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 suns 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 use of ice in Europe. We, as modern day Icemen and Icewomen, are forging the way to making packaged ice a common everyday commodity used by all. We want to record the history we are making for future generations, and have implemented a program we call “Freeze Frame” to tell the stories of our members. Below is the first official Freeze Frame interview with Giuseppe Olivetti of PoloNord.
(Interviewer) Would you tell me about your background and how you got involved with packaged ice?
(Giuseppe) In 1998, my friend and future business partner, Denis, and I went on a one-year trip to Australia. We were 24 years old and ready to see new horizons. We drove around Australia in a Holden Kingswood van that was the same age as we were at the time. Of course, we chose low-tech transportation because we were certain that whatever we drove would break down in the desert, and we would be stranded if we could not fix it ourselves. It was a good thing that we did, because the van broke down in the desert, and we were able to repair it. We also were lucky to have a large front “bull” bumper we could use to nudge wild cows and kangaroos out of our path. One morning, after retrieving our shoes from outside and inspecting them for spiders and scorpions, we found a gas station with this large metal box with slanted double doors on the front. It was a Leer ice merchandiser, and we had never seen one before. After a few minutes of disorientation and a million questions inquiring what it was for, we were hooked. We wanted ice and realized that ice could make our life easier by keeping our Fosters beer cold, which was a necessity in the hot desert.
That’s when the idea hit us: “Could we do such a thing in Italy? Is it possible it doesn’t exist?” The concept of making and selling ice stayed in the back of our minds until several years later. Our great Australian adventure was over after a year, and it was time to find a job. I joined a cruise line and sailed around the world for five years. Believe me; a lot of ice is consumed on cruise ships!
I returned to Lazise in 2003, and Denis and I relived our great Australian adventure of 1998 through many conversations. Now it was time to think about what we wanted to do when we grew up – what was that light bulb that went off when we saw that ice merchandiser at the gas station in the desert in Australia? We began researching if and how we could manufacture and sell packaged ice in Italy. We searched the internet for any information about this product. I found that the International Packaged Ice Association (IPIA) was holding its annual convention in New Orleans, Louisiana in the U.S., and I attended. My head was filled with ideas of grandeur – we could start the packaged ice industry in Italy! I met Jane McEwen, the CEO of the IPIA who gave me the name and contact information for a new ice producer starting his business in Frankfurt, Germany. I contacted Matt Meredith and visited his brand new operation. I spent few hours packaging with him, and I went home determined to start the business. Well, we opened our plant in Lazise in 2004!
(Interviewer) What major challenges and problems did you face? How did you handle them?
(Giuseppe) Something I continue to tell my American suppliers is that European ice producers need assistance! Everything I bought from the USA was boxed and shipped over–“good bye.” Once over here, I had to assemble it and figure out all connections. If I needed help, it would have cost $1,000 a day plus flight and hotel. When we started this business, we had absolutely no experience at all and everything was a challenging learning experience.
We needed adequate space for our new machine, some space to build a freezer room, and adequate power and water. Luckily, we had a friend that had storage space in a building in Lazise that could meet our needs, with some modifications. Of course the modifications were more than expected – we needed more electrical capacity than the building was designed for and a larger water line. In Italy, nothing is quite as easy as you might think, but we persevered and learned about what type of refrigeration was legal, what restrictions we needed to comply with, and all the things you might not have thought of during the initial start-up activities. There were many “lessons learned” that we have shared over the years with other EPIA members.
Fortunately, we had a great local refrigeration company that understood instantly what we were doing and is still providing support to us in our new facility.
(Interviewer) What have you learned from your mistakes?
(Giuseppe) We learned that when something is going wrong, before banging your head on the wall think of the easiest solution. We have learned to be self-sufficient in order to meet and overcome those things that will happen at the least opportune time.
I remember when we first started and installed the 5-ton ice machine, we noticed that the ice cubes were coming out white, and the quality was getting worse and worse. The Instruction Manual was in English and it took me weeks to understand it well (still not quite). We called the plumber, the refrigeration guys, the electrician and everybody was blaming somebody else for this – lots of finger pointing.
