Freeze Frame interview with Lars Christensen of Plusice ApS in Denmark

The use of ice in Europe can be traced as far back to the days of ancient Rome. During winter, the Romans would bring it to Rome from the Alps, and then store it in underground ice houses until it was used in the summer. They even developed a way to make ice in North Africa where they would literally shield water in straw-lined pits (reflect the sun’s rays with their polished fighting shields) during the day. At night the temperature would fall low enough to freeze water. Pretty ingenious! Since those days many hundreds of years ago, the use of ice in Europe seemed to fall out of fashion, but today, the EPIA is once again promoting the production and use of ice in Europe. We, as modern day Icemen and Icewomen, are forging the way to making packaged ice a common everyday product used by all. We want to record the history we are making for future generations, and continuing a program we call “Freeze Frame” to tell the stories of our members. Below is the official Freeze Frame interview with Lars Christensen of Plusice ApS in Denmark.

(Interviewer) Would you tell me about your background and how you got involved with packaged ice, especially in a country that is cold so much of the year such as Denmark?

(Lars) Ice runs in the family. My father and brother have been working with Hoshizaki ice machines for the past 15 years since around 2002, building up a company in Denmark. In my early age (15-17 years), I helped my father with marketing materials, and doing that gained a great knowledge about ice machines. Not especially “cool” for a boy at that age, but I’m glad I did it anyway.

When I turned 18, I moved to Aarhus and started to study at the business school in a dedicated class where the purpose was to be an entrepreneur. Aarhus is the second biggest city in Denmark with approximately 350.000 inhabitants, so nothing compared with big cities all around Europe. Nonetheless the city was where I created my network of bartenders, and saw an opportunity.

My big brother (almost 20 years older) and our father had been investing a lot of time in building up Hoshizaki brand ice machines for resale in Denmark. Mainly for dealers that sold to bars and discotheques.

Our father had some customers who rented ice machines for bigger parties. These bartenders discovered the business benefits of selling cocktails instead of just beer. But it was a lot of work, broken machines, connecting and disconnecting, for only 1-2 days of use for parties they only had once or twice a year. Therefore, in the entrepreneurial spirit, I bought one of my father’s machines, made ice and put it into a thermal box and sold to the bars. Same price as the rent of an ice machine, but with a lot less work and risk.

Together with my brother and father we built up the business in the two largest cities in Denmark, Aarhus and Copenhagen. The two cities with most bars, restaurants and discotheques and then we just had a lot of Hoshizaki ice machines and converted self-contained refrigerated ice boxes. Everything packed in thermal boxes and ready to distribute with our own cars, day and night.

Back in 2010 we took a trip to the US. We had heard a lot of the US and their huge consumption of ice. We wanted to see why and how it was done. We got in touch with an American ice company, building plants all over the World. We arranged a visit and saw multiple plants and how it could be done. In 2011 we bought the equipment, a small 5 ton Vogt plant with Rake, shaker, bagger and crusher and started producing packaged ice in 2 kg. bags.

(Interviewer) What major challenges and problems did you face in changing how you produced and sold ice? How did you handle them?

(Lars) Something that has been mentioned 100 times. Knowing something about the smaller production capability of the Hoshizaki machines and then ramping up to much larger production in a mechanized ice plant was a challenge. That’s a very big transition, and the lack of support from the US, made it difficult and more expensive. We came through it, and learned a lot about the process. Also, we learned which kind of people we needed to employ and which suppliers to use. After a few years, we learned how to operate our new plant properly and how to “fine tune” the production for efficiency in order to get more capacity.

Back in 2010 I was in my early 20’s, and trying to run an ice plant. That wasn’t easy, I had no technical background, only a business degree, and visiting the potential big clients in Denmark. Try to imagine a skilled buyer from a big chain sitting across the table from an energetic 22-year-old boy wanting to sell ice.

The first couple of years was tough, but I returned to the clients every year and with the support from my father and brother we succeeded and are still growing our business.

(Interviewer) What have you learned from your mistakes?

