Now, Franco Harris Runs With Pork

The former Steelers' fullback aims to revive Parks Sausages

When Hall of Fame fullback Franco Harris learned last year that Parks Sausages Co. was on the block, he didn't know that it was the first black-owned company in the U.S. to be publicly traded. Nor did he have any idea that Parks, on the verge of bankruptcy, was the fragile mainstay of a depressed inner-city neighborhood in Baltimore. Harris simply remembered that as a kid in Mt. Holly, N.J., he used to hear the same plaintive voice on the radio, over and over: "More Parks Sausages, Mom...Please?" Says Harris: "It was a business with a brand name."

When Harris and Lydell Mitchell, his former teammate at Pennsylvania State University, came shopping for Parks, few in Baltimore knew more about them than their football brand names. Harris was a slashing runner who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl victories. Mitchell, who played for the Baltimore Colts, was an all-time great halfback. Few were aware that Harris majored in hotel administration and food service at Penn State. Or that he had been chief executive of Superbakery Inc., a $1.5 million doughnut business that he had expanded nationally, passing $10 million in sales in six years. (Mitchell was its marketing chief.)

But by the time Harris, 46, and Mitchell, 47, appeared in bankruptcy court to nail down the $1.7 million purchase of the sausage-maker's assets, the city was past looking at their feats with pigskin and more anxious to see how they would fare with pork. Judge James F. Schneider O.K.'d the deal in an emotional hearing on July 24. "I'm delighted to see you, sir," he said to Harris. And to Mitchell, who will run Parks: "Welcome home to you."

Now comes the tough part: reviving a regional operation in a business dominated by national brands and getting a nation of cholesterol-counters to rekindle its love affair with the fat-dripping breakfast wienie. The trick, says Harris, will be to develop new brands and new flavors, perhaps some of them low-fat or nonpork. Then they'll piggyback sausages onto Superbakery's national distribution and hit the airwaves again with the resuscitated "More Parks Sausages, Mom" ads, which have not been heard for five years.

That's the strategy. But before Harris and Mitchell buy airtime, they must whip the beleaguered Baltimore operation into shape. Founded in 1951 by Henry Parks, an African-American marketer, the company has been through a corporate meat grinder in the past decade. Ownership has fluctuated, with Parks Sausages appearing as an asset of companies as diverse as Sara Lee Corp. and Canadian Pacific Corp. Worse, in 1990, the city of Baltimore gave Parks the boot to make room for the new Orioles stadium at Camden Yards. Parks trundled off to the troubled Park Heights neighborhood and built a sparkling $16 million plant--an apparent triumph of urban planning. But the move left it with an unwieldy $7.8 million debt. Larger rivals also beat the company out of its crucial contracts with Domino's Pizza Inc. and Pizza Hut Inc.

UNSCREWING LIGHTBULBS. Sales fell from $28 million in 1990 to some $20 million five years later, with Parks losing $1 million a year. Things got so bad that CEO Raymond Haysbert ordered half the lightbulbs in his office unscrewed to save electricity. Finally, in 1995, Haysbert bought out Sara Lee's 45% share for a meager $250,000 and advertised Parks's sale in The Wall Street Journal. He got nine offers. Most buyers wanted just the brand name and the recipe for sage-flavored sausage. But the city of Baltimore, a creditor, insisted the buyers commit to the Park Heights plant in exchange for loan forgiveness. One investor group agreed to the terms, but couldn't find financing in time to close.

That left Franco Harris. He was eager to move beyond his bakery business, which sells vitamin-fortified doughnuts and muffins to school districts nationwide. Superbakery had benefited from preferential financing for minority businesses, but it was Harris' celebrity that sold the goods, and he is still intensely involved in running the bakery.

Harris was willing to make a go of it in Baltimore. The price was low, and he figured by investing in the community, he could nurture team harmony and perhaps extract concessions from the plant's 130 workers and their union. During negotiations, however, Haysbert was running out of money. On May 24, he closed the plant. "Our credit was shot," he says. "Suppliers want the money C.O.D., prewired." After Harris reached a preliminary agreement to buy Parks, he lent it money to reopen.

Now, it's game time for Harris, and both the players and spectators appear optimistic. City officials were encouraged by Harris' connections. Says Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's commissioner of housing: "He has marketing and distribution set up already." Kurt Funderburg, director of research at Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., a Baltimore brokerage, agrees that Parks is starting out on a solid footing. He adds that Harris "is pretty well thought of in the food industry" and has "some business acumen beyond the marquee value of his name."

When will all this happen? Harris won't say. But radio listeners will know that Parks is up and running when they hear that familiar, whining voice asking Mom for more sausages.