Freeze Frame interview with Venetia Marietta Binou of Crystal Ice in Athens Greece

The use of ice in Europe can be traced back to the days of ancient Rome. Today, the EPIA is once again adding more to the history of ice in Europe through our members who produce ice and those who make it possible by developing modern equipment. We, as members of the EPIA want to record the history we are making for future generations and are continuing the program that we call “Freeze Frame” to tell the stories of our members. Below is the latest official Freeze Frame interview with Venetia Marietta Binou of Crystal Ice in Athens Greece.

(Interviewer) Before we begin, let me first ask how to address you. I have heard several names used and I thought your name was Marietta, but find your first name to be “Venetia”. What name do you prefer to be used?

(Marietta) Just as you are called by your middle name, I normally am called by my middle name Marietta. My “official” first name is Venetia which is the Greek word for Venice. That said, my middle name Marietta is the name that my family and friends call me. I like both names, but find that Marietta is used most often.

(Interviewer) Marietta, would you tell us about your background and how you got involved with the packaged ice industry?

(Marietta) Before I start talking about me and my background I think it would be best to talk a little about my grandfather who is the founder of Crystal Ice.

My grandfather Bill Kappas founded Crystal Ice in 1986 when he returned to Greece after years living abroad where he had established and ran businesses in real estate, travel, and hospitality. Bill was born in Athens, where his father (that is my great-grandfather) worked as the chief engineer for the operations providing water supplies to Athens. Like his father, Bill trained in engineering and after completing his compulsory military service in the Greek Navy he joined the merchant navy as a mechanic. This gave him the chance to see the world. After a few years on the seas he settled in the United States where he found it was possible to become an entrepreneur in an environment which rewarded innovation and supported new enterprises. Bill says that he found two key factors made his businesses a success: time and quality.

When he returned to Greece in the early 80’s, he wanted to open a new business, but in the meanwhile he bought an eight meter (26 foot) boat and re-engaged with the sea around Greece which he had missed since his days in the Greek Navy. Bill says, I needed ice for my trips and in Greece at the time, unlike the States, you could not easily buy ice. So I bought a freezer and made ice for my boat. At the marinas so many other boat owners would ask me where I got my ice that it was obvious there was an unrealized and unmet demand for ice in Greece. When I told some of my friends that I was going to go into the ice business they told me they thought it would be a bad idea because ice was just water and who would buy frozen water. When I told my aging father, the water engineer, he smiled and said “your timing is perfect this is an idea whose time has arrived for Greece.”

Ice is water, but its production requires an emphasis on quality and although we had to do a lot to bring awareness to the Greek consumer about ice we knew from our experience at marinas across Greece that there was an unrecognized demand for ice. When I started working with my grandfather, the demand for our ice quickly outstripped our initial production capacity. This led us after a couple of year to design and build a new ice factory which opened in early 2004 in time for the Athens Olympics in the industrial park of Ano Liosia in Athens. Our new facility can produce up to 60 tons of ice per day. We have more than 2000 points of sale with our own merchandisers and some 2500 clients. Our ice is sold at various points of sale including supermarkets and gas stations in Athens and around much of Greece.

The ice business is a food business. Product quality and safety in every aspect of production is essential. In striving to ensure the quality of our product and in delivering our clients highest level of customer service we strive for what one of the truly great Greeks of all time, Aristotle described as the “pursuit of excellence.” Throughout my life I have always been driven by this ideal and I will tell my grandchildren that it really does not matter what you do in life so long as you set yourself the goal to be the best at it.

Marietta’s Story

I have many childhood memories of visiting my grandfather’s ice factory, Crystal Ice. We would go there every Saturday and some afternoons during the week. When I was really young the workers would let me use the foot-peddle of our ice bagging machine—as a child it was so cool to press the peddle on the machine watch the bags fill with ice. As I got older I helped out in the accountancy department doing such tasks as sorting invoices and filing.

Along with fond memories of helping out in the factory, being raised in Greece made me appreciate ancient Greek history and civilization and this led me to study archaeology at University. Understanding the past is really exciting although as I discovered it is a slow and incremental process and sadly not like the archaeology of the Indiana Jones movies. So when I was looking for a career I decided to get a master’s degree in Information Management at the University of Glasgow. The year in Scotland was wonderful—whisky, haggis, and Scottish dancing (which has a lot in common with Greek dancing from the islands).

When I returned to Greece I found a job, which gave me a chance to combine my degrees in archaeology with information technology, digitizing the records of archaeological collections in over 60 Greek museums. When the crisis hit in 2009 and funding for access to collections dried up, rather than flee to another country, I decided to remain in Greece–the country I love.

