For people who don't know Fred Haberman, it might seem unusual that the owner of a public relations company would be launching a business growing organic vegetables and tank-raised fish. But those familiar with Haberman have long realized that with him, the unusual is the usual.
After all, this is the same person who opened a store selling office products in Kazakhstan (the business failed, but the trip was interesting), led adventure excursions to Nepal (fun for a younger man but not something he could build a career on) and launched the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships (so much of a success that he sold the rights to a national promoter).
"I've always had a passion for a wide variety of things," he said as he sat in the break room at Urban Organics. "I've never looked at myself as a public relations person or a marketing person. I'm a guy who follows his passions."
He's also a guy with a strong sense of purpose, which he credits to his parents. His father, F. William Haberman, is president of the Herzfeld Foundation, and his mother, Carmen, is a vice president. The Milwaukee organization makes grants to arts, education and civic projects.
"They were the best role models I could have had," he said. "They taught me to think of others and to think of community problems. I want to leave something behind."
His foray into organic food production via sustainable agriculture is in keeping with that perspective, said his wife and business partner, Sarah Bell Haberman. He envisions Urban Organics as leading to farming innovations that will result in healthy, freshly grown food reaching people who haven't had access to it before.
"His purpose in life is solving social issues through sound business practices," she said. "He lives in the future, and that enables him to connect the dots in ways that other people don't. When you add his passion, he becomes a true visionary."
Nor is this his first experience with organic farming. The Habermans have been interested in organic foods "for decades," and in 2009 their Haberman public relations company started its own organic garden — the Dude Ranch — for its employees.
"Organic Valley was a client, and I figured that if we were going to promote organic farming right, we should figure out how much work it was," he said.
'Make the most of it'
Haberman, 48, talks fast, but he tends to do everything fast, including jumping into new projects.
"I have a sense of urgency," he said. "I believe that we have a limited time in life and we need to make the most of it. I've always felt that way. I was an exchange student to Sweden when I was in high school, and in college I went to Florence for a year. I've had a lot of very powerful experiences in my life, and, fortunately, they've all been positive."
His path led to the Twin Cities when he "fell in love with a Minnesota girl" while attending the University of Wisconsin. Now the two of them run the Haberman firm.
"We started the company to tell the stories of pioneers who are making a difference in the world," Haberman said. "We want to unlock those stories. We want to tell those stories."
On a mission of change
Haberman's parents taught him that everyone should have a mission.
"I define 'mission' as the contribution you want to make in the world," he said. "That informs how we go about doing business. For us, it's the most important thing we focus on with a client. We ask them what they want their legacy to be."
Discovering that is the key to unleashing the passion that drives the project, he said.
"That's how we ended up starting the Pond Hockey Championship," he said of the annual outdoor hockey tournament. In January 2006, he and Dave Haider (a partner in Urban Organics) set up 25 hockey rinks on Lake Calhoun for a low-key, four-on-four, no-goalies tournament that drew 96 teams competing for the top prize, the Golden Shovel.
"I just wanted to play hockey outdoors the way I did as a kid," he said. "It turned out to be a great reunion with our youth. I've realized that I'm kind of a kid. I think my development is arrested as a 10-year-old."
His wife didn't challenge that assessment. In fact, she said, it's his youthful spirit that helps make him successful.
"He's a big kid, and that quality attracts people to him," she said. "He's a motivator, a cheerleader. He likes to make people laugh. And he's very creative. You want to work with Fred."
It's the people working with him who make the difference, he insisted.
"I've always surrounded myself with people smarter than I am," he said. "Everything I've done has been a collective effort. I'm just an enthusiastic facilitator."
He paused before adding with a laugh: "My goal is to exceed my own expectations."