What could be more Canadian than exporting ice?
September 14, 2011
To the rest of the world, Canada has a stereotypical reputation as a land of ice. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that a small Canadian company has become a world leader in the export of frozen water.
Before the recession hit, Iceculture Inc. of Hensall, Ont., was exporting $5-million of ice annually, the bulk of it in 25,000 crystal-clear blocks weighing 135 kilograms each. Sales have melted to about half that level, with U.S. exports shrinking the most, says company co-founder Julian Bayley.
"Seventy per cent of our stuff was going to the U.S.," Mr. Bayley said. "We had to do something about that."
Now a "leaner and meaner" company, Iceculture has opened up new markets in such unlikely locales as Dubai, Mumbai and the Greek island of Rhodes.
Mr. Bayley travelled to Dubai in August to oversee the assembly of one of Iceculture's signature ice lounges, which will be called an "ice restaurant" in the alcohol-free emirate. Then he and a crew of about seven put together another ice lounge on Rhodes. A lounge can cost upwards of $15,000 and fill two nine-metre refrigerated shipping containers.
"We carve it in our studio. We put it all together and we take it apart. And in theory, it should go together like Lego," Mr. Bayley explained.
That studio is a 4,800-square-metre facility in Hensall, about 20 kilometres east of Lake Huron. The company employs about 40 people who create ice decor of almost any description. They use everything from simple hand chisels to chainsaws and special lathes.
Among Iceculture's creations have been caviar serving trays for a charity event hosted by Sir Elton John, a colourful ice likeness of Nelson Mandela, and the Pontiac Ice Maze for the 2005 Canadian Auto Show, a 2,000-block maze that earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Iceculture grew out of a hobby. In the late 1970s, Mr. Bayley was running a catering company when he acquired a machine, about the size of a home dishwasher, that made ice punch bowls, which he sold for weddings and other special occasions.
"We'd make about four or five ice bowls, which we sold for around $150 each," said Mr. Bayley, who grew up in southern England and came to Canada in 1969. "Then someone asked if we could do crystal-clear blocks."
He discovered that inventor Virgil Clinebell of Loveland, Colo., had devised a machine capable of such wizardry. Traditionally, ice blocks are frozen in cans dipped in brine. That freezes the block from all sides, forcing impurities in the water to centre, creating a white feathery core. Mr. Clinebell found that by freezing from the bottom and circulating the water with an aquarium pump, the impurities are pushed to surface, where they are skimmed off once the rest of the block has frozen. The result is a machine that makes crystal-clear ice.
"So we bought one," Mr. Bayley said. "Then we bought two, then three, and then ended up with 150."
In the early 1990s, ice production took over, and he sold his catering company to his partner. He and his wife, Ann, who ran an agricultural advertising company called Promoculture, dove into ice creation full time, founding Iceculture in 1993.
Until the recession, Iceculture was growing every year, developing new ice-making techniques and equipment.
Iceculture was the first in the business to use machines to carve detailed ice designs, such as a scale model of a Mini Cooper, using instructions fed into a computer program. Such machines are typically used to cut plastics, metal and wood. To work in sub-zero temperatures, the machines needed special modifications, such as placing parts that generated heat outside the freezer.
"We did a job in Banff where we reproduced the logos of all the sponsors, and they were all absolutely 100 per cent perfect, which people had never seen before," said Mr. Bayley.
Today machines are commonly used in ice sculpting, although some purists say they are destroying the art. Hand-carving is still a big part of ice sculpture, and visitors who tour the Iceculture plant can see demonstrations of it. But the computerized machines make it possible to construct such miracles as the 167 identical Vince Lombardi Trophies for the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit.
More recently, Iceculture partnered with a young California company to mass-produce three-dimensional ice sculptures that would be distributed through the Sysco Corp. network in the U.S. "It would have changed the landscape quite drastically," said Sam Bayley, Julian's son and Iceculture's vice-president of operations.
The Sysco deal looked to be a recession-busting saviour until Iceculture ran into occupational safety regulations in the U.S., as well as concerns from unionized workers, that limited lifts to 22.7 kilograms. The typical ice sculpture crafted by their machines weighs nearly 60 kg.
"Although that was kind of a failure, it was a good learning experience," Sam Bayley said.
As a teenager, he worked at Iceculture during its early years, but pursued a marketing career with a lawn and garden firm and also ran his own company before coming back to the family firm in 2004 as part of the second generation leadership of Iceculture.
His sister Heidi Bayley is the president, while step-sister Christine Rose is the vice-president of sales and secretary treasurer. Julian, now 74, is still active in research and development and international sales. Sadly, Ann Bayley died in January after taking ill in 2009.
The company is on the verge of developing new products that might flow from the Sysco experience, Sam Bayley explained. And his father hinted that the company is working on a way to mass-produce those heavy sculptures in two pieces that can then be fitted together.
In the meantime, Iceculture will continue building those Lego-like ice lounges in unlikely places, like Thailand and Dubai.
- keith norbury
Special to Globe and Mail Update
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