The Education of Shawn Lewis

Lesson #1: Hard work and an aptitude for computers can make a young man rich. Lesson #2: Some rich young men take to South Beach like fish to water. Lesson #3: South Beach is the shark. A young man with money is the bait.

Shawn Lewis lives alone in a $3.3 million, six-bedroom villa on Miami Beach's North Bay Road. The home features columns out front, marble floors and a limestone staircase inside, and a swimming pool fed by a man-made waterfall in the back yard. The style is more suited to a deposed Latin dictator than a former computer programmer from the Jersey Shore. The manor represents how Lewis was perceived when he first arrived here: big, flashy, and ultimately unconvincing.

A year after moving in, Lewis is selling the place. "It's not me; it's a postcard," acknowledges the 32-year-old tech multimillionaire. As if to emphasize the point, he tromps through his immaculate living room, past the oil painting of two ancient Greek wrestlers, into the modest kitchen. "It's probably more comfortable in here," he notes. Lewis is wearing biker boots, jeans, and a short-sleeve black shirt that reveals a pair of florid tattoos on his right arm. His demeanor and dress may suggest working-class swagger, but his lifestyle remains jet set. He's in a rush today, for instance, because he's getting ready to fly to Las Vegas in his private jet to see his pal Lennox Lewis box the next day. Then he'll zoom off to Japan on business. "I'm probably going to go live in a condo. Someplace I can relax in."

When Lewis arrived on the Beach two years ago, he partied in the swankiest VIP rooms with the prettiest people. Paparazzi snapped his mug for the society pages. He met a beautiful swimsuit model and fell in love. Then, as if to one-up the other rich guys who host parties in VIP rooms, Lewis bought half a dozen nightclubs.

Before moving here from Boston, he hardly ever went clubbing let alone own one. But that didn't prevent him from trash-talking the competition, throwing money around like confetti -- in essence taking on South Beach. "I came down here like a bull in a china shop, and I kind of screwed things up," he concedes. Indeed his temperamental outbursts and penchant for self-promotion resulted in everything from a felony arrest for assaulting a police officer to the bizarre meltdown of his wedding on national television.

"To understand what the hell he is doing, you have to be a $300-million guy," says one player in the nightclub universe. "You and I can't even think like that. If we had that kind of money, what would we waste it on? Some guys buy Ferraris. He buys nightclubs. Does he know what he's doing? No."

But many Beach observers disagree. "He's nobody's fool," counters veteran promoter Tommy "Pooch" Pucci. "I think he's gonna help the Beach nightlife. By buying up a lot of these places, he's reserving their liquor licenses, and that's worth something. There aren't any more to be had. Clubs are like condos now: They just go up and up in value. It's just another piece of real estate."

What Beach cognoscenti agree on is that Lewis, for better or worse, will determine the future of the area's celebrated nightclub scene. Last month he opened Krave, the first of five clubs and three restaurants he plans to unveil in the next two months. This unprecedented run will culminate with the New Year's Eve debut of Bar Code, in the old Liquid space at Washington Avenue and Española Way.

If all goes well, Lewis will become the conquering hero of this chronically narcissistic town, raking in accolades and profits. If, on the other hand, he opens a string of garish venues that send the glamorous people running, he'll just be the latest brash millionaire to stumble at the gates of South Beach. This much is clear: Lewis is aware of his poor initial impression, and he's determined to rehabilitate his image.

Manahawkin, New Jersey, where Shawn Lewis grew up, is a former clamming and fishing town hemmed in by the rural stretch of pine barrens along the Jersey Shore. By the Seventies Manahawkin had become a bedroom community for Atlantic City and, to a lesser degree, Philadelphia, 50 miles to the west. Needless to say there was not a lot there to stir a restless child's mind. So it came as a revelation when Lewis's grandfather, a retired U.S. Department of Defense worker, brought home a build-it-yourself computer kit. Lewis found himself propelled into a strange new world. It immediately became apparent that the boy was freakishly fast at figuring out how to write code that enabled the computer to do specific tasks.

"He was always in front of the computer," recalls his mother, Lynne Platt, who raised her son alone. "I'm surprised his fingers didn't grow into the computer keyboard."

By the time he was thirteen years old, he was writing code for Southern Regional High School, helping create math quizzes and French lessons for teachers. "I'm one of the top 100 coders in the country," Lewis boasts. "I can code anything."

Contrary to the geeky stereotype, Lewis views writing code as a highly creative endeavor, comparable to a writer scratching away at a manuscript, or an actor improvising. "It's methodical," he explains. "A plan with a reaction. But no matter what you do, you never get the same type of code from two different people. A lot of it is personality."

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