(Lars) As Albert Einstein said: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried something new.” This was new, and we were the first producers in Denmark. We made mistakes every day, working with a lot of different people, and all of that experience I will take with me on my future journey.

(Interviewer) What are the organization’s/company’s strengths and weaknesses compared to its competition?

(Lars) Denmark is not a big country, less than 6 million in population and the home market is very small compared to the rest of Europe. Although, we are the only Danish supplier in Denmark, we have strong competition from nearby countries.

Our strength is our family and history. Never have I worked with such passionate colleagues, nobody is counting the hours, no matter how long the days get. The family has been in the ice and ice machine business for many years, and we have the knowledge and history, so customers and business associates know, that we are not a “pop-up company.” We have built our reputation through hard work and excellent customer service.

We also know the market, the players and who to contact. Competitors that have not been working in this market as long as we have would never have the breadth of knowledge of the Danish packaged ice market that we now have.

Our weakness is definitely our size and wallet. Big producers have less cost per bag and more automation than we have. When the sun is shining the production is trying to keep up ;). Our busy season is short compared to warmer climates. Therefore we must use our imagination and innovation to expand our product offerings and our overall business and production efficiency.

(Interviewer) Are you HACCP certified?

(Lars) Yes, and we did it right after building the plant. The demands for food safety are very high in Denmark. And after building the new plant we wanted to get HACCP certified, before getting too many “bad” habits. We got a Scandinavian certification company to do an ISO22000 and got certified right away. Now we have had it for 6 years, improving our food safety constantly.

Also we are very happy to have it, it’s something to be proud of, and our customers understand the importance of high quality safe ice. It gives them a certainty and the confidence that we know what we are doing and that our products do not put them in jeopardy from unsafe ice, “Ice you can trust” as said by the EPIA members.

(Interviewer) Your business has changed over that last nine years. What role do you play in the day-to-day operations of your packaged ice business today?

(Lars) In our family I have the job of running Plusice, while my father and brother run the other company. We support each other when needed and make all big decisions together. I have the daily responsibility making sure everything is runs smoothly and that we sell all the ice we produce. I have an amazing team around me to handle paperwork and all the technical details at the factory.

(Interviewer) How many people do you employ during the busy season and during the “off season”?

(Lars) We employ 5 full time all year, for the factory and administration. Besides that, we have lot of “young power” for the busy season, I guess around 20. They help with packing and deliveries for our customers almost 24/7. We have 4 trucks delivering all around Denmark and we see an increasing market.

(Interviewer) What is the typical work week?

(Lars) Since the beginning I work Monday – Saturday. And only Sunday the company are closed. It’s important for me to keep the service level high, but also hard work especially on the weekends, where we are available all day until midnight. My team and partners help, so it doesn’t get too much.

(Interviewer) How is it to be the youngest member of the BoD in EPIA?

(Lars) Joining the EPIA back in 2013, I was entering a world I would never had imagined. EPIA is so exciting because you have members that have been working with ice for decades and even multiple generations. There is so much knowledge, enthusiasm and eagerness for having fun! I have felt very welcome from the first day, thanks to everybody for that!

At the convention in Granada I was encouraged to run for the BoD, to try bringing fresh thoughts to the table. Now I see how much is actually going on between the conventions. A great team and a lot of effort is put into making EPIA reach its goals. One thing I have been thinking about is the title “Producer representative”, but it’s doesn’t seem as the producers use a representative.

Therefore I would encourage every producer reading this, to contact me with anything on their mind regarding EPIA and I hope to contact all those who do not contact me to discuss what is on your mind. Thank you for a great organization and looking forward to seeing you all in Poland 2017.

Some personal insight: When I don’t work, I spend a lot of time with my lovely girlfriend Line. A girl a met in boarding school at the age of 16, and we have been together since. I brought her for the EPIA conventions in 2013, 2014 and 2015, because she was still studying. Hopefully most EPIA members have met her. She definitely is the love of my life.

We try to enjoy life together, whether it’s traveling, eating good food and tasting delicious wines or visiting cities all across Europe or laying by a beach.

Right now we try to experience as much as possible.