Sydney Lewis is an unorthodox tycoon, a man who has untamed frizzy white hair, wears garish handpainted ties and resembles comedian Irwin Corey. An avowed liberal in the capital of the Old South, Lewis collects modern art, bankrolls causes like the National Women's Political Caucus and counts among his friends Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb and artist Andy Warhol.
But the moguls of Main Street, the pedigreed and pin-striped Virginia Gentlemen who make up the deeply conservative establishment of this state, admire and accept him. That is because Lewis, the 62-year-old son of a Russian immigrant, has done the thing they respect most: He has built a billion-dollar business from scratch.
His Best Products Co. has become the nation's largest discount catalogue showroom merchandiser, with sales last year 10 times higher than its Rockville-based competitor, W. Bell & Co. For a man who has accumulated great wealth, Lewis has, by design, attracted very little attention because he adamantly refuses to talk to the press.
Founded 25 years ago, Best Products has not merely earned Lewis the reputation as the kingpin of discount catalogue merchandising, it has made him one of Virginia's richest and most influential men, a political moneybroker, philanthropist and art collector of national repute. The Best Products chain, said one Richmond stockbroker, is "an absolute bonanza money machine."
Lewis' multimillion-dollar fortune has made him a familiar figure in the glittering New York world of artists and writers, a man who frequently entertains people like Warhol, journalist Tom Wolfe and novelist William Styron at his homes here, in Virginia Beach and Manhattan.
Privately and through the tax-exempt Best Products Foundation, Lewis and his wife, Frances Aaronson Lewis, 59, have given away an estimated $50 million, said David Arenstein, a close friend who serves on the boards of both the corporation and the foundation.
The Lewis name adorns buildings at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Norfolk's Eastern Virginia Medical School, the institution where the nation's first test-tube baby was conceived, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Lewis also has contributed to the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns of Virginia populist Henry E. Howell.
While the denizens of Main Street may view him as a liberal iconoclast, Lewis' liberalism is tinged with a healthy conservatism when it comes to his own business. Although he was prolabor Howell's biggest financial backer, Lewis has vigorously fought every attempt by his employes to unionize.
Although Best Products showrooms and examples of Lewis' philanthropy abound in Virginia, relatively few in the state know of Sydney Lewis, who once said he feared publicity might expose his family to "all kinds of freaks and nuts and what have you."
"Mr. Lewis and I do not speak to the press, ever," said Frances Lewis recently, in refusing an interview. "As far as I'm concerned, the less said the better."
The elder son of a Russian Jew who made a modest living selling mail-order encyclopedias to southern school teachers, Sydney Lewis was born in Richmond and attended Washington & Lee University, a school steeped in genteel Virginia tradition.
Friends say he was a scholarship student who worked in the school cafeteria, a mediocre basketball player, president of a fraternity to which Jews were restricted and a generally unremarkable student who graduated in 1940 with a business degree.
"He was very genial, very pleasant but not the kind of person you thought was going to be a major executive who would found a major corporation," recalled classmate Edgar Shannon, the former president of the University of Virginia.
Lewis has said that the greatest influences in his life have been Washington & Lee and his wife, whom he met at a fraternity party there. They were married in 1942 and 30 years later gave his alma mater $11 million, most of which was used to build a law school.
"Sydney thinks W & L taught him to be a Southern Gentleman," said one longtime associate who requested anonymity. "He credits it with giving him polish, self-confidence and a sense of what he could accomplish."
Those who know them agree that Frances Lewis, a petite, plain-spoken woman often described as a "dynamo," is equally responsible for those accomplishments. Friends often refer to them as "SydneyandFrances."
Frances Lewis was born in New York and reared in Washington, the daughter of a middle-class family. She graduated from the University of Michigan and studied economics at Harvard.
After graduating from Washington & Lee, Sydney Lewis attended law school there, spent a year at the Harvard business school and earned a law degree at George Washington University. He practiced tax law in Washington until the mid-l950s, when he returned to Richmond because of a family illness and took over his father's encyclopedia business. In 1957 that business became Best Products.
"Sydney really didn't know what he wanted to do," recalled Arenstein. "Best was just sort of an evolution. What he ended up doing was creating a whole new market."
Armed with an idea and a mailing list, Lewis put together the first catalogue, which he sent to several thousand teachers and 100 homes in Richmond. "The 100 catalogues that were sent to Richmonders generated all the business," Lewis once said. "We had no previous retailing experience, and therefore no inhibitions about what we should, or should not, try."
The first Best "showroom" was an 8-by-10-foot space in the encyclopedia warehouse. The Lewises kept two of each appliance--one to display and one to sell. Because they were selling at discount prices and violating the widely flouted federal Fair Trade Laws that allowed manufacturers to set the minimum retail price for their products, the showroom had the aura of a speakeasy. Customers had to knock on a back door to be admitted.
Best sold $70,000 worth of discounted name-brand toasters and irons the first year. Now a public corporation with 10,000 employes, 100 showrooms in 11 states and sales of more than $1 billion and profits of $25 million last year, Best remains very much a family affair, with almost 12 percent of the company's stock controlled by four members of the family.
Sydney Lewis is chairman of the board, chief executive officer and the largest individual stockholder, holding stock valued at $10.7 million. Frances Lewis is executive vice president and controls another $2.7 million of the stock. Their son Andrew Marc Lewis, 35, earns more than $325,000 a year as president and chief operating officer and owns stock valued at almost $2 million. Susan Lewis Butler, 32, of Washington, who owns $2.8 million in Best stock, directs the corporate foundation, which last year dispensed $675,000. Dora Lewis, Sydney Lewis' 80-year-old mother and self-described company "watchdog" scrutinizes Best's invoices for mistakes.