The software industry in Greece is a tight community and working in digitization and information technology in the cultural sector led me to meet lots of techies and to also see in Greek businesses how better uses of information systems and services could make them more efficient. I was always astonished at how few doctor’s offices had systems for managing administration and patient records. When the company I was working for got a contract to digitize the medical records of a clinic, it seemed that there was an opportunity. So with a computer systems engineer I started a company providing doctors with specialized software to manage their patients’ medical records. In the company my work focused on marketing, sales, management and my co-founder was the system developer and lead coder. We made a wonderfully complementary team. Currently our software company is comprised by 14 people.

Although I found great satisfaction in defining and selling software, most Saturdays I would still go to my grandfather’s ice factory because the ice business has always remained part of my life. This past summer, with my software company running smoothly, I started working at Crystal Ice since June 2016 and in August, I became the CEO.

(Interviewer) Officially starting at the top is nice, but it must have had a progression of roles and responsibilities. Can you tell me about that and maybe a few memorable moments along the way?

(Marietta) Obviously, I am new in the ice business but having a 6 year experience in running my own company has made the transition smoother. I believe that all business are at their core the same no matter what goods or services they provide.

Although currently my core roles are in the areas of sales and marketing, Bill is making every effort to develop my knowledge about every aspect of the ice factory. His years of experience have allowed him to acquire a 360 degree understanding of the ice business and he is ensuring that I learn both from my own experiences and from his.

I have been working in different roles since the summer of 2016. I arrive at the factory at 6:30 AM to work out the delivery routes and oversee the loading of the trucks. I have tried to spend time in all the different departments each week. So I have assisted on the production line, gone out with the technical staff when they go to install or repair our customer-based fridges, even travelled with the drivers on delivery runs, and I spent time working on managing accounts and doing financial planning. I often answer the phones and take orders from our clients or visit our various points of sales so I can better understand their particular needs so that our Crystal Ice customers can gain confidence in the next generation of the company. Having been involved hands on in different operations of the factory not only has it allowed me to gain faster a better understanding of our ice business but also brought me closer to our employees who had to gain confidence in the new leadership. I should add that simple things such as introducing small competitions which made our day to day operations more fun has contributed in motivating employees and at the same time bringing us closer. For instance over the summer, even though it was really busy, we had turned the loading of the trucks into a competition; the first truck to be loaded would become “the truck of the day”. We even kept scores and at the end of the month the “truck of the month” won a small prize.

My responsibilities for marketing and sales have included developing a new website, overseeing the development of long and short promotional videos, and using social media including Facebook to get the message out about our products. A big issue is ensuring that we increase popular awareness about how important quality is in ice production.

Family businesses can be challenging, but with family comes trust. My experience running my own medical software business gave me the chance to develop my skills in sales and marketing and in particular the use of social media for these purposes along with general management skills. Bill appreciates the value that this experience brings to our ice business and he is sharing his knowledge with me. We are building trust together.

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

(Marietta) We employee 18 people during the winter and around 25 people during the high season. In the Athens area business starts to ramp up from the end of March to our peak season from June through September. After the middle of October we begin to slow down, but as expected the winter holidays can be very busy. Our clients in the islands are busiest from May through September.

(Interviewer) What is the company’s management style?

(Marietta) In delivering a quality product well run processes and automation are key. Over the years Bill has engaged with every aspect of the business from product integrity, to production techniques and processes, to sales, to marketing, to logistics, to repairing the machines in the factory and the distribution of fridges (on site merchandisers). His extensive knowledge of Vogt Tube Ice machines among others, as well as, good experience in fridge merchandisers comes from his years of personally being engaged in their maintenance and repair along with our technicians. Bill initially was involved in everything that took place in the factory. From managing our machines to engaging with our each and every client.

Bill has demonstrated the value of knowing every aspect of the business and the confidence that it gives employees in leadership even where there are highly specialized and trained experts carrying out the tasks on the factory floor, in the delivery vans, and handling sales and marketing. He tells me that listening to employees’ suggestions and concerns provides him with unfiltered, real-time information about processes and policies and about feedback from the clients. Although he still has to make decisions now more than ever he describes his role as a counselor supporting his managers and staff and enabling them to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.

People are usually generous and in a small company such as ours everyone knows that their livelihood depends on team effort and collaborative success. So not only do I get help from Bill, but also the team itself shares their experience. As I did with my software business I often ask friends and colleagues in other companies, often beyond the ice sector, for advice on more general business and marketing issues.

(Interviewer) What major challenges and problems did you face? How did you handle them?

