, it was basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week for me. I was just learning every part of the business,” Lewis said about the sacrifices he made to build his multi-million dollar business.

In addition to his parents’ contribution, Lewis put up $690,000 by using his savings and tapping into his home equity. He was able to lease 13 Shell sites in 2003 and worked extremely hard to grow the franchises. Consequently, the Lewis Group was routinely in the top 10% of Shell sites in terms of performance due to their operational prowess. Lewis got the opportunity to lease another nine outlets, bringing the total to 24. He bought 10 sites in 2007 when Shell decided to sell its real estate and get out of the business.

The following year, Lewis came across his next lucrative business opportunity when he was leasing space in one of his gas stations to the fast food restaurant Jack in the Box. This was a few years before the franchise had started to sell some of its company-owned stores. They visited Lewis Group’s gas stations to inspect the sites, got to know each other, and built a relationship during the yearlong process. Lewis formed a partnership with one of the company’s employees and retained a 75% ownership stake.

Initially, Lewis acquired 11 Jack in the Box outlets. He purchased more stores over the years, bringing his total to 39. By 2017, The Lewis Group was generating annual revenues of $116 million. Lewis grew his enterprise by taking risks in the franchising arena.

His business prowess has translated into significant influence in the corporate world. Lewis has served on the boards of Farmers Insurance, Houston Area National Urban League, Greater Houston Partnership and Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ Emerging Leaders Council. In 2014, he was awarded the Heart of the Lion Award and received the 1890 Career Exemplar Award from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities in 2015.

Langston University’s School of Agriculture and Applied Sciences was renamed after Lewis following his transformational gift to the school, the largest individual donation in university history.