When we first met Justin Haber last March, the Executive Director of Just Seafood Ltd. was strolling around the Seafood Expo North America show floor in Boston and stopped at the WeAreAquaculture booth. “What do you guys do?” he asked us. “We tell interesting stories about the people behind this industry,” we answered. “Then maybe you should tell mine,” he said and laughed. “And why is that?” we asked him. “I’m a professional football player,” he replied.
What was someone like him doing at such an event? “I have studies and business related to seafood and I am opening my own fish farm in Malta, my country,” was the answer. It was decided, we had to tell his story. With a long football career at an international level, and having been the starting goalkeeper for Malta’s national team for 12 years, Justin Haber says he is always trying to quit, although he is still active for the time being.
If you google his name, you will get more than 9 million results referring to his career as an athlete and very few referring to his career in this industry, however, he assures that football is just his job, seafood, on the other hand, is his passion. “I want to make quite a big impact,” he confesses. He hasn’t had it easy and still doesn’t, but he insists. He is passionate, he says, and a “big dreamer.” Like all goalkeepers, he states, he’s also a little crazy, only his craze is, above all, for seafood.
A double life between work and passion
Justin Haber has a 25-year career as a professional football player and almost as many years preparing for his seafood career. “I’ve been more than 20 years studying on seafood,” he tells us. “Started off with aquariums, then I went into the sector of catering where people were requesting me that they wanted more quality seafood, more lobsters, I was building big aquariums to hold the lobsters. So, then I also went abroad to study and to practice with seafood holders and everything and…” He pauses in his speech, thinks a bit, and finishes off, “it’s what I study and practice, it’s my passion.”
“If you tell me about football, I don’t know anything, it is my job, but if you tell me about seafood I can make it something,” he continues. His passion for seafood is what really drives him, although, he confesses, it’s much harder than playing football. This enthusiasm has taken him through some bad economic times and a lot of sleepless nights. How can two such different worlds be combined? “Well, it is not easy,” he admits and, as he smiles, adds, “My auditor always wants me to quit football.”
On the day of the interview, Justin had no training, the season was over, and he was officially on vacation. Despite that, his day had started at 6 am, we were talking at 10:30 am and he still had a lot of work ahead of him to make sure everything was in place. It was Friday, a peak day for a seafood wholesaler. “I expose myself to work more so I can get things right and in order,” he confesses, “but it’s not easy. I don’t have any hobbies or I don’t like to party, I don’t like to do certain things. So, when I go and play football, it’s where I can relax a bit, like forget the work.”
Contradictory? Maybe. Football is his job, seafood is his passion, and yet starting a business in this industry is so hard that his regular job as a footballer is what allows him to relax. We asked him when he plans to leave the sport for good and focus exclusively on the seafood company. “Well, I’m always quitting,” he says. “I want to quit, but then clubs want to sign me up.” After the interview, he had a meeting with the club that won the Maltese Cup – the Italian coach of this team wants to sign him -, and another local team in Marsaxlokk, where Justin has a restaurant, also wants him. “So, it looks like I’m going to play another season.” It also looks like he will have another year to take a break from training.
From the playing field to business
Justin Haber is a household name in Malta. His working days and weeks can be unusual compared to those of other entrepreneurs in the industry. In the same morning he can have a meeting with a minister and just a few hours before, has been working at his fish farm surrounded by lobster droppings. Maybe the next day he presents trophies to a school for their Sports Day, and the following week an advert regarding the health of football. To combine all of that you need to be ‘a bit of a special person.’
Maybe it is a cliché, but they say that to be a good goalkeeper you need coordination, strength, flexibility, endurance, speed, vision, a sense of initiative and responsibility, daring, and courage. Is it very different in business? we ask. “No, actually it’s the same. The goalkeeper, it’s a special position in football where he has to think,” he answers. “You have to be a bit crazy to be a goalkeeper,” he adds. People don’t appreciate it, he says, but goalkeepers have to decide in a very short time and take risks, something that Justin Haber believes helps him in his role as an entrepreneur, even if he doesn’t always get it right, as it shows the anecdote he shares with us.
“In 2012 I lost 160,000 € because I got 5 tonnes of lobsters, and who built me the filtration did a big mistake and everything died. So you can imagine how much not good it was. However, it helped me,” he says. “From my position [in goal], I don’t have time to think, I have to take a decision instantly. That’s sometimes the bad part because in business you can’t just take a decision, you have to evaluate everything. But then you need the guts. And the guts, thank God I have it because I’m not afraid to invest in something that I believe in. Because my project, there is no pilot project in France, this is everything from my hand and from my experience, that I had over these last 20 years.”
As mentioned, Justin is the Executive Director of Just Seafood Ltd., a seafood importer and distributor focused on life products. However, when he talks about ‘his project’, beyond his business as a wholesaler, Justin is almost always referring to ‘his fish farm’. It is his creature, surely his most ambitious project and, for sure, his most beloved. So much like something very dear that has been lost and then recovered. But where does all this passion come from?
Looking for quality and variety
As we will see throughout the interview, Justin is concerned about his country, Malta, and the image it can give to the world, but also about its long-term sustainability. “Unfortunately, we live in a beautiful country, on an island, surrounded by the sea but you cannot find any seafood,” the entrepreneur tells us. “All the seafood you can find is coming from Sicily, which is four or five days old,” he continues. And many of the people who have their business in fish and seafood in the country, he says, don’t really care.
“They don’t care, meaning that they all have their things, they get groupage from Sicily, and they are just getting what they find in Sicily when their trucks are coming down. And it’s a pity because we have such a beautiful country, we have more than two million people a week coming from abroad, and when you go to any seafood restaurant, the only things that you can find are black mussels from the same supplier – that they have no idea where it’s coming from -, they have venus clams… And it hurts me because it’s not fair.”
