Fred Carlson, who received the 2011 Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from the Georgia Tech Alumni Association, understands the importance of a strong professional network. In fact, he credits his many Georgia Tech connections with contributing to his success as an entrepreneur.
Carlson, who earned his BS in civil engineering (CE) in 2001 and MBA in 2004 from Georgia Tech, started his bagged-ice business with the Tech alumnus he's known the longest: His father, Doug Cone, CE 1950. He got help writing the business plan for the company with classmates from his entrepreneurial finance course.
"The course included a business plan competition," Carlson explains. "By that point, my Dad and I had started working with a couple of farmers in south Georgia who were developing an automated machine that could produce and bag ice. I shared the idea for this startup with my classmates, and they agreed it would be a fun business plan to write. Our team won second place."
Carlson and his father founded the company, Ice House USA, in December 2003 and grew it to operate 14 ice machines on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Different than the ice coolers found outside many gas stations, Ice House's kiosks are completely automated and stand alone in shopping-center parking lots with their own water, power, and Internet connections (the latter allowing for remote troubleshooting).
By eliminating much of the manpower associated with other bagging and distribution techniques, Ice House is able to sell its product for about half of what many retail stores do. The company has five employees and hires independent contractors to service the machines.
Ice House quickly became attractive to outside investors. "From day one, we got calls from people wanting to get into the business or buy us out," Carlson says. "After about five years, when we'd reached the point where it would be profitable to exit, we started talking seriously with those folks. We sold the business in June 2010."
Future Looks Bright
A father of two young children who lives in Tampa, Florida, Carlson continues on with Ice House in an advisory role during this transitional period. But he's starting to consider future opportunities, possibly involving real estate or high-tech startups.
After first graduating from Tech in 2001, Carlson followed his father into the road construction business in Florida, working in that industry for a year. He was drawn back to Tech for his MBA studies by the family atmosphere he felt while visiting the College of Management as well as the Ira Hardin Fellowship he received.
As MBA graduation approached, he'd planned on pursuing a career in commercial real estate, but the Ice House opportunity was really heating up. "My Dad said, 'If you're serious, we need to get started, and I can't have you distracted.'"
So they got serious, and Carlson soon found that his MBA education was instrumental to their success. "For example, Tech's course in negotiations and conflicts helped me immediately, as I started going head-to-head with shopping center developers and grocery stores," he says. "I had to do a lot of that negotiating over the phone as we explored common needs and interests to make win-win agreements for everybody – exactly what we learned how to do in class."
As the company grew, Carlson looked to other Tech alumni for assistance. For example, Jonathan Clark (MBA 2004) consulted on operations management solutions for peak demand periods such as hurricanes and holidays. And later, Justice Chamlee (MBA 2004) provided a corporate valuation as Carlson and his father started to consider selling the business.
"I hope that other alums realize that they have such an opportunity for personal and business growth by staying connected to the College of Management," Carlson says. "I now make it a regular practice to communicate with one MBA graduate or faculty member each week. Interestingly enough, two people I have become quite close with here in Tampa were MBA alumni who did not graduate anywhere near the same time that I did. We share similar values, interests, and a passion for analyzing businesses and emerging markets. What we share most, though, is our love for Tech."
Carlson says he is passionate about his participation in the Georgia Tech Suncoast Alumni Club, a top-tier alumni club for which he currently serves as vice president. "I'm also excited about the further development of the MBA Jackets alumni affinity group as well as the Georgia Tech Entrepreneurs Network online."
He says he's also enjoyed mentoring an undergraduate Denning Technology & Management student, Margeaux Leighton (winner of the College of Management's 2011 Professional Excellence Award), through the Mentor Jackets Program. The Technology & Management program cross-trains business and engineering students. "The Technology & Management Program gives its graduates a competitive edge to succeed in an economy where the lines between engineering and business are no longer apparent. That is what I love about the education I received as an MBA at Tech. Every case study or business question we engaged in was approached through the lens of quantitative analysis, systematic thinking, and innovative problem solving in addition to organizational behavior and ethics."