One of Chicago’s most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs, Walter Harris, owner and founder of Harris Ice, shared a few crystals of wisdom at The Leader’s Network’s monthly meeting on May 9 at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd.
In 1970, Harris, a native of a small town near Shreveport, LA., traveled to Chicago after graduating high school. He was in search of a career. He said his father was a farmer and worked with cotton. His sisters and brothers were already in college and he was the youngest in the family.
“I did not want to pick cotton or chop cotton, so I came up north for better opportunities,” said Harris.
Harris recalled that shortly after settling in the city, he was hired at an ice company. After a few months on the job, the owner offered to sell Harris the business for $750. At the time of sale, the ice company retained 25 clients, mostly restaurants, Harris said.
“The people liked me, they trusted me, they knew I was a hard worker and anything they would ask me to do or tell me to do I did it,” said Harris.
Operating the ice business was not always easy, especially early on. Harris recalled that he wasn’t well known throughout the city when he first started. Additionally, he was limited to buying ice from a third party and making deliveries in his own truck because he did not manufacture his own ice.
Still, he was able to maintain a healthy supply of ice through a deal he struck with a local ice manufacturing company. Business ran smoothly for over a decade until the ice manufacturing company gave him a six-month notice that they would be ending their partnership.
Through the support of friends and thoughtful donations, he was able to purchase his first ice manufacturing machine for $150,000. The machine produced 20 tons of ice per day. He would soon need to purchase another ice machine that would allow him to produce 40 tons of ice per day.
Today, Harris said, his company, the nation’s only black-owned ice house, produces 100 tons of ice per day. Harris said he employs 28 full-time employees during the winter months and anticipates he will be hiring up to 70 employees to compensate for the additional business during the summer.
“When you’re in business for yourself you’re never off the clock,” Harris said. “When customers have a problem or they need me, I have an answering service and I go take care of it. As long as you give the customer the service you will always be in business.”
Harris said his company services 1,200 customers throughout Chicago on a wholesale basis. Currently, his biggest clients are grocery store chains, restaurants, bakeries, tech companies, and major sports teams.
To aspiring entrepreneurs, he advises individuals to “find your lane and when you find your lane, stay in it.”
Harris gave pointed remarks when asked about the dwindling number of African-American-owned businesses on Chicago’s West Side. He said when he first began working on the West Side, there were several restaurants and bars he partnered with regularly.
“We don’t have a lot of black businesses like we had 25 or 30 years ago, because we seem not to be motivated,” said Harris. “You have two classes of people: the people who want more and the people who need more. The want mores stand on the corner. The need mores push for more.”