Ex-Dallas Cowboy Herschel Walker makes run at riches as meat processor


 Stepping into Heisman trophy winner Herschel Walker' 19th-floor condo in Uptown, you are immediately struck by a Picasso-esque portrait of a woman with two faces.

"We all have different faces that we show to the world," said Walker, who created a stir last year when he published a memoir revealing his struggle with dissociative identity, or multiple personality disorder.

Sunday, Walker will face the regional food industry as founder and chief executive of Renaissance Man Food Services Inc., one of the largest minority-owned meat processors in the nation.

He's one of the key draws at the Southwest Foodservice Expo, a three-day trade show at the Dallas Convention Center that begins Sunday.

Walker, still youthful looking at 47, knows he'll need to talk about football. That's what most people want to hear, said the storied former running back for the Dallas Cowboys. He also plans to slip in some talk about God. But chiefly, the food show gives him a chance to showcase his life away from the gridiron.

"People that knew me in the sports world have no idea what I can do," he said.

"I think people are shocked that, being a football player, that I can even think," he chuckled. "People love to talk to you about the game, but they ... don't consider that this [business] is something that I started, that I built."

Renaissance Man, which is based in Savannah, Ga., has more than 100 employees and posted 2008 sales of $70 million, Walker said. The company co-owns a chicken processing plant in Siloam Springs, Ark., and chicken accounts for 70 percent of the company's sales, he said.

Renaissance Man also sells precooked ribs and other items under the Herschel's Famous 34 and H. Walker Foods brands.

The food is largely sold to hotels, including some Hilton properties and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, as well as to restaurants, hospitals and the military, he said.

Two weeks ago, Walker launched a retail line, the Mama's Bakin' brand. The first product, frozen corn bread, is due in grocery stores this summer.

Company's founding

Renaissance Man started in 2000 after Walker had a casual conversation with a Sysco Corp. vice president who asked him to provide some chicken breading recipes from his mom.

ConAgra Foods Inc. produced some samples using the recipe and the product sold well, Walker said. Production later shifted to Tyson Foods Inc.

About three years ago, Walker entered a joint venture with privately held Simmons Poultry Farms Inc., which had the Arkansas processing plant.

Walker is the sole owner of Renaissance Man and has invested about $25 million from his own pocket into the business. In 2006, Renaissance Man won Sysco's annual Heritage Award, given to its top women- and minority-owned suppliers.

When Sysco began working with Walker in 2001, his celebrity status was a plus, said Sysco spokesman Mark Palmer.

"It was exciting for our customers," he said. Now "he's becoming more of a player in the poultry industry, rather than just a football player who has a chicken business," Palmer said.

Walker also found that it helps break the ice when you're the man who finished his professional career with 8,225 yards and 61 rushing touchdowns.

"Being Herschel Walker no doubt got me into the office," he said. "Then they think, 'Gee, why are you here?' I'm here for business like everybody else."

A tinge of frustration creeps into his voice when he describes the challenge of converting football fans into paying customers.

"In business, they may like Herschel Walker, but they love to see him play football. They want an autograph, but they don't want to buy anything from me. They want me to come to their restaurant when they just bought chicken from Tyson."

Walker is not the first former NFL player to put down the pigskin and pick up a chicken wing or sausage link.

Former Cowboys player and fellow Heisman winner Tony Dorsett lent his name to Tony Dorsett Foods, which sold St. Louis-style ribs, chicken tenders, catfish and other items.

But Dorsett said this week that he walked away from the venture two or three years ago because he and an official with the company, whom he did not name, "could not see eye to eye."

Jim Thomas, who said he was the chief financial officer, said in an e-mail that he was shutting down the company, citing the economy.

The Web site was taken down Thursday.

Austin-based Earl Campbell Meat Products has rebounded nicely since a predecessor company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, according to Gilbert Velasquez, sales and marketing director. He put 2008 sales at about $19 million, up 11.5 percent from 2007. He said Campbell remains president and still goes out on sales calls.

As for Walker, he spends about half his time "in the food world."

He said his turn as chicken baron coincided with his getting treatment for his mental illness, which he says was more problematic during his playing days. By the time he'd formed his company, he said, the symptoms were under control.

"I'm better now than I was before," he said.

Walker doesn't think he lost any business after his book was released, but he concedes that not everyone is a fan.

"There are some people who think I made it up," he said. "Since I don't need money, why would I make something up to make myself look stupid?" he asked, estimating that he made more than $20 million playing football, not counting endorsements. "I'm not an attention guy."

Other pursuits

Walker did take a turn earlier this year on the Celebrity Apprentice but ended up being "fired" over a food task.

He spends some time attending to his vehicle collection. He owns 20 motorcycles and 60 old cars, mostly hot rods. Yet his condo is as sparsely appointed as a dorm room.

Walker says he's also trying to arrange a mixed martial arts fight, featuring him, in Las Vegas.

Down the road, he may run for national office.

"I've got all these different personas," said the three-time All-American. "In one day, I do a lot."




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