For some black business leaders, running their own companies is all they owe their community. These executives say that's not enough


January 14, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

Talk is cheap.

So say black businessmen Ray Haysbert, Joe Haskins, Arnold Williams and James McLean.

For them, rhetoric doesn't cut it when the subject is boosting minority entrepreneurial activity. They prefer a sleeves-rolled-up frontal assault, without fanfare or assistance from alphabet soup governmental agencies.

They're battling, one skirmish at a time, to secure economic vitality for the Baltimore area's black community. Their salvos are in the form of some guidance here, an infusion of capital there and are calculated to eventually coalesce into an economic critical mass.

Central to their efforts is an underlying question: Do successful black business people have any more of an obligation than, say, successful white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, to give back to their communities? And are affluent blacks held to unrealistically high expectations?

"I don't think it's unfair to ask us to do more for our community, no more than it's unfair to expect Jewish businessmen to do more their community," says Mr. Haysbert, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Parks Sausage Co., a city-based firm that generated $26.5 million in revenues last year. "You have to put it on an ethnic basis -- does any ethnic group have a responsibility to its community over and above what it has to the general community? And you'd have to say, 'Yes.' "

Such a philosophy entails a commitment that cuts into personal time and requires that doors, and phone lines, remain open long after business hours.

Messrs. Haysbert, Haskins, Williams and McLean say that's O.K. To them the alternative -- economic dependence, and a local economy devoid of strong, black-run businesses -- is unacceptable.

Their altruism doesn't come without strings attached. They demand a high measure of excellence and commitment from those they assist. And they refuse to entertain potential excuses for failure, especially any along racial lines.

Bigotry has always been alive and well in the metropolitan area, they say, but blacks can't let that stop them from starting businesses.

"Racism is a given," Mr. Haysbert says. "But if you see a telephone pole in the middle of the road -- your road -- and everybody else doesn't have telephone poles in their roads, what the hell are you supposed to do? Run up against it and say,'Mother, you shouldn't be here!' You go around the thing, you deal with it."

Mr. Haysbert and his colleagues all belong to the Presidents' Roundtable, an elite local group of black business leaders. Formed primarily to facilitate fellowship and networking, the 7-year-old Baltimore organization is beginning to work to develop and nurture strong black-owned businesses.

As part of that effort, the organization has sponsored economic development seminars for minority entrepreneurs at Morgan State University and at Johns Hopkins University. For now, however, the group has no formal program for one-on-one mentoring with individual entrepreneurs.

That's where Mr. Haysbert, Mr. Haskins, Mr. Williams and Mr. McLean come in.

For each man, decades of dealing with the harsh realities of business and race inculcated a sense that they should pass on their hard-earned knowledge. Their concern and commitment turned them into veritable Knights of the Roundtable for blacks who want to test the bracing waters of entrepreneurship.

Statistics from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development indicate that black-owned city businesses made halting progress from 1982 to 1987, the most recent years available. The number of firms increased from 3,751 to 5,044, an increase of 35 percent, but at the same time, average sales and receipts of those firms increased a minuscule percent, moving from $32,650 in 1982 to $32,781 in 1987. The latter figure was below the statewide average for 1987.

Black-run firms with paid employees went up 46 percent in the city from 1982 to 1987, compared with a 124 percent increase in Maryland and an 87 percent rise nationwide.

Clearly, while the overall numbers of black-owned, city businesses went up, their economic clout didn't, which worries Mr. Haysbert, Mr. Haskins, Mr. Williams and Mr. McLean.

Prosperous men all, they could easily have taken the easy way out by shrugging their shoulders and sitting back to enjoy the fruits of their labors. But driven by motives as varied as their personalities, they couldn't allow that to happen.

For Mr. Haskins, president and chief executive officer of The Harbor Bank of Maryland, going the extra mile is an outgrowth of his daily contacts with black entrepreneurs in search of business capital. It also stems from the Baltimorean's sense of community.

"It's vital to the employment picture to the black community and to the community at large," says Mr. Haskins, who has a Wharton business degree and formerly was a Chemical Bank executive in Manhattan. "The economic environment we're in is not wholesome for black-owned businesses. Only the strong survive and that's what we're going to see here."

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