Home » Meet the late Reginald Lewis, the first Black businessman to build a billion-dollar company

Meet the late Reginald Lewis, the first Black businessman to build a billion-dollar company

by Omokolade Ajayi
Reginald Lewis

After earlier reports four days ago, which brought to light Robert Louis Johnson (Robert Johnson) as the first Black billionaire, some social media comments surfaced, pointing to Reginald Lewis (who passed away on Jan. 19, 1993) as the first Black billionaire.

However, these claims are not accurate, as Forbes listed Lewis as among the 400 richest Americans, with a net worth of $400 million in 1993 — the year that he passed away.

Although he fell short of the billion-dollar valuation, Lewis continues to inspire Black entrepreneurs and billionaires as the first Black businessman to build a billion-dollar company, TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc (TLC Beatrice).

While Lewis spearheaded the acquisition of Beatrice International Foods and grew it into a billion-dollar company, it is important to recognize that he was not the sole owner of the company and the valuation of the company does not necessarily translate to a billion-dollar net worth for him due to the presence of other shareholders in TLC Beatrice.

Leading a bid for acquisition does not equate to being the sole or majority investor, as the acquisition process entails negotiations with various stakeholders, such as company management, shareholders, and potential investors.

The terms of the acquisition are typically contingent on numerous factors, such as the target company’s valuation, deal structure, and funding requirements.

Elon Musk’s $44-billion acquisition of Twitter on Oct. 27, 2022 serves as a more recent illustration of this. However, despite being the lead bidder, Musk is not the majority owner of the social media platform as he received financial backing from foreign investors, including Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud and the Qatar Investment Authority, to secure the requisite funding for the transaction.

Similarly, in October 1987, Lewis purchased Beatrice International Foods from Beatrice Companies for a staggering $985 million with the backing of investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert and takeover expert Michael Milken, making him a shareholder in Beatrice International Foods upon acquisition. The purchase was the largest leveraged buyout of overseas assets by an American company at the time. Lewis then rebranded the company to TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. and began his journey of rebuilding the brand.

The much harder work of rebuilding TLC Beatrice began with the sale of the less profitable subsidiaries of the group, combined with strategies and measures implemented to increase revenue, ultimately leading to a $400 million net worth for Lewis in 1993, the same year that he passed away. His remarkable efforts culminated in TLC Beatrice becoming a billion-dollar company, making him the first Black businessman to achieve such a feat.

Despite this enviable feat, Lewis’ success story was not without obstacles. In 1989, his initial public offering of TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. failed, and he faced two lawsuits stemming from his sale of McCall’s.

Undeterred, he pushed onward, and by 1992, the company had achieved annual sales of more than $1.8 billion, making it the first Black-owned business to generate a billion dollars in annual sales.

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