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Business mogul Reginald Lewis remembered on his company's 25th anniversary

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 12/6/2012, 4:36 p.m.
Business mogul Reginald Lewis remembered on his company's 25th anniversary

Reginald Lewis' entrepreneurial gifts emerged very early. When he was 10 years old, coming of age in Baltimore, he amassed an impressive newspaper route and then sold it at a profit.

It was the same keen business sense that guided him some 30 years later when he started TLC (The Lewis Company) Group and made a successful leveraged buyout of one the nation's oldest home sewing pattern companies for $22.5 million. He later sold the company at "a 90 to 1" return.

Lewis presided over a veritable empire with 64 companies under his TLC Beatrice International trademark when he passed away after a short illness in 1993. He was only 50.

Memories of his remarkable career pervaded the Harvard Club last Friday, as a room full of friends, associates and the city's cognoscenti gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Lewis' billion dollar enterprise.

After a brief film in which Lewis, at the end, advised viewers to "keep going, no matter what," television commentator and the evening's emcee Roland Martin brought Ted Virtue to the podium, who then introduced the keynote speaker, Michael Milken.

Looking as fit and athletic as Virtue described him, Milken began by recounting his time at the University of California at Berkeley, and how those halcyon days, featuring the free speech advocate Mario Savio, helped shape his political perspective and social outlook.

But for the many African-American business leaders attending, it was Milken's recounting of his connection to Harlem, particularly his relationship with the late Bill Tatum and Percy Sutton, his association with Magic Johnson, Ken Lombard and, of course, Reginald Lewis that was most awe-inspiring. Milken recalled how Tatum once told him, "You're Black, but you don't look Black," Milken said. And it was that beginning and his financial support that forever endeared Milken to Tatum, who, in his editorials, defended Milken when he was accused and convicted of securities fraud in the early 1990s. "He was railroaded," Tatum charged.

It was Drexel Burnham Lambert who was willing to back Tatum with $35 million when he sought to purchase the New York Post, but Rupert Murdoch eventually sold it to Peter Kalikow.

Milken said that when he first met Lewis, he was immediately impressed. "I could tell right away that he was going to be a success," he said. In 1987, Drexel, with urging from Milken, financed Lewis with $985 million in his acquisition of Beatrice.

"This was an amazing deal, and it provided an African-American businessman with a substantial amount of money that was heretofore unheard of," Sutton told the press at that time.

Providing financial support, philanthropy and charity to the Black community were efforts greatly appreciated, but Milken devoted a good portion of his time to talking about saving lives since he is a survivor of prostate cancer, "a disease that disproportionately afflicts Black men," he explained.

His search for medical solutions began in 1972, when his mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through the Milken Family Foundation, which has supported worldwide research on such medical issues as pediatric neurology, nutrition, brain and breast cancers and leukemia, thousands of lives have been cured--a word that resonated through his speech.

Moreover, Milken has crusaded diligently for biomedical research, and the Black entrepreneurs in the room must have given thought to polishing up their business plans and executive summaries when Milken stressed the importance of financially bolstering the nation's smaller companies.

This is a speech that would certainly enhance the Obama administration's campaign to shore up the nation's minority- and women-owned enterprises, and Milken would be a perfect pitch man--armed with his PowerPoint presentation--to get things moving toward improving the country's sagging infrastructure.

And he might want to bring Loida Nicolas Lewis, Reginald's widow, along with him for additional inspiration, as she did so well in closing out a most enjoyable evening. In many ways, she echoed her husband's mantra of "keep on going, no matter what!"