From rock bottom to ICAST Best of Show winner – the incredible story of the PacBak man
From living rough on the streets of Alaska to winning the ICAST Best of Show award at a first attempt five years later – the story of entrepreneur and self-taught product designer Brian McKinnon reads like a Hollywood script.
McKinnon is the man behind PacBak and its P88-MK Combo cooler, which blew away big-hitters like Yeti and Engel to win the Soft and Hard Coolers category in Orlando on Wednesday night – and then went one better by winning the show’s top accolade by beating all 29 other category winners in Thursday’s Best of Show judging. The two moment capped an astonishing turnaround in McKinnon’s fortunes after he hit what he admits was ‘rock bottom’ just a few short years ago.
After creating his first successful company based around the development of a shallow-water craft ideal for first responders, McKinnon sold up and turned his back on business to switch to a simpler life in the trucking industry. It was after that switch that his life took a fateful turn. McKinnon was persuaded by a friend to visit Las Vegas for a short trip, but it was there that they were both caught up in the infamous Route 91 atrocity where 60 people lost their lives in a mass shooting, including McKinnon’s best friend. “He died in my arms,” he says today with heartbreaking candour.
McKinnon suffered from PTSD after the event, turned to alcohol and eventually found himself homeless and, by his own admission, suicidal. He was saved from one attempt and from that point decided that his life was meant to be lived with purpose. McKinnon took more jobs in trucking for stability, but then turned to his first passions in life: product development and… fishing.
The idea for the P88-MK Combo cooler came from McKinnon’s memories of catching wild salmon with his brother Phil. “We practically lived on the river,” he says today. “And we loved to fillet the salmon we caught and cook it right there. My idea for the cooler came from people not ever being able to experience the unique taste of fresh-caught salmon. I mean, really fresh. It hits differently, much sweeter.”
So McKinnon set about developing a cooler with a battery operated vacuum sealer, which immediately and completely seals anything locked into an air-tight bag. For salmon, he calls it ‘trapping the taste’. But the applications extend way beyond fresh fish and actually beyond fishing itself. McKinnon has had interest in his cooler from first responders and the military, who need to transport protected items to isolated locations. There was also early interest from the authorities charged with transporting Covid vaccines to remote areas of Alaska, keeping them intact and at perfect temperatures to work properly.
“But anglers just get it,” he says when asked why he is pitching his invention to the fishing community. “I don’t need to sell the benefits of the cooler to them. They know straight away.” They also like the fact that the PacBak P88-MK Combo comes with not one but two insulated chambers, to keep apart wet and dry items or stuff that needs to be kept cool in one side and warm drinks in the other. There is also a folding table tucked into the cooler’s lid.
It’s why, when McKinnon heard of ICAST, he made a very late application for a booth. Yes, there was one final twist in the PacBak tale. PacBak was almost not in Orlando at all. “We booked our booth just three weeks before the show,” McKinnon told Angling International.
And now, as he says, ‘everything is going to change.’ McKinnon admits to being intimidated by the presence of big brand rivals when he, brother Phil and business advisor and investor Jac Arbour pitched up their little booth in a corner of the show floor on Tuesday morning. He also admits to a few tears in private after that first award was announced on Wednesday. But now, after years of struggle, for PacBak and the man who bounced back from rock bottom, there is all to play for in the angling market and beyond.