I even called USA with my broken English to ask what to do and after days of hell, the answer was: “Did you check the peacock valve? (What did he mean? Sometimes peacocks are used like guard dogs to make noise when an intruder is present. Although we had a fence around the factory, we had no peacocks). No he said, “The valve to regulate the blow down flow of water so that minerals are not freezing and concentrating in the water tank.” From that day, when we have problems, before getting into panic we tell ourselves, “Remember the peacock valve… ”
(Interviewer) What are the organization’s/company’s strengths and weaknesses compared to its competition?
(Giuseppe) Although we were the first (or among) to start this business in Italy, we had to start with little money and went to banks for financing. Therefore, our growth has been limited, but constant, with a base even greater than the amount of production and sales as the year before.
Our competitors that started after us had private financing that allowed them to build large plants or had another company to back them up. We learned and built from the ground up with our limited resources and long hours. Having some more cash to spend would have been a relief, but I feel we benefited by our challenges.
What I think we are great at, I think we are very quick in responding to challenges and issues because we are great listeners. The PoloNord team is knowledgeable of every step of production and distribution, and also for the fact that we grew with our hands in the ice.
(Interviewer) Are you HACCP certified?
(Giuseppe) At the moment we are not HACCP certified but are getting ready to be. As you know, we have just recently moved our factory to a new facility. We do conform to HACCP guidelines and feel that we will have no trouble being certified once the inspection is done. We are monitored by an agency that helped rewrite our HACCP program in order to be suitable for future inspectors and certifications.
It’s my intention to get certified by NSF through the PIQCS program in order to give an example to other members of the EPIA.
(Interviewer) When did you decide be HACCP certified and what issues did you have to overcome?
(Giuseppe) We discovered that since we are still part of a young market, it is not mandatory to have any kind of certification in order to work with large customers. Many food production companies in Italy are not certified, although HACCP is mandatory and big fines (and in some cases factory closings) are in place for those not following the HACCP and food safety guidelines.
On the other hand, being certified gives you a status among your competitors and for a smaller producer, that reputation has immense value. I understand that getting certified is a hassle but, if you want to be among the big players in the packaged ice industry, you need to be. Remember, being a HACCP certified member in the EPIA means you provide “Ice You Can Trust.”
(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?
(Giuseppe) Denis and I split positions where I follow the “paperwork” and everything concerned being seated in front of the computer. Denis gets his hands dirty.
(Interviewer) How many people do you employ during the busy season and during the “off season”?
(Giuseppe) Besides Denis and me, we have a full time Production Manager who runs the bagger, stocks the freezer room, and takes care of maintenance. During the busy season we have another two people for delivery and packaging. But we find that during some events we must reach out to our friends to help meet surge demands. Everyone benefits, we get high production, high sales for a short period and they get spending money and great fun at the same time and just as importantly our customers get the product and service they desire.
(Interviewer) What is the typical work week?
(Giuseppe) The first years, when customers were doing us a favor to sell ice in their premise, we were available 24/7, no matter what. Although normal working hours have always been 8.00 – 12.00 and 3.00 pm – 7.00 pm, we are always reachable on the mobile phone. But, now after 9 years we take some time to rest. Saturdays and Sundays for us are absolutely “out of there” except for emergencies.
(Interviewer) What is the company’s management style?
(Giuseppe) Well, we decided that everyone is a leader in his area. As long as I have ice to sell, I am happy. The Production Manager makes sure we never run out of ice and Denis makes sure the ice goes out to our customers. Our two helpers just do what they are told and our part-time event help does what is needed and just has fun.
(Interviewer) What are the various ways employees communicate with one another to carry out their work?
(Giuseppe) Our employees communicate by talking to each other, most of the time yelling over the noisy machinery.
(Interviewer) What are things your company has done recently to show how it values its employees and/or customers?
(Giuseppe) For us, employees are as important as the ice machines. We looked for employees among our friends in order to have better understanding. We organize barbeques and parties to help the group bond (not that it needs to) and always listen to their suggestions and needs. As for our customers, as long as you get them what they want, they are happy.
