Loida Lewis, chair of the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, is the first Filipino woman to pass the New York Bar without attending Law school in the United States. Coauthor of How to get a Green Card, Loida assumed leadership of TLC Beatrice International upon the death of her husband, Reginald F. Lewis, who purchased Beatrice for nearly $1 billion, thus becoming the first African American to create a billion dollar business.
You were the first Asian woman to pass the NY State Bar Examination to practice law in the State of New York. Can you tell us more about this? Before 1974, being a US Citizenship was a requirement in order to take the Bar Examinations in the United States. But the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1974 that citizenship was not essential to becoming a lawyer in the United States.
At that time, the New York State Bar Association considered the University of the Philippines College of Law equal to an American Law School. As a graduate of UP, I was eligible to take the New York State Bar examinations. In December 1974, I passed the NY Bar and became the first Asian woman to practice law in both the Philippines and in the United States. I was not a US citizen at that time and did not study in the USA, so I am the first Asian woman to pass the New York bar examinations without having graduated from a law school in the USA.
What is your background and why did you settle in the United States? I was born and raised in the Philippines with entrepreneurial parents. Although my father was orphaned when he was 12, he lived with a wealthy uncle who had several businesses. Instead of finishing law school at the University of the Philippines, he started a lumber business which became Nicfur Furniture Company. My mother ran her pharmacy and pawn shop.
Papa also had three movie houses, bowling alleys and a sand and gravel construction company. When I graduated from St Theresa’s College, he encouraged me to go to law school at the University where he failed to finish law. After I passed the Philippine Bar examinations and was sworn in as a lawyer, he sent me on a trip around the world as his gift. My mother and I stayed in New York to wait for my sister Imelda (Mely) to finish her Masters of Arts degree at Columbia University.
While in New York, I met Reginald F. Lewis on a blind date. We were married 8 months later in Manila. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School and was a practicing lawyer in New York.
Tell us about your late husband, Reginald F. Lewis, who ran Beatrice Foods. My husband Reginald F. Lewis’ s ambition was to acquire a business, make it profitable and then sell it or bring it public. Although he had a successful law firm called Lewis & Clarkson, he tried to buy a business three times but failed.
Always tenacious when he set his mind on a goal, he was finally able to buy McCall Pattern Company on a leveraged buyout of $22.5 million with only $1 million in equity. He sold it after three years with a 90-1 return on his investment. That same year in 1987, he engineered the leveraged buyout of Beatrice International Foods, 64 companies in 31 countries, for almost $1 billion, with Michael Milken of Drexel Burnham Lambert as his investment banker.
Reginald Lewis passed away in 1993, how did your life change? I was completely devastated. My two daughters and I were drastically and fundamentally changed in that the “Master of our Universe” was taken from our lives after a short illness of brain cancer. After one year of mourning, and with TLC Beatrice International Holdings Inc. floundering and close to bankruptcy, I decided to take over the company rather than depend on somebody else to finish my husband’s work.
With help from my select team, we reduced expenses by laying off personnel in the NY corporate office by 50%. We reduced expenses by 75% and sold non-core businesses and paid down the LBO debt. The new business of Leader Price supermarket was growing by leaps and bounds in France. By 1998, we began to liquidate the company and pay off all debt. Piece by piece we sold off all the business in TLC Beatrice with a total return of $1 billion gross.
What did you do to carry on your husband’s legacy? While he was alive, my husband Reginald F. Lewis was writing his life story. I decided it must be finished so I hired Blair Walker to finish writing his book, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?: How Reginald F Lewis Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire. It was a bestseller when it came out in 1995. He left instructions such that when his estate was settled, 10% should go to The Reginald F. Lewis Foundation.
From the time of its founding to the present, the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation has donated nearly $35 million to educational institutions, museums and other charities. For instance, the Harvard Law School International Law Center, Maryland African American Museum of History and Culture, Virginia State University School of Business, The Lewis College (Philippines) all of which had a building named after Reginald Lewis.
In the end, Reginald Lewis’s legacy are his two daughters and his five grandchildren. But most of all, his legacy are the men and women he inspired to be the best version of themselves in the pursuit of their dreams, as Reginald Lewis would say, ” to keep going, no matter what.”