The Deal That Got Away: Reginald Lewis & Parks Sausage

A young Reginald F. Lewis

A young Reginald F. Lewis

It was the mid 1970’s and the Parks Sausages company headed by Henry Parks was looking for a buyer. Established in 1951, Parks Sausage was a national brand with one of the most recognized marketing campaigns in history: “More Parks Sausages Mom, Please”.

Parks, along with longtime partner Willie Adams and company President Raymond Haysbert, had been seeking a buyer or strategic merger for the profitable and publicly traded company a short while before it began to have serious talks with Norin Corporation. But before Norin would walk away with the purchase of this historic Black owned company in 1977, Reginald F. Lewis would attempt to buy it.

"I came down to Baltimore for the meetings and met Henry Parks privately first, then with Willie Adams at Ellis's office."

Lewis, who was born and raised in Baltimore, was at this time a well respected lawyer with his own firm based in New York. Having performed legal work on numerous business deals, Lewis was itching to get to what he called “the other side of the table” - meaning ownership. Lewis, the Dunbar High School and Harvard Law graduate, had his friend Ellis Goodman arrange a meeting with Parks. Lewis put together a proposal with key backing from Chemical Bank and proceeded to Baltimore for the now infamous meeting.

“I came down to Baltimore for the meetings and met Henry Parks privately first, then with Willie Adams at Ellis’s office,” said Lewis, in his biography, Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun? “I might as well have been the man from the moon. They just were not having any of it. I persisted, none the less, explaining how I knew how to put the deal together, inviting them to stay involved, and saying all the things from deal making 101.” And, Lewis was right; they weren’t having any of it.

According to Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun? - after several more meetings and a lot of due diligence Willie Adams said: “Look, you’re a sincere young man and I believe in helping our young people, so before I take another bid, I’ll give you a shot at topping the other offer.”

But that didn’t happen. Parks Sausage was sold without Lewis’s bid being considered.

Although Lewis did not get the deal, company president Haysbert was very impressed with the young Lewis. In the aforementioned book, Haysbert says Lewis was “dapper” but lacked credibility at the time as many younger people do. They simply didn’t think he could get the deal done.

The failure to purchase Parks was a crushing blow to Lewis. According to his mother, Carolyn Fugett, he thought he could take Parks Sausage and make it a giant among other companies. His mother also predicted that one day he would buy a business that would make Parks look tiny in comparison.

                            Photo courtesy of Black Enterprise

                            Photo courtesy of Black Enterprise

History has proved Lewis’s mother correct. The irony in this story is that years later the young upstart who had tried to purchase a well respected Black owned company from three pioneering business men would later grow into a business icon himself, thus becoming one of the richest Americans. In the 1980’s, Lewis bought the century old McCall Pattern company and piloted it to a 90 to 1 return on investment. The two years Lewis had control of the business was the most profitable period in its company’s history.

In the late 80’s Lewis would become the talk of the town when he purchased food conglomerate Beatrice International Foods for just under one billion dollars. Rechristened TLC (The Lewis Companies) Beatrice, the company sold a smorgasbord of product including frozen foods, snacks and dairy.

A disciplined and demanding task master, Lewis pushed his management team to its capacity in order to get the best mix of efficiency and profits. But unlike his predecessor, Henry Parks, Lewis could not get the proper backing to take either McCall Pattern or Beatrice Foods public. The sudden death of this tycoon in January 1993, from brain cancer brought to an end numerous acquisition targets that would have strengthened the TLC portfolio and surely opened the door for more Black Americans to operate at the highest levels of finance.

Fast forward to 2014, TLC Beatrice has since been long sold and his widow Loida and their two adult daughters keep his legacy alive. A law building at his alma mater – Harvard - has been named in his honor. And, in Baltimore a high school and a museum has been named in his honor.

I wonder when Lewis was flying in his private plane with the initials “RL” painted on its wings, did he ever think of the Parks Sausage deal that got away. Parks, Adams and Haysbert lived long enough to see Lewis in some of his most accomplished moments and I would like to believe each had to be very proud.

These four Baltimore giants have all transitioned now, but their respective legacies shall live on.

(copyright 2014)C.Green/School 18 Project