Aware that not only do they have more economic means than he does, but also more experience in the sector, his idea is not to go against these people, but to try to be their ally. “I want to help them to find a way where I can supply them with various shellfish, various like crustaceous,” he claims and gives us the example of how in those days he has managed to import several different types of oysters, “from Normandy, France, there is also Irish, and I’m also getting now from Scotland, so different taste, and from America, the flat oysters”, varieties that, he says, “people never have seen.”
At the moment, he’s concentrating on life products which, he explains, need a lot of attention, a lot of water chemistry, and of course, the best product. “On life products, there are a lot of seasons, so, I try to get the right product from the right country with the right price for everybody.” His concern at the moment is to get in the market, to start, to show the delicacies that you can get, even such as caviar, snow crab, or king crab… products that, he says, are just for certain markets. “But eventually, the company will grow, and will be able to have its own boats so that we can catch certain fish around the Mediterranean, and we also can concentrate on export. But at the beginning, it’s tough, especially because I bought back the fish farm.”
His fish farm, his life project
The fish farm comes once and again to Justin’s speech. Before, when telling us that when he plays football is when he can relax a little and forget about work, he also said: “However, I love my work. I want to make quite a big impact even in the society of the new generation because I believe a lot that the fish business at sea is not going as well good as people are hoping, meaning with the global warming, with the overfishing, with the population of the world enhancing like getting bigger, and the fish farming is the way forward. It is the future, and I think whoever owns a fish farming knows what he’s doing, it’s a massive investment.”
“The fish farm was already mine 12 years ago. I got investors, and since they got all the money, they gave me 49% shareholding. When everything was sorted and ready to start, they thought they can go do it without me, so they just chucked me out but then they went bankrupt after a year,” he tells us. Since then, he has been trying to get ‘his’ fish farm back. “I just sold my lungs, four liters of my blood, and a piece of my heart to have it,” he jokes, but he got it. As said, this fish farm is ‘the project’ for him.
“I’ve been 12 years running after it, and this is the only fish farm on land in Malta which have all the permits and everything. Of course, it was built in the 80s and it never worked because they did various mistakes. Now I fixed like 10% of it, and my job is to make it work and then eventually transform it the best I can,” he says. “Since I’m the new kid on the block, it’s not easy to be with a partner stronger than you like financially. So, my problem is that I want to do things of course, but I have a limit,” he confesses.” However, he doesn’t mind, “I work hard. I have a good team with me.”
Currently, the fish farm facilities serve as a hatchery to keep alive these shellfish species, which he distributes as a wholesaler. But his idea is always to go further, to help aquaculture in Malta take a step forward. His expansion plans will depend, he tells us, on the contracts he gets. “If it has to be for tuna or for sea bass, or sea bream, it depends on what the customers who own the cages want from us, because at the moment, all our fish farmers or fattening that they have the license and cages at the sea, they are buying their products from Greece and Spain and Italy.”
A future committed to that of Malta
In these future plans, there is also room for sustainability. “I already have had meetings with the Environment Ministers of Malta. She’s a very good friend of mine, Miriam Dalli,” he tells WeAreAquaculture. “And one part of the new generation of my fish farm is that, well, I did some studies and some work with laboratories, especially in Cornwell, there is a lobster hatchery. I want to do studies with them so that we can hatch lobsters on the fish farm,” he explains. “Also, give two or three times more money to the fishermen that catch them with eggs. Once we hatch them, we put them out at sea, so we can help them to increase their population.”
“We also want to get some other species of fish, try to breed them, and then let them go in the sea to help the population grow, of course, we’re going to make a laboratory for this,” he continues. “Hopefully, we can get also European funds to help us with this project. But when it comes to the future, I think money is not an issue, meaning that everybody knows that our seas, unfortunately, are getting less population in the sea. Because of many reasons, more ships, more climate change… and there’s not much control, it’s not easy.”
“And the other investment that we’re trying to do is to hatch the bluefin tuna that here in Malta we’re very famous for. However, we had big issues, especially with the Italians, regarding the bluefin tuna and over-catching,” he says. “Although at the moment the quotas are quite comfortable because there’s not in danger the bluefin tuna, I wish to try to find a system where we can also hatch the tuna, and then put it at sea or even also find a method to get bigger in the cages. So, these are all in the pipeline, that we’ll do in the future. Hopefully, we can start next year.”
Justin Haber is not worried about the future of his seafood import and distribution business, he is convinced it will work. “However, the future of this experiment of the fish farm, I am going to this project with such a big heart,” he says. As mentioned, his fish farm is the only one on land in Malta ready for certain operations, which puts it in a very good position. Moreover, he relies on his expertise. Contrary to what happens in other businesses such as restaurants, where he has to entrust part of the know-how to someone else, here he does not depend on anyone. “I can do the work, and I do it with passion,” he claims. “Of course, they’re going to be hiccups, they’re going to be problems, they’re going to be situations, however, which we can handle it’s a normal day at work.”
“I’m a very passionate person. I am a very big dreamer. And I just wish to follow what I love doing,” he says by way of conclusion. This time, he says, he’s “a bit more lucky” because he has a good team next to him. “That makes me more comfortable and more eager. I don’t mind if I work 20 hours a day, I have no problem because I know that behind me there are people that want the same objective.”
Since we met in Boston, he tells us, in barely two months he has traveled to Egypt, Turkey, Vietnam, and Italy. When you are doing something that you love, he says, that’s a plus that gives you more energy on your day-to-day. A lot of work and little rest, but he doesn’t mind. Justin Haber is a goalkeeper and is at ease in his position. He sees the play from afar and his team is doing well, the game can change at any moment but, as he says, “I don’t mind it. As long as things are happening, I’m happy.”