by laura sumner coon

Haban Manufacturing Inc., a Racine maker of farm and garden implements since 1953, has been sold to a Milwaukee holding company.

Polaris Group Inc., organized in 1989 by a group of 40 Milwaukee-area people described as champions of small business, bought Haban Manufacturing on Tuesday, said President Richard F. Laabs.

When the phone rang at Haban Manufacturing Inc. Wednesday afternoon, founder Joseph Haban vehemently denied that his business had been sold. Since he created the farm and garden implement business, Haban has protected much about the self-made, successful firm at 2100 Northwestern Ave.

That's precisely what piqued the interest of Polaris Group, Laabs said, after the firm released a statement Wednesday saying it bought Haban Manufacturing Inc. When asked about the sale Wednesday, Haban declined to talk, saying it wasn't completely done.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed. But a brochure on the group describes qualified acquisition candidates as those located in Wisconsin or northern Illinois, which have annual sales between $2 million and $20 million and are valued at less than $5 million.

"We are a group of about 40 shareholders, most of whom are business owners or retired business owners," said

Laabs. "Our particular interest is in closely held companies."

Haban fit the criteria "hand-in-glove," he said.

All 70 employees at Haban will retain their jobs and the company will remain in Racine, Laabs said.

"It was important for Joe to keep the company in Racine," Laabs said. "He has been active in the community, done a fair amount of charitable giving, and he was concerned about his employees. He was only willing to deal with someone who was willing to leave it in Racine and maintain the jobs."

Others were competing to buy the company, Laabs said.

"Joe is a fine man, and he did a great job with the company he founded 42 years ago. Our plan with Haban is to own it and manage it for long-term growth," Laabs said. "Joe's objective was very compatible with our objective - to run companies autonomously with their own management teams."

Haban himself will remain at the company for approximately five years as a consultant. Margaret Armaganian, vice president and secretary-treasurer, also will remain as an employee, but not an officer, Laabs said.

Randolph M. Hamner, who has a sales and marketing background, has been appointed the new president and chief executive officer at Haban.

He will work to add to the company's customer base and its products.

"We are particularly excited about the tow-behind tiller product line," he added. "That is a product sold under the Haban name to mass merchandisers, such as Quality stores, Farm and Fleet. That's a product line I think we can develop further and sell to additional customers.

The company sale has been in the making for several months. When a mutual acquaintance told Polaris of Haban Manufacturing, negotiations began.

"We've been in the market to make an acquisition," Laabs said. "We own three manufacturing companies and an investment company, operating four businesses now."

"Joe deserves a great deal of credit considering the sale of the business while he was still active in the company and he could have a lot to say about what the next generation should be," Laabs said.

Haban developed the husker-sheller - which could husk and shell ear corn quickly - in 1953, and that led to Haban Manufacturing, located in what was once the Horlick Malted Milk factory complex.

Haban also makes snow throwers and dozer blade and mower attachments for small tractors marketed worldwide by Mitsubishi, John Deere, Case Corp. and Deutz-Allis. Haban is the sole owner.

Haban is a world traveler who set up much of his company's world trade by himself.

Rumors about the sale of the business have been circulating since late last year, when Haban, who has no heirs, made two large charitable contributions to the Racine County community.

He donated 40.8 acres of farmland on the northwest corner of Spring Street and Borgardt Road in Mount Pleasant to Racine County for Haban Park. A part of the park will be home to a Czechoslovakian historical museum. Haban's parents moved from Slovakia to Racine in 1910-11, and purchased the land.

In addition, Haban donated $100,000 to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, across the street from his company, for a new school roof.

He also was the top fund-raiser for the 1994 MS Snow Tour last year, soliciting pledges of more than $10,400 to support the work of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Polaris intends to retain the spirit Haban has created, Laabs said.

"We are impressed with the company," Laabs said. "As solid as it is right now, we believe there are a lot of growth opportunities we can access. We're pleased to make an entry into Racine, and we look forward to becoming a part of the community."

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