Conspicuous by his absence is Sydney Lewis Jr., 37, of Washington, a former 1960s radical who owns a discount clothing chain, The General Store, which specializes in blue jeans. He refused to be interviewed.
"I never felt any pressure to go into the business or not go into the business," said Andrew Lewis, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard.
A former antiwar activist, Andrew Lewis joined Best in 1969, the year it went public and its fortunes began to skyrocket. He became president in 1976.
By the standards of the wealthy, friends say the Lewises do not live ostentatiously. They vacation in Europe about five times a year and divide their time between an apartment at New York's elegant Carlyle Hotel, an oceanfront house on Virginia Beach and a historic Georgian home here.
Perched next to the circular driveway of their Richmond home, situated in the shadow of an imposing statue of Jefferson Davis, is a giant black clothespin sculpture by Claes Oldenburg. The house is crammed with modern art, including a life-like statue of a nude woman standing inside an upstairs bedroom that has startled unsuspecting guests.
Most weekends the Lewises go to their sprawling clapboard house in Virginia Beach, a place one artist described as "a Calvinist version of the Playboy mansion." It is filled with busts of Lewis, art, antique juke boxes, and hot dog and soft ice-cream machines. Lewis, who does not smoke, drink or eat desserts, spends much of his time reading and sitting on the sundeck watching the ocean.
"Sydney would correspond to my ideal of a good old boy," said novelist Styron, who has been a Lewis house guest. "He's the soul of relaxation."
The Lewises backed the Broadway musical "Raisin," the proceeds from which they gave to Virginia Union University in Richmond, one of the nation's oldest predominantly black colleges. Until recently Andrew Lewis owned the film rights to the counterculture classic novel, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." He also was the chief financial backer of the critically acclaimed Louis Malle film, "My Dinner With Andre," which was filmed here.
Friends say that after Lewis suffered a serious heart attack while in his mid-40s, his doctor advised that he find a hobby. Collecting art then became more passion than avocation.
Lewis developed a barter system with young New York artists. He left the Best catalogue at the gallery of Ivan Karp, a major New York art dealer, so artists could trade works of art for catalogue items. "All of a sudden the artists in lower Manhattan began to have refrigerators and TVs," said Tom Armstrong, director of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. The barter system was abandoned after one artist ordered 13 television sets.
Three years ago Lewis hired a curator to manage his art collection, which rotates between his showrooms, his homes and Best's new multimillion-dollar art deco headquarters in the Richmond suburbs.
During the next few years that collection will be transferred to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, to which the Lewises and Paul Mellon of Upperville, Va., have each pledged $6 million for a new wing. The wing, which will double the size of the museum, will house Mellon's 200 French Impressionist paintings and the Lewises' 3,500-piece collection of contemporary American art, art deco and art nouveau furniture, and Tiffany lamps.
It was the Lewises' connection with the art world that led to the construction of their high-profile, whimsical showrooms that are designed to look as though they are collapsing.
"We went to Sydney and Frances and said listen, you have this fabulous art collection, but your showrooms are just terrible boxes, they're crap," recalled sculptor-turned-architect James Wines. "They said, 'If you really think so, do something.' The only caveat was that it has to look like people are going to get a discount."
That led to a $25,000 transformation of the boxy concrete Richmond showroom to the "peeling building"--the brick facade of which curls and peels away from the exterior wall. After sales there shot up dramatically, six more expensive and unusual buildings followed, among them a Houston showroom that looks as if it has been bombed.
"Best likes things that make a big statement," said Richmond stockbroker Joseph Antrim III.
On the other hand, union officials say Best's performance in labor relations has been less than stellar. For years organizers of the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers have tried unsuccessfully to organize several Best showrooms around the country.
"Best is a tremendously antiunion company," said Harry Carter, executive assistant to the union's director of organizing. Last month the National Labor Relations Board found the company guilty of committing unfair labor practices in connection with an election at Best's showroom in Stockton, Calif. The NLRB has ordered a new election held to determine whether employes there wish to be represented by the union.
"I like to think we don't have a union because we treat people well," said Andrew Lewis. "The union's just going to be another bureaucracy."
If the Lewises' attitude toward unions reflects Virginia's conservatism, their avant-garde tastes in the arts do not. Some suggest privately that the Lewises see themselves as cultural missionaries who have succeeded in buying a place for themselves in Richmond's clubby, WASP cultural establishment that revolves around the Virginia Museum.
"There's a feeling here that the museum rightly belongs to the Old Guard, which is not the Lewises," said one woman active in the arts community here. "A lot of people have mixed feelings about them. They're either loved like buttermilk or hated like buttermilk."
Although the business community now publicly embraces the Lewises, the family's support of Henry Howell in 1973 and 1977 did little to help their popularity here. Days before the 1973 election, former congressman Watkins M. Abbitt referred to Lewis as "the liberal left-wing Jew from Richmond." After that campaign, friends say, the Lewises pulled back from politics and have since given money to both Democrats and Republicans.
"Sydney Lewis particularly enjoys not being part of the Main Street establishment," said stockbroker Buford Scott, a mainstay of Richmond's business establishment. "But Main Street pays plenty of attention to what he's saying. And Main Street has taken notice of the excellent record of his company's sales. The Lewises are greatly admired in the Richmond area."
That was not always the case. "Let me put it this way," said stockbroker Antrim. "If the Lewis family wasn't into philanthropy and if Best was a just mediocre success, then a lot of things the Lewises have done would not be overlooked."