Michigan Ross Alum Made His Mark With a Historic $1 Billion Deal

Share

Cleve Christophe, MBA ’67, never set out to make history, but he was set on achieving success. And this alumnus of the Ross School of Business accomplished both.

During his five-decade career in investment research, international banking, venture capital, and private equity, Cleveland “Cleve” A. Christophe lived by the mantra he adopted while taking his first finance class at Michigan: “I can. I will. I must.” 

It was this tenacious mindset, along with self-confidence and strategic career planning, that Christophe credits for his many successes. Those include his pivotal role in inking the first billion-dollar deal led by African-American investors — the acquisition of Beatrice International Food Co. in 1987 under the umbrella of the TLC Group, a firm formed by his friend and partner, the late Reginald “Reg” F. Lewis.

While Christophe managed many other deals earlier in his career, at Citibank, and subsequently through the TSG Capital Group, which he co-founded in 1992, the Beatrice acquisition stands out in the history of American business.

“The transaction was a very novel one,” he explained. “Each of Beatrice International’s 63 operating companies was outside of the United States. Yet, we financed the deal in the U.S. We figured out how to navigate the enormous operational, social, financial, and tax complexities better than many of the major institutional competitors.” 

“Exacerbating the challenge,” he pointed out, “the world financial markets were in chaos following the market crash in October of ’87. Nonetheless, we were able to close the deal, making it one of the few major deals that closed during that period.”

Despite all of the competitive and market difficulties, Christophe said he had no doubt he and Lewis could pull off the Beatrice deal — even though they were competing against financial giants like Nestle, Pepsi, and Christophe’s former employer, Citibank. 

“Reg came to me in April of ’87 and asked me what I thought about bidding for Beatrice,” Christophe recalled. “After analyzing the divestiture memo, I gave Reg a number of strategic reasons we should go for it and recommended a bid of $985 million. Two days later, we submitted an offer of $985 million. Over the following months, Reg and I had many soul-searching conversations about the prudence of risking so much in believing we could prevail against so many giant competitors. However, I was convinced that we were just as smart as any of the other bidders and, with only the two of us as decision-makers, we could be much more nimble and strategic than the other players. I was right, and we did the deal.”

He left TLC in 1988, ultimately joining and then acquiring Equico Capital Corp. Over the following decade, Christophe and business partner Duane Hill transformed Equico into TSG Capital Group, a minority-run, $1 billion private equity firm. 

Christophe has maintained a strong connection to Michigan since he graduated in 1967 as the only African American among his fellow MBA students. He has spoken to students about his experiences as a racial minority at the university and in his early career. “It is something that definitely surprises faculty and students who are now attending a very diverse university,” he observed. 

He often shares with students and young professionals what he considers to be some of the most important elements in business success: “First, you need to commit to exceeding expectations. I always aspired to be the ‘go to’ resource, and my bosses quickly learned that I would do whatever it takes to deliver a superior result."

“And communicate well,” Christophe added. “Communicating well means your audience really understands your message — which is critical for success. I find it helpful to test from two or three different vantage points to make sure people to whom I am speaking clearly understand the intended message.” 

Christophe served on the Dean’s Advisory Board at Ross for a number of years and has also been active in University of Michigan’s student recruitment and fundraising efforts. 

After retiring from TSG and settling in South Carolina, he has remained active on various corporate and nonprofit boards. 

“Boredom has never been a concept that I understood,” Christophe said. “There are many things I still want to see, do, explore, and read. There’s too much to accomplish, even if I had several additional lifetimes to do it.”