Haworth Parks: 1926-2008

Edition: November 2008 - Vol 16 Number 11
Article#: 3043
Author: Repertoire

Editor's Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from the January 2003 edition of Repertoire.

Tall, thin, wiry, with a shock of wavy white hair, Haworth Parks cut quite a figure at American Surgical Trade Association (now HIDA) meetings, as well as at his own company, Nashville, Tenn.-based Parks Inc. "Quietly reserved in his presentation, he commanded a lot of respect," recalls Ted Almon of Claflin Co., Warwick, R.I.

It was precisely the respect he earned from others that made Parks the strong, decisive leader he ultimately proved to be, both in his business and in industry affairs. He sold his company to General Medical (now McKesson Medical-Surgical) in 1997.

Parks - a one-time chairman of HIDA and ABCO (now NDC), and 2003 inductee into the Medical Distribution Hall of Fame - died in August.

Basketball player

Born in March 1926 in St. Joseph, Mo., the son of a Nashville Electric Service worker, Parks moved to Nashville while still young. He attended Vanderbilt University, where he played basketball as a center and forward. He graduated in 1949 and went to work for Nashville Surgical, where he ultimately became sales manager. Fifteen years later, he decided to make a change.

"In 1964, he came home and said he had handed in his resignation, and said that he could do better," recalls his son Nelson Parks, who today is an account manager for McKesson Medical-Surgical in Tennessee. So, with a couple of partners, Parks began building his own distribution company, focusing primarily upon the hospital market. He took his share of lumps.

"At first, he was like all salesmen," recalled the late Bob Barnes when he spoke with Repertoire in 2002. Barnes was an executive with Durr-Fillauer (now Cardinal Health) and for a while, a competitor of Parks in Tennessee. "He tried to generate sales instead of managing the company. But he got some help, and decided that volume wasn't the most important thing, and that profit was. He learned that lesson quickly, and he became a very successful local dealer."

"I watched Haworth mature from what was a typical owner/manager of those days - that is, very sales-oriented but not financially oriented - to a guy who became very financially sophisticated," says Ron Stephenson, professor emeritus of marketing at Indiana University.

"He was smart enough to go to the people who could help him improve his business," recalls Jim Stover, retired president of Nashville-based NDC and long-time friend of Parks. And he learned well, says Stover. "He could tell you at the end of each day exactly where he stood in each of his departments. For a small company, Parks had extremely good internal systems. He ran a very good ship."

"He was easy-going in a formal kind of way," recalls Susan Runnion, who went to work at Parks Inc. as a file clerk in 1968, and who today is customer service supervisor for NDC. "I don't know anyone who worked for him who didn't call him 'Mr. Parks.' Still, you felt like he was a good friend."

"He was very distinguished," adds Paula Clinton, a buyer at NDC, who joined Parks in customer service in 1973, and who stayed with the company until its sale. "He was an elegant dresser, but he was a lot of fun too."

Lifelong learner

Parks was far more than a great salesman who came to run his own company, says Stephenson. "I learned a lot of things about the management and design of a sales force from him - how you organize a sales force and territories, how you motivate a sales force, and how you as a manager interact with a sales force."

Indeed, Parks was a lifelong learner. "His office had about 5 trillion stacks of paper," recalls Barbra Young, who joined the Parks team as a sales rep in 1980 and who today is an account manager for McKesson. "He didn't want to get rid of anything. There might be an article he might want to get back to." If anyone asked him a question about some emerging market trend, say, home care, Parks would shuffle through his papers to retrieve information on it. "He was very tuned in to what was going on," she says.

Parks was intrigued by the possibilities that computers presented. "He was always looking for ways to improve the company," says Clinton. "He was very interested in getting onto a computerized system and doing things via EDI." Eventually, the company's sales reps took orders on handheld devices, then downloaded them through phone lines to the company's computer, she says.

By the time Parks sold his company, its computer system was already seven or eight years old, says Young. "He was a great mentor in that he had wonderful ideas, and he was always way ahead of the game."

He might have liked new ideas, but not new buildings. He had an attachment to the Parks facility at 119 9th Ave. South in Nashville. "We were in the same old place forever," jokes Clinton. "We probably could have used a better one. We were on three floors, which made things difficult for the order pickers." Even so, the Downtown location served the company well, given the access it provided to suppliers and customers, she says. (Today, the land on which Parks Inc. stood is part of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.)

Family affair

Parks Inc. was a family affair in many ways. At one time or another, just about every one of Parks's five sons worked for the company. For example, Haworth Jr. (who now sells endoscopy equipment) was sales manager, Knox was operations manager, and Nelson was a sales rep. Even son Rich - a professional guitarist today in Nashville - "knows how to deliver a power table," says Nelson. Tragically, one son - Erwin - died in southern Tennessee in the summer of 1974, when the truck he was driving for Parks Inc. overturned.

"After my first year or two in the territory, I'd come back and complain, 'We're not competitive with this or that,'" says Nelson Parks. "He'd look at me and say, 'Sounds like you're getting outsold.' He was a pretty gentle guy, but he told it like it was."

Even non-family members were treated as family. Employees tended to stay at Parks Inc. for a long time, says Young. "We were such a home. We loved to go there after work and sit for an hour or hour and a half going over things. He felt that was the neatest thing. He'd say, 'It's 6:30; I come down here and you're still here.' It was a place where you enjoyed going to work every day. A lot of people can't say that. You got up in the morning and you knew you'd learn new things from him."

After focusing initially on hospitals, Parks turned the company into a physician shop. In 1969, he bought a surgical supply company in Merrillville, Tenn., named Lowe Surgical, primarily to gain access to new product lines, including Ethicon, recalls Runnion. He also opened up a branch in Chattanooga. But he closed down both locations in the early 1980s, choosing to ship all products out of the Downtown Nashville building. At its height, Parks Inc. totaled about $4 or $5 million in sales.

National presence

Parks was drawn to the national scene early in his career, partly because of his love of learning and partly because of his psychological makeup.

"He believed that you have to give as well as receive," says Stover. "He was a giver. He would share information with anyone about his business. He was very open to people, and people were open to him."

Parks quickly grew into a strong and influential leader within ASTA, and became chairman of the association in 1988, a critical time in its history. The association had changed its name from ASTA to HIDA six years earlier, and had only recently moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Parks felt that the association needed a full-time CEO, preferably someone with industry experience. He persuaded Stover, who had sold his company, Alco Standard, to General Medical shortly before, to become HIDA's CEO. "It was a gutsy thing to do, because it meant we committed ourselves to being a real trade association," recalls Almon.

Later, Parks took on another position of responsibility, that of chairman of ABCO (now NDC), the distributor buying group. Like HIDA before it, ABCO faced some big challenges, says Almon. Distributors were consolidating, the organization was facing financial challenges, and there was some infighting among the members.

Stepping in as chairman, Parks concluded that Milwaukee-based ABCO needed to make some changes, not the least of which was to relocate to Nashville. "There was not by any means a consensus that this was a good idea," recalls Almon, whose company had joined ABCO five years earlier. "But Haworth was steadfast, and ultimately he prevailed." ABCO moved to Nashville and recruited Stover to head it up.

In 1997, at age 71 and still in excellent health, Parks decided to sell his company to General Medical. He stayed on for a short while after that, but soon retired from the business.

"He loved the industry," says Nelson Parks. "It was tough on him, as the years went by and his health was failing, that he wasn't involved any more."

"He would always say to me, 'You're the daughter I never had,'" says Young, who was Parks Inc.'s first female sales rep. "And I always told him, 'I would have loved to have been your daughter.' But with his five sons, I don't know if I could have handled it."