Loida Nicolas Lewis: Lawyer, business icon, woman
- Marily Ysip Orosa () - October 6, 2003 - 12:00am
Our woman of substance, TLC Beatrice chair and CEO Loida Nicolas Lewis, welcomes me into her cozy Philippine-inspired condo wearing a crisp navy blue linen dress, simple makeup, and a warm smile.

Loida is a celebrity in the USA not only with the Fil-Am community, but also with both black and white business communities. Her meteoric rise to prominence in the elite world of top women in business was largely due to the dramatic turnaround of TLC Beatrice under her stewardship. TLC Beatrice was a global food empire consisting of 64 companies in 31 countries which her late husband Reginald "Reggie" Lewis built into a billion dollar business. TLC Beatrice was in ice cream in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Canary Islands; beverages in France; and potato chips and snacks in Ireland, among others. A successful chain of supermarkets in France was the empire’s crown jewel.

Some say that Loida was thrust into a position of power that she was unprepared for. Few beyond her family and close friends know that the making of Loida Nicolas Lewis started early – with her family upbringing, education and faith in God, and eventually with her marriage to a wonderful but fiercely ambitious black American lawyer who unwittingly trained her to be his most natural successor as chair and CEO of TLC Beatrice.

Over a healthy breakfast, Loida enjoys taking me back to her past. She credits her parents’ influence as integral in her molding. Dad Francisco Nicolas chose the careers of all his children, especially that of his third child and eldest daughter, Loida. "Because I was loquacious and very self-confident, he designated me to be the lawyer in the family. I was to be the lawyer he failed to be," she says. "One of my brothers was to be an engineer, the other a businessman, and Mely, the youngest and the favorite, would just marry a banker!" she laughs at the memory of her strong-willed dad.

Nurtured within a loving family environment and inspired by the dream of becoming a future lawyer, Loida was a consistent honor student, graduating valedictorian in high school from St. Agnes School in Sorsogon, and cum laude from the St. Theresa’s College. "I took it easy in my first year of college but when I got a grade of 78 in Spanish, I was horrified! So I again buried myself in my studies," she confides. Loida took the folly, which cost her a magna cum laude award, good-naturedly.

Loida continued to pursue her dream. She enrolled at the UP College of Law where she again excelled, landing in the top ten of the graduating class and becoming a bona fide member of the prestigious International Honor Society. When she passed the bar, a round-the-world trip with her mom Magdalena as chaperone, was her prize. It was her dad’s way of saying he was proud of her, and grateful for having made his dream come true.

The first leg of their trip was the USA to pick up sister Mely who was then taking up her masters in History of Art at the Columbia University. Mely could not leave her studies just yet so Loida, not wanting to be idle, joined a civil rights organization as part-time secretary. Her boss, Ray Glover, set her up on a blind date with a lawyer-classmate from Harvard Law School, Reggie Lewis. A new chapter in her life would begin.

Loida recounts her love story which reads like a novel complete with the elements of cross-culture romance, and the coming together of the minds and lives of two young and strong-willed individuals, both sharp lawyers. "On our first date, I was intrigued by this man who was different from those I had met. He was masterful," she smiles at the recollection of that fateful day.

"He had never dated an Asian before so he was curious. He asked for a birthday kiss, so I gave him a peck on the cheek. That was all I dared do, but he was fascinated and thought it was sweet," she lets out her famous Loida-giggle at the remembrance. Many dates later, as they got to know each other, they fell in love.

In 1969, Reggie and Loida were married in the Philippines. Hesitant to leave her country and her family, the nationalistic bride nevertheless abided by her husband’s decision to make their home in New York where he wanted to make his mark. Reggie was then a lawyer working for a big law firm in that city.

Loida recalls her first years in America, "At that time, I was not a citizen and therefore could not practice law. But the moment the US Supreme Court in 1974 ruled that one did not have to be an American citizen to take the bar, I decided I would take it." New York State then allowed graduates from two law schools in the Philippines, her alma mater UP and the Ateneo de Manila University, to take the bar without having to go back to law school in the US. She took the bar and passed it with ease the first time around, making her the first Asian woman to pass the New York bar.

Aware of her sterling qualifications as a lawyer and armed with a fluency in Spanish, English and Filipino, Loida applied for the position of general attorney at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). " I was confident I would get the job, but when I didn’t and asked why, I sensed it was because of discrimination. So I sued the INS,"she proudly recalls her baptism of fire in the US. After three years, she won her case with the judge ruling that she had better qualifications than the other lawyers who were accepted, and that the only reason she was not hired was because of her national origin, race and gender. "The unfortunate reality," she laments, "is that in the US, there still is racism, and it is very much alive even after two hundred years of independence."

Loida and Reggie’s marriage, a coming together of two strikingly different styles, was an enigma. He was flamboyant, charismatic and competitive. She was content to be a dutiful wife, a listener and his sounding board. Whenever they would clash, she heeded the wise counsel of her mother-in-law, Carolyn Lewis Fugett, "to keep my mouth shut, run to the bathroom and spit." Carolyn would assure her, "It will pass, Loida. When he is calm, talk to him about it."

