Reginald Lewis climbed into the moneyed class


It's hard to say exactly when the Reginald Lewis emerged who ultimately would become the head of a billion-dollar business empire.

It may have been when he was a boy on the streets of Baltimore, hawking the Afro-American and News American newspapers.

It may have been during his teen-age years, when he took odd jobs as a waiter and promised a friend that he would one day be the richest black man in America.

It may have been when he quarterbacked Dunbar High School's football team and led it to an upset victory over a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute team in his first varsity start as a sophomore. His leadership skills even then were so developed that he would later write, "I never doubted my ability and could look into the eyes of my teammates when the heat was really on and tell who could perform and who couldn't."

Perhaps it was when, as a participant in a summer program at Harvard Law School for black undergraduates from around the country, he used his gifts of persuasion and eloquence to get officials to admit him even though he had submitted no application and hadn't even taken the law school admissions test.

Whenever it was, author Blair S. Walker provides a wealth of anecdotes and interviews from which readers of the recently published biography of Lewis can choose. When he died in January 1993, Lewis had achieved what few Americans of any race had: rising from a working-class neighborhood to become one of the 400 richest people in the country.

Mr. Walker, a former Sun reporter who is now a financial writer for the Money section of USA Today, interviewed more than 100 people -- relatives, friends, school chums, business associates of Lewis -- and used an unpublished manuscript that Lewis planned to use for his autobiography to complete the book. Mr. Walker paints a picture of a man driven to succeed, even to the point of berating his employees and friends.

Reginald Lewis, readers will learn, was no saint. He could be verbally abusive. He was arrogant and egotistical -- convinced that his way was the right way. He had scarcely a doubt about his leadership abilities. Lest anyone view those qualities in a negative light, it should be pointed out that all truly great leaders have the same characteristics. In another era, Reginald Lewis might have been a Toussaint L'Ouverture or an Alexander the Great.

When he bought McCall's -- a sewing pattern company -- in January of 1984 for $22.5 million, the market for pattern companies was shrinking. He ignored the advice of McCall executives who urged him to lower prices to compete with other companies. Instead, Lewis maintained the higher prices, which led to only a small decrease in McCall's share of the pattern market. He sold the company in 1987 for $65 million.

He used the same business savvy when he bought food conglomerate Beatrice International for just under $1 billion in 1989. He led the company to record sales and operating income by the end of the next year.

Mr. Walker's biography of Lewis may well become required reading. Business executives might one day use it as a manual for potential managers. Mr. Walker's clear, fluid writing style makes reading about the intricate business transactions that went into the purchase of McCall's and Beatrice easy for the layman.

If the book has a flaw, it is the errors that should have been caught in editing. Mr. Walker says that when Dunbar played Poly in 1958, Poly was "a white high school from the west side."

That should have been "predominantly white," since Poly got its first black students even before the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in May 1954. And the school at the time was at North Avenue and Calvert Street, which would have put it two blocks inside East Baltimore.

Mr. Walker's most glaring indication that he flunked Baltimorology 101 is his claim that the sudden-death NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants was played in 1959. Every Baltimorean worth his or her salt knows it was 1958. Mr. Walker claims to be a native Baltimorean. Despite the excellence of his book, local readers might be inclined to ask, "What kind?"

XTC Mr. Kane is a reporter for The Sun.

Title: "Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?"

Authors: Reginald F. Lewis and Blair S. Walker

Publisher: John Wiley and Sons

Length, price: 318 pages, $22.95

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