I walked into a small office on Broad Street in lower Manhattan, my heart beating with excitement. I was about to meet one of America's great entrepreneurs: Reginald F. Lewis (December 7, 1942 - January 19, 1993). We met in 1988, and by 1992 he was the richest African American man in America, with a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In one of the greatest business books ever written -- Why Should White Guys Have all the Fun? How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire -- Reginald describes how he built a fortune working with Mike Milken of the investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert to buy companies, take them private raising their value by cutting costs and adjusting strategy, and then going public again. He worked miracles on McCall Pattern Company, a profitable but waning home sewing pattern company, and then in a $985 million deal he took over Beatrice International Foods and multiplied its value greatly with a year. Sadly his death in 1993 from brain cancer ended on of America's great entrepreneurial careers. His wife Loida took over his empire and soon it became worth even more.
In 1988 I walked in excited and nervous to a small office where he rose to meet me. Perfectly dressed and incredibly charismatic he held out his hand: "Hi, I am Reginald Lewis." Too nervous to respond I sat down, overwhelmed by the energy of the meeting of such a great man. I told him about my work with teaching kids to start businesses as a way to overcome poverty. He listened in absolute silence. I took him through the previous seven years of my efforts to get Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) started. He told me a bit about his career, most of which I already knew, and said he would like to get involved with NFTE. He gave me great advice about never giving up and being persistent and turning negatives into positives.
Perhaps most important, he said, "Always try to build a team." I knew I had found someone I truly admired and I began teach my students about Reginald. Several months later he actually visited the Boys and Girls Club on the west side to see Rick Chambers, who had been another one of my big supporters. We were teaching all the kids at the Boys and Girls club how to start small businesses and Reginald came over and visited one of the classrooms. Reginald Lewis was one of the great American Entrepreneurs and one of the nicest and supportive people I have ever met. In the last 15 years his widow Loida has become one of my closest friends and a major supporter of NFTE. His daughters Christina and Leslie are smart, beautiful and leaders in their own right. Christina's book Lonely at the Top is worth reading. She is a voice of her generation.
This November 30th will be the 25th anniversary of the LBO of Beatrice Foods that put Mr Lewis into the big time of American business.
Reginald was a wonderful man, generous with his time and intellect. And telling this story is my way of saluting him.