Freeze Frame interview with Wiesław Świerzyński of ICE ART Ltd.

The use of ice in Europe can be traced 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… (Ice history in Europe was explained in each of the previous interview introduction) Today, the EPIA is once again adding more to the history of ice in Europe through our members who product 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 have implemented 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 Wiesław Świerzyński of ICE ART Ltd. in Poland.

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

(Wiesław) First of all, let me say that as a Pole, I have learned to embrace challenges.  As a young boy at school, I was a restless spirit who enjoyed coming up with new ideas and then testing them out.  After grade 12, I attended Lodz Film School for TV Production.  I studied photography, animation and special effects, and television production for three years at Lodz.

My first work after school was in the lighting of theatrical productions for TV.  It was great fun, but I wanted to see what was outside of communist Poland.  In 1976, at 24 years old, I traveled to the UK to visit extended family and stayed there for almost two years.  During that time, for spending money I “unofficially” worked for the BBC World Service.  You have to understand that at this time in the 70’s, Poland and the USSR shared a great deal, and the USSR heavily influenced communist Poland through trade protocols and friendship agreements.  Unfortunately, the BBC World Service position on these alliances was not welcomed and certainly not endorsed by the Polish government

Of course this was fine when I was in the UK, but upon my return in 1978, I could not obtain a job in  the TV industry or any state supported media.  The Polish government, being communist, controlled all public related work.  Let me say that my work in the UK was not appreciated.  When I returned to Poland, I was on my own.

After being prevented from doing the work I was trained to do, I worked in some bars and restaurants in Wroclaw and eventually opened three restaurants and two discos in Wroclaw.  Then in 1994, my younger brother and I were reunited after not having seen each other for some 17 years.  At that time, he was living in South Africa after fleeing Poland to find a better life.

The upheaval in Poland during the 70’s, 80’s, and now 90’s encouraged me to also flee, and I went to South Africa in 1995 to join my brother.

What an exciting place!  This was the time shortly after the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison.  Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa and the country immediately changed from minority white governance to majority black governance.  The new government organized a number of initiatives to undo the socio-economic consequences of apartheid, including alleviating poverty  and addressing the massive shortfalls in social services  across the country.

When apartheid finally ended in 1995, there were many white landowners who just wanted to get out of South Africa.  Large expanses of ranch land were cheap.  The government was pleased to change much of this land from privately owned commercial ranches to game preserves, whether privately or publicly owned.

During this time along with two acquaintances, one from Zimbabwe and the other from Botswana, we bought some of this basically abandoned land in the northwest portion of South Africa.  Today we have about 500 hectares or roughly 5 square kilometers.  This is very near the Pilanesberg game preserve which was just being developed at that time.  Today the Pilanesberg preserve covers almost 600 square kilometers and is considered one of the most successful restored game preserves in Africa.

The area is also home for Sun City.  Sun City has an interesting history.  During apartheid the South African government established independent ‘homelands’ or ‘bantustans’ for some of the indigenous peoples of South Africa in order to physically separate them from the white ruling class.

One of these homelands was called Bophuthatswana and was intended to exist as an independent homeland for the Tswana tribe.  Sun City was developed in Bophuthatswana by a hotel magnate to be imaginary kingdom complete with a fanciful legend of a lost city and a lost tribe as the basis for his resort.

Because of the alternative laws in these ‘bantustans’, Sun City during the 80’s and 90’s could provide entertainment such as gambling and topless revue shows which were illegal in South Africa itself.  The Sun City location is an easy drive from Pretoria and Johannesburg, and attracted some of the less conservative minded tourists from South Africa who were looking for this brand of excitement that was not available elsewhere in South Africa.

Today Sun City is a luxury  resort and  casino playground which borders the park.  Since losing the favor of international visitors during the trade sanctions due to apartheid and although somewhat shunned by many conservative South Africans during the same time, it has now earned its place as one of the world’s sought after playgrounds in the southern hemisphere with many fine hotels that cater to family vacations.

(Interviewer) So, how did you go from a restaurant owner in Wroclaw to game preserve landlord in South Africa and then back to Poland as an ice producer?

(Wiesław) I’m Polish, I returned to Poland.

In Africa, the summers are characterized as long and hot with afternoon thunderstorms and balmy evenings.  Perfect conditions for ice, especially around Sun City.  Remember, I already had experience with discos and restaurants and knew their need for ice.  Ice is a commodity in South Africa, but unknown in Poland.  I was going to be the ice czar of Poland!

When I started ICE ART in 2005, I was the only ice producer in Poland.  I certainly did not anticipate the number of obstacles I would have to overcome, especially the resistance on the part of consumers.  Indeed, it was a real challenge.  Like the stories I hear from my colleagues, the biggest obstacle has been educating the consumer that he needs ice.  Fortunately, Poles are open to new ideas and today embrace the ice I produce, not just for drinks, but for party sculptures as well.  Today, ICE ART is very comprehensive in our operations.  We produce both consumption ice and ice blocks for ice sculptures.

