Leonard Habas(left) hosted Dean Louis A. Martin-Vega and College alumni at a "Meet the Dean" event last year.
So an electrical engineering student leaves college, joins the Air Force, heads off to grad school, enters the publishing business, buys an iconic sports magazine, and ends up owning a company that puts "Dora the Explorer" books on supermarket shelves nationwide.
Just your average, run-of-the-mill career path.
Leonard Habas knows his professional trajectory is unusual. The NC State electrical engineering alumnus drew on his engineering background to build a successful and varied business career.
"The discipline that you get from engineering, graduating from NC State, allowed me to educate myself in an area that I wasn't formally trained," said Habas, a 1966 graduate of the College.
Today, Habas is chairman and chief executive officer of Advance Publishers, an Orlando-area publisher of children's books featuring characters from Warner Bros., Nickelodeon and Disney. The company prints everything from Scooby Doo to SpongeBob SquarePants to the wildly popular Dora the Explorer, the top-rated preschool program on commercial television.
"SpongeBob, Dora, Diego (of the Go, Diego, Go! animated series) are the leading children's icons right now, and so that's what we publish," Habas said. "We try to be on the very edge."
Habas took a winding route to the world of children's book publishing. After graduating from NC State, he attended flight school in the Air Force, staying in the service for about four years. After getting a master's degree in engineering and management at Northeastern University, he went into the publishing business.
This career change, he said, was driven by a keen interest in finance. He understood investment opportunities when he saw them, and he was well-versed on tax rules. In the 1980s, he teamed up with a partner to buy Sport magazine, a venerable publication that was the original general-interest sports magazine in America, predating even Sports Illustrated (Habas eventually sold Sport). He also served on a few boards at Merrill Lynch, gaining more knowledge of finance and investing.
Habas and some business partners bought Advance Publishers in 1995, taking over an established company that was already publishing books for Disney and had a long history of selling them in supermarkets. But the company expanded under Habas' leadership, gaining licensing rights to Nickelodeon and other entertainment franchises and establishing relationships with club stores like Costco and Sam's Club, which now sell Advance books.
"That's a very profitable channel of distribution for us," he said.
Habas has also found time for other entrepreneurial ventures. In 1989, he helped create a dental biotech company that he eventually sold for a substantial profit. Habas and his business partners are supporting similar technology in a spinal-cord application now in trials with the Food and Drug Administration.
"If you have an understanding of how to raise capital in a disciplined way that evokes an element of integrity, the world is unlimited," he said.
Last winter, Habas hosted a "Meet the Dean" event for Dr. Louis A. Martin-Vega, dean of the College of Engineering, and alumni in the Orlando area. The events give Martin-Vega a chance to connect with alumni and update them on the goings-on at their alma mater.
Habas jumped at the chance to host.
"I wanted to do it because it was a privilege," he said.
Habas also sits on boards for the American Red Cross, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Alfred I. DuPont Testamentary Trust, which supports the care and treatment of sick and disabled children. He's helping the group build a new children's hospital in the Orlando area.
"I'm just absolutely thrilled to be a part of that."
The business and volunteer activities keep Habas busy, but he finds time for his four grandchildren and the occasional round of golf. He credits much of his success to his years toiling away in the electrical engineering department at NC State, building a skill set that has lent itself to business.
"It's using that engineering discipline," he said, "and applying it to finance."