WH_Ice_magic - VA

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[Business Development/Marketing & Selling]
Who's Hot: Ice Magic
Hed: Cool Ideas
Deck: Ice sculptor's unique technique is the key to success.
Summary: Told that molded ice is always cloudy, Bill Whidden cleared up the problem.
Now, his frozen, sculpted centerpieces and sorbet cups are hot at trendy parties and
corporate events nationwide.
Pull quote: "I started five years ago under the assumption that I was going to do weddings
in Orlando. In six months I was doing corporate events nationwide. It kind of exploded."
-- William Whidden, owner, Ice Magic
William Whidden's freezing-cold business is hot, but it wasn't entrepreneurial ambition
that got him started. Curiosity and perhaps a bit of obsession led him to invent a way to
mold -- rather than carve -- crystal-clear ice sculptures.
The result? In just five years his Orlando, Fla.-based Ice Magic has gone from nothing to
$2.5 million in revenues. Now, armed with patents, new product ideas and a plan for
franchising, Whidden is ready to take his cool invention to new places.
A Cool Idea
Whidden became curious about ice sculptures while watching a chef carve a sculpture at
an Orlando hotel. Whidden, who has a background in concrete casting, asked why the
chef didn't simply mold the ice and was told that molded ice always turns out cloudy.
Taking that as a challenge, Whidden began months of trial and error. He varied the time,
freezer temperature, water temperature, all with no luck, until one day he looked into a
mold and thought that the water hadn't frozen at all. He reached in and pulled out a
crystal-clear sculpture.
Then the problem became replicating the result. "I'm not an engineer and I really didn't
go about it scientifically," Whidden admits. But after several more weeks he finally
figured out how to mold clear ice time after time. And it doesn't even take special water.
Now that he knows the secret, he's not telling, other than to say, "it's all in temperature
manipulation."
What to do with this novel invention? "I was just doing this for fun," says Whidden, who
figured he might be able to sell some sculptures for wedding receptions around town.
While visiting relatives in Chicago, Whidden's admittedly accidental sculpture business
began to take shape. He happened across a postcard that advertised a local ice-carving
company, Nadeau's Ice Sculptures. Hoping to learn more about the business, Whidden
called owner Jim Nadeau, who was friendly but too busy to chat. When Whidden told
him he knew the secret to molding clear ice, Nadeau immediately freed his schedule.
"Bill's method is the first time this has even been done well," says Nadeau. "He clearly
came up with the concept that made it all possible."
Nadeau's advice to Whidden was to think smaller. Don't mold large ice sculptures, he
said, because commercial ice carvers already know how to turn a tidy profit doing so.
Focus instead on table centerpieces, sorbet serving cups and other small ice creations.
"We used to hand carve these little things, and there's no way you can recoup the cost of
doing it," Nadeau says. "And then it doesn't even look all that good."
So Whidden returned to Orlando and started making smaller molds. His centerpieces
showcase another technique he perfected -- he can suspend and freeze objects so that they
appear to float in the middle of the crystal-clear ice.
Ice Magic has used this technique for such events as merger announcements -- with
company logos suspended in ice -- and product launches. His ice has showcased
everything from Gillette Mach 3 razors to vials of Viagra and artificial throat implants.
Word of Mouth
Good fortune and word of mouth combined to create quick and explosive growth for Ice
Magic. Early on, Whidden molded sculptures for hotel magnate Bill Marriott's party. It
was attended by hotel executives from all over, and word of the stunning centerpieces
spread through the event-and-catering industry like wildfire.
"I started five years ago under the assumption that I was going to do weddings in
Orlando," Whidden says. "In four months I was doing corporate events across Florida. In
six months I was doing corporate events nationwide. It kind of exploded."
Whidden's early mentor, Nadeau, became an Ice Magic customer. He buys centerpieces,
freeing up his company to work on the larger, more profitable sculptures.
Another of Whidden's regulars is Orlando event planner Ray Ramsay, a pioneer of
themed events. "The things he does with ice are just incredible," says Ramsay, who
started at Disney and now runs his own company. Ramsay sometimes has Ice Magic float
logos in the ice, he says, "or if it's a tropical theme, we can freeze some tropical fish -not live ones, of course."
