Teen-agers crowded and pressed against him, asked for his autograph and listened intently to his every word. But the man receiving all of this youthful attention was not a rock star, a movie actor or a football quarterback.
He was buttoned-down Wall Street entrepreneur Reginald F. Lewis, 44, who was the center of attraction Thursday at a seminar on entrepreneurship for an ethnically diverse group of 250 Los Angeles area young people.
The Los Angeles Business Conference for Youth, co-sponsored by the investment banking firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert and by the city, also featured Mayor Tom Bradley and well-known investment banker and so-called junk bond king Michael Milken. In conjunction with the meeting, and while the young people were questioning Lewis and Milken, 75 minority business owners were briefed by Drexel employees on how to approach and deal with investment bankers.
"We're not here to try to tell the kids how to be investment bankers," John Kissick, director of Drexel's Western corporate finance department, said. Instead, Kissick said, the program was aimed at showing students that "if you follow some certain steps, you can be a success."
The program also seemed to be an effort to repair Wall Street's image, tainted by insider trading scandals and widespread public perception that investment bankers are obsessed with accumulating power and money. "I think it can help," said Kissick, whose firm is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with recent insider trading scandals.
The state of business ethics was, in fact, the first question posed to Lewis and Milken during a hourlong question-and-answer session with the students, who ranged from junior high school to college level.
"It's always important to have high standards of conduct," said Lewis, who is black. He owns the company that purchased Chicago-based Beatrice International--formerly a subsidiary of the food-processing Beatrice Cos.--in August for $986 million in a leveraged buyout organized by Drexel. "Individuals must always maintain their professional integrity," he said.
But, Lewis added, "There will always be people that want to get an edge and cross over the line and break the rules."
Milken answered the question with what seemed to be a certain amount of resentment. "There is a perception in the press that people in business don't care about a lot of things," he said. "Most people in business are very concerned about society and about what's going on."
Thomas King, a 17-year-old student at Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School in Reseda who posed the question related to business ethics, said: "There seems to be a negative sense that business people are crooks. That bothers me as a person who wants to get into business."
In response to another question, Lewis denounced the notion that minority businesses are seeking handouts in the form of government contracts set aside for minority business people. "That's a lie," he said. "It's slanderous to Hispanics, blacks and Asians to talk about minority people as seeking handouts."
Government contracts set aside for minorities are designed to encourage them to set up more businesses and to make up for the years of discrimination that hurt the development of their businesses, Lewis said. "Those firms must be competitive and they must provide a superb product."
Bradley, who is Los Angeles' first black mayor, later told the students that "nothing is going to be given to you. You're going to have fight for it, scrap for it."
Both Lewis and Milken said support from their families was the main reason for their success. "It was my family," said Lewis, "who certainly made me feel special and capable of taking the risk."
Milken added that "you have to have a good self-image." Also important, said Milken, was "being humble in what you're doing and what you are going to do."