On Ice
Staff photographer Caitlin Abrams captures Minnesota Ice co-founder and CEO Robbie Harrell at his very cold St. Paul facility

On Ice

Cool stories of success and leadership to keep you motivated all winter.

I met Robbie Harrell during that wild and wonderful 10-day stretch that led up to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. It was late January 2018, and the city felt electric—full of possibilities, people, and career-making opportunities.

Harrell was 27 at the time, four years into the ice business. Part-time work delivering ice sculptures for a local company gave him the idea to start an ice sculpting business of his own. When he didn’t make it past the second round of an entrepreneurship challenge at the University of St. Thomas, he dropped out and used his textbook money to buy the equipment to get his new company, Minnesota Ice, up and running. 

He’d built ice bars for local pubs and provided enormous blocks for St. Paul’s Crashed Ice event. But nothing could have prepared him for the requests that poured in before Super Bowl LII. Remember the 14-foot-tall Lombardi Trophy that welcomed visitors to Nicollet Mall? Harrell’s team built it—and about 200 other installations that required more than a million pounds of ice in all. In the days leading up to the big game, Harrell bought plane tickets for any ice carver around the country willing to come and help.

I heard through the grapevine about the young entrepreneur responsible for all the ice sculptures popping up around town, and as a reporter looking for any fresh local angle on all the hoopla, Harrell’s story jumped out. We met at the corner of Sixth Street and Nicollet, where his team was carving “Super Bowl LII” in ice that stood almost tall enough to scrape the skyway. Blizzard warnings had sent downtown workers (remember them?) home early; flakes settled on the hoods of our parkas and dampened my notebook as we conducted the interview. There’s a video of it somewhere on social media. 

We stayed in touch after the game—Harrell would text me the occasional business update, like his move to a larger manufacturing facility in St. Paul. But then the pandemic hit, and demand melted. No one needed giant ice sculptures or the other Minnesota Ice specialty: artisan cocktail ice—those perfectly clear spheres or rocks you get in $14 drinks at bars around town. I wondered about Harrell, as I did about so many other small businesses. 

Then I received a Mucci’s frozen pizza as part of a care package tied to a virtual event and noticed that it was delivered to my home in a Minnesota Ice truck. That smart (Harrell might call it desperate) pivot, along with a few other creative moves, got the company through the first six months of the pandemic and also helped identify some new opportunities. Harrell says he expects to top $10 million in sales this year. 

Minnesota Ice is one of eight manufacturers to receive TCB’s 2022 Manufacturing Excellence Awards. True to form, the enterprising Harrell immediately offered to create an ice sculpture for the occasion, which you’ll see on page 24. We’re keeping it in a freezer for display at our Feb. 16 event, when we’ll talk to leaders of each winning company about innovations in the field, as well as how they’re handling supply chain, talent recruitment, and other challenges. (Visit tcbmag.com/events/mea22 for tickets.)

I also want to give a shout-out to our art team, creative director Michael Norseng and photographer Caitlin Abrams, who bundled up to shoot the TCB ice sculpture in a freezing cold warehouse. As you’ve already seen from our cover, that wasn’t our only icy photo shoot for this issue. Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin laced up his skates and took to center ice at Xcel Energy Center following his in-depth conversation  about sports and leadership with senior editor Liz Fedor, whom I only recently discovered knows as much about hockey as she does business news. Yes, Guerin is intent on bringing home a championship, but as he’s building a winning organization, he focuses on workplace culture. “Culture is a living and breathing thing,” he tells Fedor. “If you don’t keep your thumb on it every single day, it can get away from you.”    

At a time when our work lives remain in flux, and culture building can be more challenging than ever, I hope you’ll find some useful nuggets of wisdom in this jam-packed issue, which—yep, I’m going to say it—just might be our coolest yet.