Harris ready to put spice in Parks Ex-football star waits for approval of deal to buy sausage maker


July 21, 1996|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Carolyn Womack, a 29-year veteran of Parks Sausage Co., didn't believe that its shutdown two months ago meant she'd be unemployed. She took for granted the idea that the 45-year-old Baltimore company would reopen.

"I looked at it as a little bit of a break," said Womack, who measures the spices that go into Parks products. "You have to have a little faith in things."

Womack and about 50 other workers returned to Parks early this month as part of a short-term plan to restart the company's operations. Their long-term future will take shape Wednesday when U.S. Bankruptcy Judge James F. Schneider considers a proposal to sell Parks to former football star and Pittsburgh businessman Franco Harris.

Parks, now privately held, was the first black-owned company to be publicly traded. It is Baltimore's largest black-owned manufacturer -- one the city is eager to keep.

Parks sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as part of the Harris deal. The agreement calls for three Parks creditors to forgive more than $4 million in debt. Also, the city would accept $500,000 from the company's profits under Harris to satisfy a $2.4 million loan. NationsBank would take $3 million to satisfy a $5.4 million obligation. The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, would forgive about $50,000 in interest on a $400,000 loan.

Parks Chairman Raymond V. Haysbert and his son, Reginald Haysbert, the company's president, would serve as consultants to the new owner and get 6 percent of the company's stock.

Harris, majority owner of Pittsburgh-based Super Bakery Inc., would pay $1.7 million for the company's assets. The deal requires Harris to obtain $4.5 million in financing over 10 years. "We're all set," said Harris, who spent most of last week in Baltimore. "That's not a problem."

Harris declined to predict an outcome to Wednesday's bankruptcy hearing. "We don't know what's going to happen," he said. "It's not over until it's over."

Harris essentially has run the business since late June, when Schneider allowed him to lend Parks between $225,000 and $575,000. The move was needed to preserve the company's assets and prepare for the fall, a busy time of year for the industry.

In the several months before the shutdown, Parks employed 219 people -- including about 130 in Baltimore. Last week, the roughly 50 Parks employees were busy turning out chitterlings, link sausages, sausage patties, cooked sausages and sausage bags. The company is not making the smoked, sweet or Italian sausage it used to.

"We'll be making Italian soon," joked Harris, who is of Italian and African heritage, during a tour of the Baltimore plant Monday.

Parks' product mix was largely determined by commitments the company made to two big customers, Pathmark and Shop-Rite supermarkets. That, in turn, determined which workers would be called back.

Over the din of conveyor belts and other machinery, some workers waved to Harris and Lydell Mitchell -- a former Baltimore Colt and Harris' teammate at Penn State -- who is part of Parks' management team. One worker wearing a Penn State cap grinned as Mitchell commented on the hat. And Harris, wearing a Parks Sausage helmet, said, "I like it."

Keith Sikes, Parks' quality assurance manager, said he's not a big football fan. "My question was, are they good businessmen?"

So far, Sikes' answer is yes. One reason he's impressed is that Harris has decided to abandon a low-cost way of spicing Parks products that compromised their taste. Instead of buying huge bags of pre-mixed spices, Parks plans to measure and mix each spice separately. The goal is to recapture Parks' original taste, said Womack, a key person in the effort who has worked in just about every part of the Baltimore plant.

"We should do it the way we did when my grandparents were alive," she said.

Turning to Womack is not the only way Harris and Mitchell are tapping the company's institutional memory. They are using as consultants a former director of operations and a former vice president of marketing and sales.

"I think their inexperience has made them a little more humble," Raymond Haysbert said. "They are not claiming to know it all."

But Harris is not too humble to think big. The 133,000-square-foot plant in Park Heights, built in 1990 as the company moved to make room for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, was twice as large as the company needed. It also proved to be one of the reasons for the company's struggles.

"We don't feel like it's too big for us," Harris said, even as huge conveyor belts sat idle.

The details of Harris' business plan aren't clear. He has said he wants to build the work force slowly as demand increases. He also wants workers to be able to handle a broader range of responsibilities.

He's interested primarily in the Baltimore plant -- not Parks' other northeastern distribution facilities. Harris said Thursday that he's using food brokers to distribute products, a less expensive means than a company sales force.

"What it will enable him to do is bring trucks off the street," said Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Foods. Scher, who met with Harris about two weeks ago, expects Giant to be stocking Parks products in most of its stores over the next couple of weeks.

Closer to Parks, Carla Robinson, a meat department manager at a Super Pride grocery store on Liberty Heights Avenue, said several customers had asked about Parks. "They were just asking when we were going to be restocking the shelves," she said.

The answer came last week, when Parks sausage links and sausage bags started coming in. Even though they had just arrived, the products appeared to be selling well. "It's pretty good," Robinson said, adding, "Check back in a few days."

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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