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Thrill-seeker Freeman scales challenges of entrepreneurship

BY Stan Simpson

8/7/2017
HBJ PHOTO | Steve Laschever
HBJ PHOTO | Steve Laschever
When he’s not running his Hartford engineering firm, Rohan Freeman challenges himself physically. He is believed to be the first African American to complete the Seven Summits.
Before he launched his engineering business eight years ago, Rohan Freeman wanted to get two things out of the way.

He wanted to successfully summit Mount Everest, because he had failed to do so a year earlier in 2008. Freeman also wanted to ride his mountain bike 2,745 miles along the continental divide from Banff, Canada to the New Mexico/Mexico border. It took him and a friend three weeks to complete the trek.

Having tested himself physically, mentally and spiritually, starting his own firm would provide yet another adventure.

As president of Freeman Companies, which provides land development, engineer design and construction services, the Jamaica native has grown his business from a one-person operation with an attic office to a 36-person firm. A two-story, 12,000-square-foot former fire station on John Street in Hartford is the company's home.

The ups and downs of running a business are similar to climbing the world's highest mountain.

"I just love to be challenged," Freeman, 51 said. "And if I do something and it's easy I just don't feel accomplished. I love to be successful in business, but I also love to be successful in my physical personal challenges."

He is believed to be the first African American to complete the Seven Summits, climbing the world's highest peaks. He has journeyed to the North Pole; and in January plans to add the South Pole to his punch list.

The adrenalin rush from his outdoor pursuits is similar to the exhilaration he gets from securing and executing a business deal, which may include work on landscape designs, tunnels, roadways, parking lots, traffic signals, bridges, sewer systems and buildings. Clients include the Metropolitan District Commission, the city of Hartford, Capitol Region Education Council and the new Dunkin' Donuts minor league baseball stadium.

"We are what drives civilization," Rohan said about the role of the engineer. "When you get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and turn the water on, or flush the toilet the engineer helps to make that happen. No one cares about those things. They take it for granted, unless there is a problem. The only time you ever hear about the engineer is when there is a problem."

Projected revenue this year is $5.6 million, up from $4 million last year.

"Business is really good," Freeman said. "From the first time since inception, I feel like we have a complete team in that the company can tackle any project from top to bottom. It's a gratifying feeling because I know how hard it has been to put this team together and get a team where you are happy with everyone.''

The second of four children, this single father is close to his family. His mother, Desna Foster, provides administrative duties to his firm. Two brothers, Lennox and Arden Keen, are both employed as land surveyors. Freeman's father, Everol, a retired maintenance worker at Carnegie Hall, lives in New York.

Freeman graduated from UConn in 1995, with a degree in engineering. A sprinter, he was also co-captain of the track team. On an average day, he is up at about 6 a.m. and usually there is a two-hour workout that can include running, lifting weights, riding his bicycle and swimming. The 6-foot, 180-pound frame is fit, though he concedes to enjoying a good cabernet and a margarita or two.

As a kid growing up in Montego Bay, math always interested Freeman. After graduating from UConn, he landed several engineering jobs, the most significant being the director — and later a principal — of the Hartford office for BL Companies from 2005 to 2009. There, he learned how to secure office space, negotiate a lease, interview and hire people, build an organization and secure clients.

The experience at BL gave Freeman the confidence in 2009 to open his business. He believes in a work culture that is "entrepreneurial," in which employees have a voice and a personal stake in the success of the company.

"The biggest thing we push here is balance. We don't want anybody working 60 hours a week. We want you to have a balanced life. When I was younger, I used to work 70, 80 hours a week — and that was crazy. I want people to appreciate their life outside of work; to do other things and have other interests. Ultimately, I think you get more out of work by having that balance."

Besides expanding Freeman Companies outside of Connecticut, Freeman is still in hot pursuit of those thrill-seeker adventures.

In August, he will take on a three-week challenge dubbed "Mission Impossible" — attempting to summit the Eiger and Matahorn mountains in Switzerland, and the Mont Blanc in France.

Just another day at the office.

Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of "The Stan Simpson Show," on Fox 61.