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Founder's vision helped firm overcome adversity

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was a weird prejudice, Raymond V. Haysbert says. After all, it's not as if black Americans hadn't been cooking for whites since about the time the two groups met.

But there it was. Parks Sausage Co., then H.G. Parks Inc., needed a kid to whine its now-famous slogan "More Parks Sausages, Mom . . . Please?" And though Parks was one of America's pioneering black-owned businesses, no one ever much questioned that the kid had to be white.

"If a person with a Negro voice said something in a commercial, people would be against it," said Mr. Haysbert, the 75-year old chairman of Parks and one of the 44-year old firm's first employees. "There would be an immediate downgrading of the product. . . . We thought if we were not handicapped by racism, we could do much better. People could make a decision on our presentation and our quality."

In 1951, Henry Parks was a young public-relations man with a taste for Southern meats. His vision of a company didn't have much to do with race, but racial issues always hovered over the trip from Point A to Point B.

"He was a guy who wanted his own business," said Mr. Haysbert, who said yesterday that the company will seek a buyer after 44 years and may be forced to close. "He didn't do it for so-called social reasons. He tried to interest a number of majority firms -- not black ones -- in producing Southern-style product. They didn't feel the proposal had enough merit, so he started his own company."

"I had a notion of manufacturing Southern foods because they are distinctive and tasty, and also because they are made with less expensive cuts of meat," Mr. Parks told the New York Times in 1977.

In other words, his story was every entrepreneur's story. But his task was not every entrepreneur's task.

Supermarket managers refused to stock Parks sausage or would put it on an unrefrigerated shelf so it would spoil, Mr. Haysbert said. Husbands of white women who worked on Parks' production line made their wives quit when they discovered who owned the company.

"There was a caste system, and blacks were considered lower-caste," he said. "If someone associated with you that made them lower-caste."

The company fought back, not by filing lawsuits but by sending lighter-skinned people into stores to sell the sausage -- or even to buy it.

Soon, they weren't the only ones buying. Parks went public in 1969, the first black-owned company to raise capital in the public markets. By the time Mr. Parks and original partner Willie Adams sold the company to a conglomerate in 1977, it had $14 million in annual sales and was a fixture in Black Enterprise magazine's ratings of the biggest U.S. black-owned companies.

William B. Bradford, dean of the University of Washington business school in Seattle, said earlier black companies concentrated on providing local services to local black communities. Parks became a model for other black businessmen, including Baltimore-born Reginald F. Lewis, whose 1987 leveraged buyout of TLC Beatrice International Holdings created the world's biggest black-owned company.

TC "Based upon Parks, a number of us saw that if you can become a successful retail company, selling to blacks and whites, people like Reginald Lewis could have a basis to say 'we can do it,' " Mr. Bradford said.

But Parks has long had intermittent troubles. It endured several short strikes that it settled without winning major concessions, and a steady slide down the Black Enterprise list from the Top Ten to No. 85 this year.

But the deal that may have been most harmful to the company was its decision to move its headquarters to the Park Circle enterprise zone in Northwest Baltimore.

After the state of Maryland paid Parks $9.6 million for its South Baltimore factory, the company put that money and more into a $15.5 million factory big enough to boost production to $50 million worth of sausage, scrapple and other meats every year.

But the company hasn't been able to support the bigger plant. Sales slipped to $20.7 million last year. Mr. Parks died at age 72 on the day the company broke ground for the new plant in 1989.

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