(Marietta) This is the first year since 2009 that the Greek economy has not been shrinking, but even this year overall economic growth has been marginal. While during these seven years, changes in consumer behavior have influenced many sectors of the economy. The ice business has not been as badly affected as one might have expected.

Thankfully we have not seen a major change in consumer behavior and we strongly believe that this is because Crystal Ice produces a quality product and makes it available at a wide variety of points of sale from gas stations to supermarkets. Crystal Ice’s strengths are the unique combination of an excellent quality product and outstanding customer service.

We face two major obstacles to ice sales. The first is awareness and the second is the government. We are working hard to improve customer awareness of the value of quality ice through our social media campaigns and over the last decade we have made much headway as our large number points of sale shows.

While those of us in the industry recognize that ice is food and agree that it should be subject to the lower rate of taxation which most countries put on food, here in Greece ice is taxed as a luxury which means that a liter of water is taxed 11% less at the checkout than an equivalent liter of ice—yet they are essentially the same, both food. We lobbied the government here in Greece, with several documents along with a wonderful supporting letter from EPIA, in 2014. Unfortunately, we were unable to convince them to reverse their decision to tax ice as though it were a luxury. Perhaps as the economy here improves we will have another opportunity to press our argument.

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

(Marietta) We never had substantial competition, at least not in Athens or southern Greece more generally. One reason for this is that no other producer has a similar production capacity or as many points of sale. The competition which we do have are small companies by comparison many of which do not conform to the same high quality production and health and safety standards as Crystal Ice. We also pride ourselves on conforming to European Health and Safety Standards which both protect our employees and help to ensure that we produce a secure and quality product. Our major competition is a market that does not have embedded awareness of the importance of quality, health and safety and small scale local producers. Crystal Ice decided to compete on service and quality —rather than price—as a way to set itself apart from other small time ice manufactures.

(Interviewer) Are you HACCP certified?

(Marietta) We were first certified in 2004 when we opened our new factory. Ensuring ice a product which is safe for human consumption is one of our key responsibilities. Crystal Ice is one of the few, if not the only, Greek ice manufacturer to be certified for both its processes (ISO9000) and in respect of Food and Safety management (FSSC22000 & ISO 22000:2005 Certification). While our quality product is testimony to our adherence to these standards, the certificates themselves provide evidence that inspectors and auditors find that our processes and procedures are well document, managed, and executed.

(Interviewer) What is the organization’s plan for the next five years? (Grow within your market, expand your market, or branch into new venture, HOW?)

(Marietta) The market possibilities for ice in Greece, even in the current economic situation, are substantial. We are beginning to expand our presence in other Greek cities and have begun to make our product available in the major Greek island markets such as Santorini, Mykonos, and Mytilini which are quite big and very touristy therefore high in ice demand. Historically as a country Greece has depended heavily on getting the logistics of shipping right and while we use our own trucks to deliver in the Athens, but also in central southern Greece, we tend to use specialist shippers to deliver our ice to the islands and more remote locations. In recent years we have been considering setup storage facilities on some of the major islands and if business continues to grow we may do so. We have good arrangements with supermarkets especially in the Athens region and southern Greece, but we are looking at expanding that market sector. We deliver to the stores of the major supermarket chains in Athens and beyond.

We are negotiating with more supermarket chains and gas stations and are in the process of expanding our distribution model with new partnerships. Our planned expansions mean that we need to increase our production capacity and further automate some production processes such as ice packaging.

Each year we have automated more processes. This year we installed a mobile billing and reporting system linking all our trucks with our back-office systems for distribution management, billing, and financial control. Our integrated financial systems have improved our ability to track our income and expenditure, given us data that allows us to understand better the purchasing trends of each of our regular clients, and at the same time has enabled us to reduce our management costs.

Marietta lives in Glyfada and enjoys drinking iced coffee on her veranda looking at the sea and reading.

‘When I only managed my medical software company I could travel more than I can now, but occasionally I can sneak away for a day or two. Recently I went to London and saw a wonderful production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. Some of my favourite cities in Europe are London, Berlin, and Amsterdam. In each of them I have found museums, restaurants, and performance spaces that I really enjoy revisiting. For the last three years I have been studying Chinese and a year ago I made a trip to China to see how I was getting on.

In Greece it is nice to go back to archaeological sites that I studied in school. For instance, I often visit the ancient Greek Poseidon temple site at Sounio which sits spectacularly on top of a promontory overlooking the Aegean Sea—even the 19th century British poet and revolutionary Lord Byron was moved by his visit there. During the long Greek summer I enjoy the open air cinemas.’

In the not too distant future she looks forward to having a family, as it would be wonderful to share the beauty and fun of Greece with children, as she says.