Turning ice into gold: Clemson student-entrepreneur creates a new standard
The idea of turning ice into “gold” has taken Josh Luetkemeyer ’15 from a globe-trotting marketing career with the Coca-Cola Company to Clemson University’s MBA in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program. Referred to by the initials MBAe, this unique academic program has been designed to attract spirited individualists who wish to thoroughly explore the entrepreneurial side of business. The 10 elite members of Clemson’s MBAe class of 2015 represent both the for-profit and the not-for-profit sectors. While most of the participants are concentrating on their own original product-based concepts, there are a few members of the class who are engaged in addressing societal needs through building service-related companies. What Clemson’s MBAe students, past and present, have in common is drive, tenacity and a natural affinity for “big picture” thinking.
While Luetkemeyer, age 35, had always envisioned that he would one day start his own company, he never anticipated that a large block of ice would serve as the inspiration for what he now predicts will be his powerhouse business. What led to Luetkemeyer’s revelatory “ice” moment was a successful career promoting Coca Cola’s support of the Olympic Games. Fresh out of St. Louis University, where he began as an aviation major and ultimately earned an undergraduate degree in marketing along with a pilot’s license, Luetkemeyer was hired by Coca-Cola’s event marketing and sponsorship agency.
Luetkemeyer’s first assignment was to work as part of a 300-person team assembled to produce the Olympic Torch Relay at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Thriving on the behind-the-scenes collaboration and inspired by the iconic positive message of the Olympic Games, Luetkemeyer then traveled to a number of countries as part of the planning and implementation of the 2004 Olympic Torch Relay for the Athens Games. He took a hiatus from Coca-Cola to promote the Asian Games, and re-joined the Coca-Cola marketing team to help plan the 2008 Beijing Olympic Torch Relay. This relay was the longest torch relay of any previous Olympic games, lasting 130 days. He worked on the torch relay for the 2010 Vancouver winter games and 2012 summer games in London. By the time he headed off to Russia in 2012 to prepare for the 2014 Sochi Torch Relay, Luetkemeyer had seen much of the world. “Coming from Argyle, Missouri, where the population is 160 strong, each day of travel was a new adventure for me,” says Luetkemeyer. “To be in Russia was amazing. There was so much culture and history to absorb.”
It was in Russia, where Luetkemeyer quite fortuitously came face-to-face with what has now become his entrepreneurial edge — ice. “It became apparent to me early on that in Russia alcoholic beverages are typically served without ice,” says Luetkemeyer. “One night at a restaurant after I asked for some ice cubes for my drink, my accommodating server returned to my table carrying the closest thing to ice cubes she could produce — a large block of ice. She then proceeded to shave off chunks of crystal clear ice which went into my glass. No drink had ever before tasted more refreshing and I am convinced it was the quality of the ice that made the drink so special.”
His experience that night led him to research everything he could about clear ice. While not a new concept, premium ice is a relatively new trend in the United States and is gaining popularity in some of the best bars in the country. He sought to perfect the “recipe” and started to experiment in his Moscow apartment with different ice molds and different waters in an attempt to replicate the quality ice that had so mesmerized him. The more he learned, the more convinced Luetkemeyer became that clear ice had the potential of becoming the “next big thing” and was a product he wanted to claim as his own. While Luetkemeyer was eager to propel forward with this business idea, he was, at the same time, cautiously realistic. Recognizing that an undergraduate degree in marketing was an asset and his years of experience in promotions were invaluable, Luetkemeyer still did not feel ready to jump into the role of entrepreneur. He needed help so that he could build a strong launching pad, and wisely Luetkemeyer started to inquire about MBA programs, sensing that the right program at the right school could provide him with the knowledge and support that would help him succeed. Luetkemeyer was drawn to the master’s degree program for aspiring entrepreneurs at Clemson, feeling confident that Clemson’s MBAe program was going to teach him how to take his idea and turn it into a successful business. After living in Russia for two years, and after more than a 10-year affiliation with Coca-Cola and the Olympics, Luetkemeyer moved from Moscow to Greenville to begin a new chapter in his life.
The first two months of the MBAe program had Luetkemeyer and each of his colleagues meeting face-to-face with potential customers to check the validity of their business or product ideas. This approach is a hallmark of the Clemson program. While many graduate business programs recommend beginning the start-up process by creating a business plan, the MBAe program at Clemson has its own methodology of “testing the waters” first. Clemson students are asked to spend two months identifying and interviewing potential customers. This process allows students to learn from the market, as well as grow, modify and pivot ideas to find the most success. If interest is noted, then it is time to write the business plan and proceed. For Luetkemeyer, this meant talking to as many people as he could to ascertain interest in a premium ice product. He initially visited restaurants, bars and grocery chains, eventually discovering that individual consumers, particularly those with disposable income, could best drive the demand. His field research indicated positive opinions regarding premium ice. It provided Luetkemeyer with invaluable information about where and how to best market the product. It also gave him the opportunity to educate the public about the benefits of the product, placing particular emphasis on how “premium ice” differs from ordinary ice found in most American drinks. While the price of “gourmet” ice is higher than typical mass distributed ice, Luetkemeyer sees his “top shelf” product being perfect for holidays and special celebratory occasions. After identifying his niche market and designing a business plan that could best set his company in motion, Luetkemeyer formed a team and went into production of his specialized brand of ice cubes. His team includes a manufacturing engineer and website and logo designers. “My company has produced an ice cube that is oversized at 2-inches,” says Luetkemeyer. “By freezing our water in such a way that all air, impurities and containments are forced out, we are able to create a denser, clearer ice cube. With this density comes a slower melting cube, which means a less watered down drink. Our cubes last 8 to 13 minutes more than the same volume of scooped ice.”
In addition to the freezing process, Luetkemeyer’s cubes are made from water that is local to Greenville. Greenville’s water source, ranked the highest quality in the country, flows from mountain springs that are rich in minerals. He uses a scientifically designed filtration system that balances these minerals with the pH factor of the water and this is what gives the cubes its exceptional clarity and fine taste. This taste enhances the flavor of the drink itself.”
In early November, just six months after starting graduate school, Luetkemeyer sold his packaged ice cubes to local liquor stores, marking the official start up of Standard Ice. Clemson’s MBAe program has carefully guided Luetkemeyer through the process every step of the way. As he continues in the program, Luetkemeyer enhances the immediate and long term goals for Standard Ice. He is now exploring the next stage of his business — growing the brand nationally by selling to such food and beverage giants as Whole Foods Market and Total Wine. He is also collaborating with students from Clemson’s College of Engineering to understand the possibility of creating a more efficient production method to produce these cubes and invent a machine that would be able to dispense Standard Ice’s large scale brand of ice cubes to restaurants and bars. His long range vision is to set up Standard Ice manufacturing plants all over the country to eliminate the need for shipping. Currently Standard Ice is available in two downtown Greenville locations — The Nose Dive Bar on Main Street and Bouharoun’s Fine Wine and Spirits on Broad Street.
While energized by his success so far, Luetkemeyer also understands that it is best to build his company slowly. He is taking the time to get consumer feedback before moving ahead too quickly. He will earn his MBAe in May and intends on staying with Standard Ice for a while, or at least until the next great idea inspires him. “Clemson is definitely the reason I was able to come to this point,” he says. “I was not looking for a program that was heavy into theory. This very unique business immersion program has enabled me to explore my potential as an entrepreneur. It has taught me that there is a solution for every business problem, particularly when you attack it from an entrepreneurial frame of reference. Looking back, I think I can honestly say that the drink I had in Russia was a game changer, but my decision to go to Clemson… the value of that can’t be put into words.”