(Interviewer) Now I understand the company name, “ICE ART.” You specialize in ice sculptures and also sell packaged ice.

(Wiesław) Yes, ICE ART produces more than 10,000 ice blocks each year.  We perform ice sculpting exhibitions and provide ice sculptures at ice and snow events, and we manufacture specialized equipment for the production and processing of artistic ice for sculpting.

We create sculptures at many ice festivals all over Europe.  This year in Rövershagen, Germany, we participated in carving the  enchanted forest, with reindeers, flying swans, and even a fake fire made of ice, which really impressed the crowds.  Artists from Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Germany were the talented carvers.  I am told that there was about 160 tons of ice that was needed to carve the sculptures.  We produced our own blocks and brought them with us to carve.  Our ice is some of the clearest, most beautiful ice blocks that can be made.  We have worked for years perfecting the process we use to produce our blocks to make sure they are the best material for ice sculptures.  Once carved, it is in the exhibition and kept at a constant temperature of minus eight degrees celsius to maintain the fragile art’s most minute details from the damaging effects melting and minimize sublimation.

We also participate in ice festivals in Slovakia and Belgium.  We even have built an ice bar in Rome.  Not just the bar table itself  like we provided in 2010 at the convention in Wroclaw, but an entire building big enough for a party.

(Interviewer) Wow, so what role do you play in the company?  Do you also carve?  How many people do you employ?  It looks like you must be busy during the entire year.

(Wiesław) Yes, we are always busy.  Maybe too busy.  I want more time to enjoy the game preserve in Africa.

From the concept right up until the present moment I’ve been running the company.  I am the company’s CEO and control everything.  The person responsible for the production is my son, Jacek.  The sales office in Wroclaw employs five people who work from 8am to 4pm, Monday through Friday.  These people are order takers, order fillers, and outside sales people.

For those in need, ice cubes are delivered around the clock.  The production facility in Prusice, about 30 kilometers north of Wroclaw, has another six people who work shift hours.  During times of increased demand we work all hours of the day and night and employ an extra 2-3 people on a part-time basis.

(Interviewer) So the sales effort is run in Wroclaw and the production effort takes place in Prusice.  Does that cause any communication issues?

(Wiesław) No, we are a small organization and find collaboration to be easy.  Our staff is fairly stable, and we have been together for long enough to know what to do.  Most often, we contact one another in person or via e-mail.  We send orders, collaborate on projects or on components of some events, and of course, we contact each other by phone.

(Interviewer) What is the most enjoyable aspect of your business?

(Wiesław) What I most enjoy in this business is a fast sale of our products – those times when we have so many orders that we can barely manage and work non-stop.  I am always pleased to see customers waiting in a queue to pick up ice from us.  It makes all of our hard work worthwhile.

(Interviewer) When do you find your busiest time for sales – summer for cubes and sculptures for parties, holidays for sculptures?  What is the most popular type of molds or sculptures that you sell the most of?

(Wiesław) Of course, the summer is always the busy season.  We run two or three shifts all summer long for ice cubes.  In addition to the cubes, we provide ice sculptures, for parties and events during the summer.

We do not offer molds, our products are art.  Anyone can freeze water into a mold.  That is not our expertise.

In the winter and most holiday times, our production of ice blocks is very active.  Recall that I said we produce over 10,000 blocks a year.  That production is spread over the entire year, but busier during the holidays when there are so many ice events to provide with ice sculptures for some and ice blocks for others.

(Interviewer) What were the main challenges and problems you have encountered, and how did you deal with them?

(Wiesław) Any new idea brought to life presents a unique set of challenges that evolve over time.  Several years ago, the most difficult challenge was to get a perfect ice cube with a pinhole out of the Vogt machine.  Once that was accomplished, we had to produce the perfect ice block for ice sculpting, and so on.

We acquire top-quality ice production equipment and sculpting tools to minimize potential problems.  We also apply a continuous improvement philosophy to processes and technology in our new facility so that we can efficiently modify and adapt to unpredictable changes.  These are some of the reasons people come to us for the purest ice blocks and best ice cubes in all of Poland.

(Interviewer) What have you learned from your mistakes?

(Wiesław) As the old saying goes, “We learn from our mistakes, but we continue making them, and we will continue making them.”  How else can we learn?

The knowledge I currently possess and the success I have achieved are both a direct result of learning from my mistakes.  These experiences have made me more resilient and have enabled ICE ART to endure.

(Interviewer) What makes you most proud of what you have to show for your efforts with ICE ART?

(Wiesław) Certainly, my greatest achievement was to create a company from scratch and grow it to where it is now.  ICE ART has received a lot of positive press, and an article was recently published in the Business Forum Poland.  Here’s an excerpt:

ICE ART, a company from Wroclaw, is the precursor of the ice business in Poland and the most famous manufacturer of ice blocks for sculpting in Europe.  It has ideal parameters, perfect in its structure, made for sculpting, a product in which sculptors prefer to create their works of art at various ice sculpture festivals.  This is exactly the material ICE ART delivers to prestigious ice sculpture festivals in Europe.  “For 11 years, we have been co-creating the ice festival in Germany, which in the last season lasted continuously for nine months.  We have delivered more than 200 tons of ice for this event, which was used to make almost 2,000 m2 of installations.  Our product reaches the majority of European countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, England, Lithuania, Slovakia, and even the countries with warm climates such as Croatia, Greece and Egypt,” says Wiesław Świerzyński, CEO of ICE ART Limited.

