Black History Month 2018
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – Twenty-five years after the demise of her husband, Loida Nicolas Lewis looks back at the life she shared with Reginald Francis Lewis, the first black billionaire who pioneered in leverage buy-outs outside America.
After struggling from her husband’s tragic loss on January 19, 1993 to brain cancer, and seeing their company in red, she told her daughter Leslie that she was taking over the company. Leslie, the older of the two children, in relief, had happily replied, what took you so long, Mom?
Hence, Loida, an immigration lawyer and daughter of entrepreneurial parents Francisco and Magdalena Nicolas, in Sorsogon, decided to stir the billion-dollar business her husband left behind. She made a difficult but decisive turn-around for TLC Beatrice, from imminent bankruptcy to becoming one of the more sustained business empires in the US. “I was daunted, yes, but I also thought I could do it,” she said.
In this interview, she shares how she coped with an initially difficult marriage, because Reginald had a horrible temper which she had often dealt in silence and in tears, or both. “I understood that temper because he was outside fighting monsters in America, which was racist and still is racist. So our home was his oasis. But we had disagreements. And I would just cry. When he saw my tears, or deal with my silence, that was when I won in our arguments,” Loida recalled.
As a mother, she remembers raising two daughters Leslie and Christina, the African and Philippine way, which was emphatically about respecting and finishing education. Loida said she did not mind if her daughters colored their hair green nor was she particular about the girls keeping their rooms tidy. She and Reginald stressed on respect and education.
With the help of her mother-in-love, a title she gives to Reginald’s mother, Mrs. Carolyn Fegutt, Loida had raised the two well. “I continue to call her every day,” she beamed.
Excerpts of our interview, done at the Lewis residence on 5th Avenue:
- What was Reginald Lewis’s work ethic like? What made him a successful businessman?
Reginald Francis Lewis. His success comes from his work ethic. He never allowed anyone to tell him you cannot do this, you cannot do that. As Pres. Obama had said, he was the first African American to successfully do a leverage buy-out overseas, outside America. He had a temperament of persistence and tenacity. And also this basic belief that he can do it.
- So a lot of self-confidence?
Yes he had self-confidence. Not that he never doubted. There was always that self doubt. But you know, when he was confronted with a project or a goal, he knew he could do it.
3. Reginald Lewis has long been gone, but his memory lives and his legacy lives through you. What have you been doing on his behalf?
There’s an African saying that goes, as long as a man’s name is said, he never dies. So in his honor, we have donated to his (law) school Harvard, and it has been after him, the Reginald Lewis International Law Center.
We also donated to his alma mater, Virginia State University, and they named the college of business after him.
In the Philippines, in Sorsogon, where I was born and where I grew up, there is the Lewis College which was erected in his honor.
And the most important, 25 years after he died the WNET Channel 13 made a film of him in Pioneers, Reginald F. Lewis, the making of a billion dollar empire.
4. As his wife, what had been your role in building his empire?
When we got married, we were young. He was 26, a law intern who earned $15,000 in1969. I guess I fell in with him because we were so different from each other. I was hardworking but he was more hardworking. I was ambitious, he was more ambitious. We would clash and argue, we were both type Alpha.
But as his wife, I gave him my support and understanding. He would come home with bad temper. I understand, he’d been fighting monsters out there in American society, which was racist, and still is. So our home was his refuge, an oasis.
When he is angry, I would just keep quiet, but in my mind I did not agree with him. Then he asks, what is that Loida? He calls it aggressive silence. (Laughs).
I was in the background. He did all the work for the business.
5. How did you cope with a marriage that may be tough because of your diverse backgrounds, racially and economically?
The first year of our marriage was tough. It was rocky. But I had an ally, my mother-in-law. I would call her and her tell Mom, this is so difficult! Then she’d say, okay Loida, go to the toilet, spit it out, and flash it.
You know, I call my mother-in-law mother-in-love. Until now, I still call her everyday.
6. Reginald Lewis died quiet suddenly. How did you cope with that and got motivated to take over the reigns of the business?
When my husband died after a short illness, I was totally out of it. As a Christian, I asked God to heal my husband, and He gave him eternal healing. Not that I was angry but I could not really say Lord your will be done. For many months, I could not really accept it yet. That was for about a year.
Then I saw the company going south, it was on the red. It was going to be bankrupt. How could I allow that? The company was his goal, his life. So one day, I got myself together and told my daughter that I am taking over. She answered, what took you so long.
7. How did you turn-around the company?
When I took over the company, I already into zen practice. Fifteen minutes quiet time for God’s guidance, wisdom and discernment.
What people don’t know is that I am lawyer and I come from an entrepreneurial family. I am not an accountant, but I know when a company is earning or not. And I have a good sense of people.
When I took over, I met with my managers four times a year. I visited companies every month. I practically lived in Europe I kept close watch on my managers and the financial statements. If there was a company that was not returning, I closed it or changed manager. There was no second thoughts about it.
My husband had 2 billion in sales. In order to pay the debt of 1 billion, my husband paid the debt of 750 million. So we only had about 300 million in debt. What I did, I liquidated the company. I sold out companies, one by one, piece by piece. We got 1 billion in surplus.
Was I daunted? Yes. But I also knew I could do it.
8. As a civic leader, as a woman, what keeps you going?
God has blessed me with so much. And to someone who has been given much, much is expected. So I could not just stand and enjoy. God calls for a life for service. I do all my work in the glory of God. All the glory is His.
Awesome in 5 Minutes: LOIDA NICOLAS LEWIS