When Reggie bought TLC Beatrice in the late ‘80s and turned it into a European company, the Lewises moved to Paris. Loida enjoyed being the quintessential corporate wife, busying herself with the affairs of their home. She decided to write a book that would help would-be-immigrants to the USA. That book was 101 Legal Ways to Enter the United States. Eventually, she sold the rights to a California publishing house which re-titled the book, How to Get a Green Card. When the US Congress however passed a law allowing Filipino veterans to become US citizens, she intuitively worked on a second book, How the Filipino Veteran of World War II Can Become a US Citizen. It became a bestseller. To this day, veterans approach her to say that her book had helped them enter and live in the US without having to hire a lawyer.

Despite enjoying the fruits of a lifestyle of the rich and famous, Loida knew that she "had to hold on to something solid, something eternal." It was then that she joined a prayer group in Paris, which she credits for the renewal of her faith and the bolstering of her strength that prepared her for Reggie’s death from brain cancer five years later in 1993.

For a year after Reggie’s death, Loida immersed herself in the spiritual. She walked with God daily, and found the inner peace, which "surpasses all understanding." She began to understand God’s plan for her life.

Meantime, stockholders of TLC Beatrice started talking to Loida to safeguard her 51 percent stake in the company by agreeing to take over the floundering empire. She declined, reasoning that her husband had chosen his half-brother, Jean Fugett Jr., to be his successor. "I believed in my husband’s wisdom. I trusted his judgment," she responded. Having Jean as head of TLC Beatrice was Reggie’s decision.

Then in 1994, a year after Reggie’s death, Loida knew she was ready. The hesitation to lead was gone. An overwhelming self-confidence welled up in her. She told her brother-in-law Jean, "I would like to take over now." In February that year, she became chair, and in July, CEO of TLC Beatrice.

Was she daunted by her position, I asked? She candidly answered, yes. "It was a company that had sales of $8 billion. But more than that, expenses of the corporate office was so high, and recession in Europe had started because of the Gulf War." But she listened to her executives, and listened to the inner prodding of her heart. "Because Reggie talked to me a lot about Beatrice, I was trained," she avers. "I also knew and deeply shared his vision."

Loida’s first order of business was to sell the corporate jet, the limousines, dead assets and non-performing companies. She moved headquarters from the 48th floor to a corner of the 39th, and cut the staff in half. "It was painful," she said, "but it had to be done." The bleeding not only stopped during Loida’s first year as chair and CEO of debt-laden TLC Beatrice, it even registered a profit of a million dollars. Year after year thereafter, the company continued to operate profitably. A writeupabout her in the widely read US-published Working Woman magazine said "Loida sent Wall Street hearts aflutter."

In early 1997, however, Loida was offered a price she couldn’t refuse so she sold the different businesses under TLC Beatrice. "It was time," she said. Her stockholders were happy, as her decision to sell out was both timely and rewarding.

Today, Loida’s passion is for a new startup company called TLC Beatrice Foods Philippines, which will have two meat processing plants. The first one in Naga was recently inaugurated and will have a capacity of 250 heads of swine per day. The second in Cagayan de Oro will process 500 heads daily. Both plants will have state-of-the-art equipment and will meet the standards of the USA FDA. It is her way of plowing back and reinvesting in the Philippines despite an unsuccessful and traumatic experience involving the intended purchase of a major Philippine bank.

Loida’s other passions are for TLC Beatrice China, which operates over 200 grocery stores in six cities in China; and the NAFFA, the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations where she is national chairperson. It is an organization that seeks to raise the consciousness of Fil-Am groups that through unity, Filipinos in America will be a strong block to contend with.

Now 10 years a widow, Loida wistfully says, "I miss Reggie and I have done everything he wanted me to do." She finished the book Reggie had started to write on his life. The book, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? was a hit and became a tribute to Reggie who had become a national role model to all black Americans. She also completed Reggie’s $3 million donation to his alma mater, Harvard Law School, for the Reginald F. Lewis International Law Center, the first-ever given by an African-American to an Ivy League school.

Home to Loida and youngest daughter Christina is a posh two-storey condominium unit on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. The Lewis’s neighbor is one of the famous Rockefeller brothers who still lives in the penthouse, the building having once belonged to their illustrious family. Eldest daughter Leslie is married and lives in Los Angeles. Both daughters graduated cum laude from Harvard.

What is her advice to women entrepreneurs? "Have clear goals. Do a big plan and own it. Think global but act local. See what is available in your area," she lets out a mouthful. "Start right," she advises, "Do not do short-cuts. Don’t think short-term. Go for nothing less than excellence."

Years in America have not changed her belief in the Filipino. "The Filipino is intelligent, creative and resourceful. We can straddle multiple cultures," she says. "If we get our act together, we can become the next Hong Kong," she shares. "We should learn to work together and stop wanting always to be the bida!"

We take a sip from our nth cup of coffee and finish off the third serving of tropical fruits. Loida proudly points out to me her beautiful collection of paintings from Filipino masters Amorsolo, Blanco and Manansala, each one depicting a harvest scene. I ponder on these artworks and suddenly realize that they all symbolize the abundant harvest of colorful and exciting experiences that have made possible the coming of age of Loida Nicolas Lewis, a remarkable international icon.
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You can e-mail me at myorosa@studio5 designs.com.ph.

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