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Parks buyers follow lead of Lewis

In 1973, Reginald F. Lewis went to Parks Sausage Co. with a check for a million dollars in his briefcase as a down payment to buy the Baltimore sausage company.

But the 31-year-old Baltimore native was rebuffed primarily because of his age. "We didn't believe they could do the deal," recalls Raymond V. Haysbert Sr., the chairman of Baltimore's largest black-owned manufacturer.

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They were mistaken.

Mr. Lewis went on to buy Beatrice International -- renamed it TLC Beatrice -- in a $985 million leveraged buyout in 1987 and became one of the richest black Americans, with an estimated fortune of $400 million, before he died of a brain tumor in 1993.

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Now, 22 years later, when one of Mr. Lewis' younger brothers, Anthony S. Fugett, and Mr. Lewis' protege, W. Kevin Wright, answered a public plea to help the financially struggling company, they were not given the cold shoulder.

On Wednesday, Mr. Haysbert announced that he had a tentative agreement to sell the debt-burdened company, famous for its slogan, "More Parks Sausages, Mom . . . Please," to the two men. Final arrangements are expected to be hammered out in the coming weeks.

Details of the deal and any strategy to restore the company to financial health were not disclosed. But people familiar with both men expect to see them follow patterns set by Mr. Lewis in his climb to the top.

"I think you'll see them pursue some of the same type of strategies that Reg Lewis would have," said Blair S. Walker, a former Sun reporter who wrote a biography of Mr. Lewis, "Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun." "You might look for Parks Sausage to do some expanding, or some great things in the next three to four years."

The two men who want to buy Parks have taken different routes to the Parks deal -- one playing the high-stakes game of mergers and acquisition on Wall Street while the other worked for 12 years for International Business Machines Corp. and then immersed himself in the nitty-gritty of starting a small business that deals with problems of computer customers.

Mr. Wright, 41, a graduate of Harvard Law School and Rutgers University, spent most of his career as Mr. Lewis' right-hand man first as a law partner and then general counsel at TLC Beatrice. In these positions, he participated in multimillion dollar deals to buy McCall Pattern Co. in the early 1980s and later Beatrice.

Mr. Wright brings to the Parks deal the knowledge of how to buy companies and turn them around. He will be chairman of the company if the sale is completed.

Mr. Fugett, 42, grew up in the Rosemont area of Baltimore, one of six children, whose mother was a postal worker and father was a federal government employee.

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Besides his half-brother Mr. Lewis, another brother, Jean S. Fugett Jr., went on to gain fame as a professional football player and as chairman of TLC Beatrice for a year after Mr. Lewis' death.

Earning a degree in finance from the University of Baltimore in 1977, Mr. Fugett worked his way up the ladder at IBM and then launched his own small computer distribution and servicing business in 1989, called ASF Systems Inc.

Mr. Fugett says he brings to the deal his IBM management experience from his spirit of entrepreneurship. His role after the sale has not been finalized, but he will be part of the management committee and board of directors, while he continues to focus on his computer business, Mr. Fugett said.

But while the two men took different career paths, both were linked by Mr. Lewis, who had a strong influence on both of their lives, according to Mr. Walker.

"They used to tease Kevin Wright about being 'Reg junior' when he worked with Reginald Lewis because he would pick up his mannerisms," he said. "Reg Lewis' style of dress, the way he talked, smoking cigars. The whole thing."

And it was not only his mannerisms that he picked up, but also his knack for business, Mr. Walker said. "He got some really invaluable tutelage at the knee of the master when it comes to acquiring companies."

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"He's really somebody to watch, in all seriousness," Mr. Walker ,, said.

About 18 months ago, Mr. Wright struck out on his own, joining the New York office of Winston & Strawn, the Chicago-based law firm that has also been outside counsel for TLC Beatrice. Taking an "of counsel" position, he was given the flexibility to pursue acquisition deals.

"It was sort of upfront understanding with him that he wasn't spending all his time practicing law," said Robert W. Ericson, managing partner for the New York office. "He would also spend some time looking into deals."

Describing Mr. Wright as a low-keyed, "very nice guy," Mr. Ericson said he is a person who knows how to manage companies and more importantly, how to finance acquisitions. "He comes across as somebody who could sort of run a company as well as somebody who could get a deal done."

Mr. Wright did not return telephone calls for this article.

Mr. Fugett's goal is "to be a responsible civic and business leader in the Baltimore metropolitan area," he said in an interview yesterday. "I plan to be here and I will do the right thing for the Baltimore metropolitan area," he said.

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This desire is reflected in his decision six years ago to start his computer business in Baltimore even though he had moved around the country while working for IBM.

"I always had a vision of coming home to Baltimore," he said. "There's no other place quite like Baltimore."

The business, which designs, distributes and services computer systems, now has 15 employees and has more than $5 million in annual revenues and has garnered a raft of service awards from government agencies. Its customers include the U.S. State Department, Department of Defense, Baltimore Gas and Electric Westinghouse Electric Corp. and several other companies.

This connection to the local community was a big selling point for Mr. Haysbert, who was intent on seeing his company remain in Baltimore and in the hands of African-Americans.

"It was not the highest bid, it was the best bid," he said. "Because of their Baltimore connections, they would have to answer to the community," Mr. Haysbert said.


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