Fields cookie without the Mrs. or Mr.?

Published: Wednesday, May 20 1998 12:00 a.m. MDT

What if Blondie and Dagwood got a divorce? Or Ward and June Cleaver called it quits and sent Wally and the Beaver off to military school?

That's how I felt when I heard recently that Randy and Debbi Fields had split last year, that Debbi had remarried and moved with her five daughters to Memphis, Tenn., and that the Mrs. Fields Cookies empire they founded two decades ago had . . . well, not crumbled, but moved on without them.Pretty shocking stuff for a high-profile pair that for much of the 1980s were Utah's version of the Royal Couple, the Charlie and Di of Park City . . . before we found out that Charlie and Di didn't really like each other.

But Randy and Debbi hadn't been born to rule. They had created their success the American way, by being smart, hard-working entrepreneurs.

It's trite to say that someone "took the town by storm," but that's just what Randall Fields and his beautiful (a former model) 21-year-old wife did when they first came to Utah on a skiing vacation in 1978 and liked it so much they decided to move their home and business here from Portola Valley, Calif.

I wrote the first local story on the Fields phenomenon on Jan, 24, 1981, the first of many for this newspaper and the first in an avalanche of local and national media coverage of the Fieldses, a couple who seemed to have it all: beauty, brains, ambition, family values, a business growing exponentially - people couldn't get enough of them.

Everyone assumed that Randy was the real brains behind the Mrs. Fields operation but he always denied it. "You can easily replace me," he was fond of saying, "but you can't replace Debbi."

Still, Randy's experience as an investment banker and his public speeches in which he established himself as a serious economist, (he majored in political science at Stanford University) clearly implied that he was the business brains behind Debbi's marvelous marketing persona.

As media darlings, the Fields were most accommodating during their first years here in the early '80s. Later on, they became harder to reach when the problems of controlling a far-flung business empire began to grow, battles with Park City over their Main Street development plans grew contentious, and the interviewers began asking tougher questions as it became clear that the cookie business - and other businesses they tried - was not a license to print money.

It got worse in the '90s. Several times in past years, former Fields employees - very angry former employees - called me, often anonymously, always "off the record," to rant about the problems in the Fieldses' empire, to talk of 100 percent annual employee turnover and, most of all, to vent on the difficulties of working for Randy Fields.

But finding someone who would talk on the record about the company proved futile, and it's no different today. In attempting to find sources for this article, I talked briefly with Steve Hooker, a rare 12-year veteran of the company. Would he care to do an interview on his life inside the Fields organization? No, he would not.

"It's not worth getting sued over," said Hooker. "There's too much paperwork, nondisclosure agreements I signed during my layoff. He (Randy Fields) already sued me once (and) I can't afford another lawsuit. I'm a workaholic. All I did was perform (for the company). I saw it all happen. People who sacrificed stayed (with the company). The ones that didn't got fired. I was hungry enough to do what it took."

Oddly, the new company that has risen from the crumbs of the old, now called Mrs. Fields Original Cookies, is no more forthcoming. The Deseret News asked for an interview with current company management in April, specifically with Larry Hodges, president and chief executive officer. But after a wait of several days for an answer, a company spokesman said Hodges had declined the interview.

Hodges most recently managed Food Barn Stores Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., and was formerly with Salt Lake City-based American Stores Co. for 25 years.

The Mrs. Fields corporate headquarters earlier moved from Park City to offices in Salt Lake City and is scheduled to move again this month. Some 100 employees are relocating into a new 30,000-square-foot office complex in the Cottonwood Corporate Center, 6500 S. 3000 East. The company also will retain its facilities on Bearcat Drive and Lawndale Drive for some 40 other employees.

Currently, the reorganized company has Mrs. Fields outlets in some 1,000 stores and kiosks, both company-owned and franchised. It also operates two other fast-food businesses, Hot Sam Pretzels and Pretzel Time, that it acquired last year. And it has a mail-order business, 1-800-COOKIES, which will remain on Bearcat Drive.

The breakdown of the old Mrs. Fields Cookies began a decade ago when the company lost $19 million in 1988 and closed numerous stores. In 1993, the company's stock was taken off the London Stock Exchange - Mrs. Fields had earlier gone public in England - and the company was recapitalized with four lenders, principally the Prudential group, acquiring 80 percent of the company.

Recently, Debbi Fields Rose has been doing a show on public television called Great American Desserts. She has written three cookbooks and is a popular public speaker for women's groups. She still sits on the board of the Mrs. Fields company, remains a minority owner, and is said to serve as a consultant to the firm.

Her new husband, Michael Rose, is former chairman of Promus Hotel Corp. and former chairman (he retired last year) of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., based in Memphis. He and Debbi were married Nov. 29, 1997, in San Francisco.

Randy Fields remains in Park City as principal of a software firm called Park City Group, which markets ActionManager, an operations management software package for food service operators and retailers.

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