Growing the Business
Depending on the complexity of the piece, Whidden charges anywhere from $40 to $150
for centerpieces. He learned early on that he could take his business practically anywhere,
shipping ice via refrigerated truck or packed in dry ice and sent by plane or overnight
express. Even with costly shipping, his middle-of-the-road centerpiece prices help him
stay competitive with the exotic and pricey floral centerpieces at more upscale parties.
Still, it helps to be close to the customer. That's why he opened a second manufacturing
location in Las Vegas, home of a lot of corporate business events. To help pay for
expansion, Whidden took on a pair of partners: Bob Heideman, president of suburban
Orlando aquaculture-systems manufacturer Aquatic Eco-Systems, and James Hartman,
owner of Mears Motor Leasing in Orlando.
Whidden supplements word of mouth with ads in publications aimed at caterers and
event professionals, his main clients. This helps develop repeat business. A company may
have just one major product launch or incentive banquet a year, but an event professional
arranges such happenings day in and day out.
The marketing approach is clearly on target. Ice Magic's growth has been phenomenal,
with revenues skyrocketing from $58,000 in 1996 to a quarter million dollars the next
year, to just under a million in 1998, $1.7 million in 1999, then $2.5 million in 2000.
Both locations make about 600 ice centerpieces a week along with 3,000 smaller products
like sorbet cups. Employment is up to about 35.
Naturally, that kind of growth attracts attention -- and competition. Fortunately for
Whidden, he followed the advice of one of his partners and sought patent protection for
his process. He says that stopped an Australian company called Ice Occasions that had
caught wind of Ice Magic's success and tried to enter the molding business.
The week after his patent was issued, Whidden filed a patent lawsuit, he says. Ice Magic
prevailed in court, effectively melting Ice Occasions' foray into the molding business and
solidifying Ice Magic's claim to the technology.
The Next Step
With the patent successfully defended, Whidden feels safe moving to the next stage in his
company's development: franchising. For a fee ranging from $75,000 to $500,000,
depending on the market size, franchisees will gain access to Ice Magic technology,
existing accounts in the territory, national marketing and any new products.
One upcoming product: Ice Magic hopes to compete with retail florists by offering frozen
bouquets -- silk flowers suspended in an ice sculpture -- custom-made with a love note
inside and delivered next day to a significant other for about $125. Such a product could
be sent by overnight courier, Whidden says, but having a network of local franchisees
would make the concept more viable and competitive.
Ice Magic also has branched into complementary products. The company rents out tables
with translucent, illuminated tops on which ice centerpieces look especially stunning. The
additional service can more than double Ice Magic's contract for an event.
While Whidden sorts through franchise applications -- he's had nibbles from as far away
as Ireland and Puerto Rico and hopes to launch the first franchise in late February -- he
has got plenty of sculptures to mold.
For one thing, even before the political dust settled in his home state of Florida, Whidden
was confident Ice Magic would be in Washington on Jan. 20 helping celebrate the
presidential inauguration. His company is accustomed to quick turnarounds, a good thing
because just days before the inauguration Ice Magic was still waiting to hear the details.
At a Glance
Name: Ice Magic
URL: www.icemagicinc.com
Location: Orlando, Fla.
Founder: William Whidden
Founded: 1995
Industry: Molded ice sculptures
Employees: 35
Revenues: $2.5 million in 2000
Related Links
<a href="http://www.icemagicinc.com">Ice Magic</a>
<a href="http://www.nadeauice.com">Nadeau's Ice Sculptures</a>
<a href="http://www.rayramsay.com">Raymond Ramsay & Associates</a>
SOURCES:
William Whidden
Ice Magic Inc.
11124 Satellite Blvd.
Orlando, FL 32837
Phone: (407) 816-1905
Jim Nadeau
Nadeau's Ice Sculptures Inc
7623 Roosevelt Rd.
Forest Park, IL 60130-2212
Phone: (708) 366-3333
Ray Ramsay
Raymond Ramsay & Associates
Orlando, FL
Phone: (407) 850-0888
Fax: (407) 850-9919
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