African-American entrepreneur leaves cluster of knowhow

Ray Haysbert engineered a leveraged buyout before most people knew what it was.

With a ton of debt and an ounce of equity, he bought Baltimore-based Parks Sausage from an affiliate of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1980, presaging the leveraged buyout craze of the 1980s and today's massive "private equity" deals. In corporate financing, as in other things, Raymond V. Haysbert Sr. was an outlier.

As Parks' right-hand man in the 1950s, he helped build the company into a regional brand. In the 1960s, he played a key role in making it the nation's first black-owned firm to sell stock to the public. As controlling owner in the 1980s and 1990s, he became the dean of black Baltimore businessmen.

Business "clusters" — a term coined by Harvard Business School's Michael Porter — are local networks of expertise and personalities that create growth beyond what individuals could generate on their own. Haysbert, who died Monday, was a one-man cluster, establishing numerous companies, counseling countless others and serving as a crucial link between Baltimore's earliest black entrepreneurs and today's.

It was a remarkable feat. How can you start a business when you can't even drink from the same fountain as the white man, let alone borrow money from him or sell him food? Banks weren't even issuing mortgages to African Americans in the 1950s, let alone making business loans.

Henry Parks got around that by teaming up with "Little Willie" Adams, who made big money from a Baltimore numbers operation in the 1930s and then went legit, financing Parks and numerous other black enterprises.

Parks Sausage was launched in 1951 at an abandoned dairy off North Avenue. Parks thought Baltimore was ready for southern-style sausage as a change from the prevailing German wurst. Haysbert, who had an accounting degree from Wilberforce College in Ohio, signed on in 1952 as office manager. He was 32.

These days companies trumpet their black ownership. In 1950s Baltimore you hid it.

"It was very difficult for them at times to get product on the shelf," says Sharon R. Pinder, who was special secretary for minority affairs under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and spent hours interviewing Haysbert for an upcoming book on black entrepreneurs. "At times they didn't want people to know it was a black company."

They made sure the kid in the radio commercials asking, "More Parks sausages, Mom!" was a white girl, says Pinder.

Parks Sausage didn't get its first bank loan until 1964. Apparently sales in the multiple millions were sufficient for Maryland National Bank to extend credit so the company could move to Camden Industrial Park.

The initial public offering came in 1969, and by the 1970s Parks was one of the 10 biggest black-owned firms in the country. In 1977 Henry Parks and Willie Adams cashed out, selling Parks to a conglomerate called Norin Corp. in a deal that also earned $1 million for Haysbert, according to an interview he gave in 2003 to The History Makers Web site.

But the company was soon sold to the Canadian railway outfit, where it languished. Haysbert wanted to run it again, this time as CEO. He put together the 1980 buyout in part with an employee stock ownership plan and industrial revenue bonds issued by the city, one of several taxpayer subsidies it got over the years.

Yes, it was special treatment for a politically connected businessman. But the white guys had been playing these games for years, and still do.

Haysbert liked to say that selling sausages was "a tough way to make a buck." It became more so in the 1980s and 1990s, as national competitors such as Esskay chopped costs and moved plants to low-cost, non-union plants in the south.

The first step in Parks' decline was its eviction from Camden Yards, where a new baseball park was being built. Its new Baltimore plant proved to be too large and unable to support the associated debt, especially after the company lost big contracts supplying Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza.

Parks struggled through the 1990s, and its plant was eventually sold to deli-meat- and cheese-maker Dietz & Watson, which operates it today.

But Haysbert wasn't even close to stopping. He had always "found ways to keep his mind occupied," as his son Reginald Haysbert puts it, even when he was still working. In the 1960s he would leave his job at Parks and go teach business at Morgan State University at night.

He also co-founded Harbor Bank and chaired Baltimore's Urban League. He was the first president of the Presidents' Roundtable when he helped found the national organization of African-American CEOs in 1983 and again one of its most recent, when he was 89, Reginald Haysbert said. He was active in the American Heart Association and had dozens of other commitments.

But at bottom he was a mentor, continuing to advise new entrepreneurs almost until the very end.

"I would just ask him simple questions about how to handle a specific business situation," says Pinder, who runs a consulting business. "He loved to coach business owners. He loved black entrepreneurship. When you think about what a minority entrepreneur is supposed to be, it's Ray Haysbert."

That's a better legacy than any money or business.

An earlier version of this article misstated Haysbert's age when he signed on with Parks Sausage. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad