Q: We heard your company decided to leave Ocean Spray, wanted to confirm that and learn more about your plans.
A: That’s correct. We left Ocean Spray at the end of 07, beginning of 08. We had been with them since 1959. This was a big thing. Our company’s been around since 1907, so we actually were independent for longer. This is a decision we took very seriously.
Q: What inspired the decision?
A: We’re a very large cranberry grower; there are not that many companies that do such a sizable business in fresh fruit. Ocean Spray is primarily a juice company. We thought we’d be better off focusing on fresh cranberries.
Our size hopefully will put us in a position to do that.
Q: Could you provide a perspective on the company size, and the breakdown of fresh to processed product?
A: We’re primarily fresh fruit — on average 70 percent of our business. We sell our fresh berries in 12-ounce poly bags or bulk in 20-pound boxes. We grow 640 acres of cranberries. That’s a lot of cranberries. We’ve been averaging around 450,000 cases for the last three years.
A "classic" Habelman Bros. box
Q: Many of our readers are on the buying end of the produce industry and would be interested in a new source for cranberries. What is your marketing strategy?
A: We’re not sure right now how we’re going to market; in another week, I probably could share more with you. We are looking at a few contracts.
Q: Could you discuss the different paths you could pursue?
A: You hit the nail on the head. We could go 100 percent on our own with our own label and Jim and Theresa Nolan could represent us and sell our product, or go through another broker, or partner with a company like Dole. We have a lot of options on the table.
Q: As you build your company’s future, tell us more about the rich family history at its core.
A: It’s always been in our family with the Habelman lineage. It was my great grandfather who purchased the original marsh outside Tomah, Wisconsin, in 1907. Our company name is Habelman Brothers. That comes from when my grandfather and his brothers expanded the business and built it to what it is today.
I’m fourth generation, working on the fifth; I have two boys, Riley, age 6 and Carter, age 4.
Four generations of Habelman: Ray J. Habelman,
Q: It sounds like you’ll be opening up all sorts of opportunities for them.
A: I invite you to call me back in a week or two. There are a lot of exciting options out there. It’s a little nerve wracking. I’m not saying Ocean Spray wasn’t taking the fresh business seriously, but the company had a lot of other things to deal with.
We didn’t feel Ocean Spray wanted us to grow as a company. We want to expand and get more of our fresh product out there. Ocean Spray is such a huge operation we felt it didn’t always treat customers the way we may have wanted. We are energized about providing customers with a new option.
There is a lot of talk swirling around the industry. There is word that a Blake Johnston from Canada is trying to build around the Habelman volume a “grand alliance” that will also include the Pundit’s old shipper, Decas Cranberry Products.
Dole has been looking for more volume in fresh cranberries for a long time. Word is that Johnston would like to see C.H. Robinson market the deal, and the Nolans, aside from vast knowledge, great contacts and long experience in the field, would also have very special motivation to make Habelman a big success on its own.
Ray is actually doing the whole fresh industry a big favor. Many years ago, we were told by an Ocean Spray executive that Ocean Spray actually didn’t like being in the fresh business. It was such a tiny percentage of what they did at Ocean Spray, but the source of 99% of the problems and complaints. The company only bothered with the fresh business because it provided a “halo effect” for the juice and other processed product.
That may be so and, in fact, maybe Ocean Spray should withdraw from the fresh business and license its name to a company focused on fresh. No business is likely to obtain its potential if the proprietor doesn’t like it very much.
It sounds like Ray, his family and management team felt the consequences of this begrudging attitude toward fresh and decided they could do better on their own.
It is a brave move but somehow one suspects in runs in the family. After all, when Ray’s great-grandfather began raising cranberries on 13 acres of marshland back in 1907, one suspects that was a pretty gutsy move as well.
Besides, the Habelman heritage was marketing its own cranberries, so it’s a back-to-the-future situation.
Checking on the harvest this past fall are
We’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Ray, but we print magazines in Wisconsin and with the Jr. Pundits (William, age 6 and Matthew, age 4) matching up with Ray’s boys by age, it looks like the whole Pundit family will have to take a road trip. Maybe Riley and Carter would explain a bit about cranberry farming to a couple of new friends.
It is certainly going to be a very exciting time in the fresh cranberry business. We wish Ray and all the folks at Habelman well.