The company creates and delivers ice decorations that perfectly and innovatively complement marketing campaigns of famous brands (e.g.  Play, Zywiec, and Lech).  The core product is a crystal clear ice, in which you can perform fine engraving in full color (e.g.  Logos, or any type of writing).

When processing orders, the company also uses colored ice: white, black, red, and ice blocks of a marble structure.

ICE ART offers their clients customized design of ice decorations and can build a comprehensive year-round ice bar.  “It is a construction that presents an enormous logistical challenge, but thanks to a continuous improvement of production processes and storage, we manage to successfully fulfill orders of this type.  Our ice bars can now be visited in Rome, Prague, Dubrovnik, Hurghada, and soon on the island of Rhodes,” W. Świerzyński adds.

Ice is a material in which even the amateurs are keen on sculpting.  The company, at the client’s request, runs year-round ice and snow sculpting workshops and spectacular shows of ice carving techniques.  Many business meetings or events like having snow, ice and snow, or just ice scenery in a corporate tent shaped like an igloo.

Constant successes of the company are determined by its dynamic growth, wide range of products on offer (from different shapes and sizes of ice cubes for cooling drinks to an entire range of event related products) as well as an excellent, technologically advanced, quality product.  The company has the HACCAP certificate attesting the quality of the prepackaged product and consumption ice cubes.  The ICE ART ice is produced, with variability of intensity, throughout the year.  Autumn and winter are popular for ice blocks with approximately one thousand units manufactured per month.  In spring and summer, the demand for ice consumption increases.  This year, the company doubled its production.

(Interviewer) That article is so complimentary, you must be proud.  How do you transport the sculptures or do you ship blocks and sculpt at the location?  Do you always use your own ice blocks or buy them at the location if you are away from the factory?

(Wiesław) Our ice is in demand, and we ship the blocks in our own truck most of the time.  We try to only use our ice.  If we don’t demand to use only our own ice, why would others?  The best ice makes the best sculptures.

(Interviewer) Please explain the process you use for coloring the ice and if you use a single or multiple color – is it on the surface of the water is colored?

(Wiesław) We put food grade dyes and colors in the water prior to producing the blocks.  That way the color is throughout the block and not just the surface which would just melt away and look cheap.

(Interviewer) When you hosted the EPIA convention in Wroclaw in 2010, you provided not only carving lessons on the terrace outside of the conference hall, but you also provided two ice bars.  One was stocked with several flavors of wonderfully tasking Polish vodka served in small ice cups.  The other was a longer bar with a large selection of Polish appetizers. If I recall, you also made the bars glow with lights to bring out the colors in the different ice carvings.

(Wiesław) Yes, that is the kind of work we do all over for parties.

(Interviewer) What was the greatest achievement in the previous year?

(Wiesław) Probably the greatest achievement in the previous year was completing the next stage of modernization of production and obtaining a HACCP certificate.  We’re also very proud of our year-over-year improved financial results, repeat business, and new client contracts, especially for ice blocks for sculpting.

Last year (and this year, as well), we supplied ice blocks to all leading ice sculpting festivals in Europe.

(Interviewer) What was the greatest failure in the previous year?

(Wiesław) A failure in the company, maybe not the biggest, unfortunately not determined by me is perhaps the “human factor.”  I get attached to people I work with, I give myself entirely–my knowledge, skills, experience–and I get disappointed because I often do not understand some behaviors.

We are a small company and work closely together every day.  I think of my employees as family and sometimes forget that they have their own desires, families, and futures to think about outside of ICE ART.  I need to sometimes distance myself so as not to expect too much from my employees.

(Interviewer) What is the company’s growth plan for the next 5 years?

(Wiesław) I do not think that far ahead! Maybe I will say what I plan for this year.  Certainly modernization and expansion of the company, because it’s getting a bit “cramped” again.  We are building new storage space, installing another Vogt machine (to double the ice cube production), and we are modernizing the entire production line of consumption ice.  We are also increasing the amount of equipment used for the production of ice blocks for sculpting.

This year, I am introducing a new product–ice blocks weighing 1000 kg– and with it, I’m creating a new production line.

What’s on the agenda in future years? Certainly, we’ll continue expansion and modernization of what we already have.

Unless, again I think of something new…

At this time Wiesław Świerzyński is living in Wroclaw and looking into not only expanding ICE ART to meet the growing demand, but looking into other businesses to add to his portfolio of business interests.  As he said “Unless, again I think of something new… ”

But the one place he longs to spend his quiet time is surrounded by his animals in South Africa.