(Interviewer) What is most enjoyable and least enjoyable about your ice business during the year?
(Giuseppe) Well, frankly I want to say that I love my job. First because it’s MINE, second because it’s easy. It’s hard to really screw up and it takes just a bit of planning and maintenance to get by. During the peak season you run like hell, and it seems that there is never enough time, but as long as your customers get what they want, everything else doesn’t matter. It’s fun because although it’s only ice, people always panic if you are late (and sometime I have to admit I take advantage of it, he-he).
In October, when the freezer room is stocked up for the winter, it’s always nice to see the plug pulled from the socket. As long as one person is present at work, getaways are endless.
So, to answer the question, the best thing of high season is that people depend on you. Customers call you to supply ice without even asking for the price, and we also hear from competitors that cannot meet their demand or need freezers. In summer it’s just hectic and you never know what kind of ice request you might get.
During the soccer world championship in Germany, my German colleague called me up asking for all the ice I had in storage, no matter how it was packaged or whose name was on it, because he broke his bin. I love this, but you have to be careful and keep your clients happy first…
Another time an Italian company was not able to keep up with demand for the big holiday, Nota Rosa, in his trading area. He sent a truck to get filled with bags of my ice. He did not even get back to his factory before the ice was sold and had to return the same day for a second truckload. I have always felt that
Icemen are in this together to promote the packaged ice industry. We help each other to promote the use of packaged ice, not just to selfishly promote our separate businesses. I learned how to produce ice from other Icemen and have helped others learn the business. In fact, that is one reason we have ice factory tours at the annual EPIA conventions – share the knowledge and lessons learned.
Maybe the least enjoyable is working in a job where it is difficult to find customers. Now with packaged ice they just come to us. The best thing of the low season, you have all the time you want (and wanted in the high season).
The least enjoyable moments in the high season are when we run out of ice or machines break down. It’s just a nightmare that all of us at least once have had to go through. In these moments, money doesn’t count. You do anything to fix it; you really do, including rebuilding or modifying broken parts to keep the machinery running, just like we did with the Holden Kingswood van in the desert in Australia. In the low season, what really bothers us is the lack of liquidity. It takes a lot of planning (or negotiation with the bank) to avoid making “a hole in the bucket.”
(Interviewer) What was the biggest accomplishment / failure since you started your business?
(Giuseppe) Without doubt, that would be marrying Claudia and having our new healthy son Gulio. Although that is my biggest personal accomplishment, there are also business accomplishments to be proud of. In this business, every time you gain a new supermarket chain or big contract, it’s always a great achievement. If I have to look for the biggest of all, we were working at an event at a large expo and my friend introduced me to the organizer of the biggest wine exposition in Europe, and we bonded. Before we supplied ice to them they were using their own ice machines and making and distributing ice to the booths themselves. This was not ideal for them or the wine sellers. We started as backup and now we are the exclusive ice producers for the event with direct connections to the highest levels of management. Just to understand how much they appreciate the need for our product and services, during the expo hours only the garbage truck and the ice truck can drive around the 31 hectares (76 Acres) of the expo district.
(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?)
(Giuseppe) Well, we love to expand. Our plan is to keep growing at the speedy rate that we are having now. We are not looking at expanding to other countries and are determined to avoid that this happens. In this young market, there is space for everybody as long as each understands where to stand. Our intention has always been to be involved in the packaged ice business only. We have not given in to the temptation to sell blocks, sculptures, hardware and tools. We produce the best packaged ice that we can and only packaged ice.
This would have distracted our goal to introduce and develop packaged ice in Italy. We are Icemen and for now, our intention is not to lose our focus.
Giuseppe, Claudia, and little Gulio live in Lazise, Italy. Giuseppe is one of the original founders of the EPIA and has served on the Board of Directors since the beginning as Treasurer and most recently as Chairman and President of the Board of Director until his retirement from the Board in October 2012. Giuseppe and Denis have just completed their move into new larger production facility to continue producing high quality packaged ice.