Sunday, July 20, 2003

Home City Ice keeps it simple: service, delivery

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Eric Geiser stacks skids of ice in a large freezer at the Home City Ice Co. plant in Forest Park.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
BRIDGETOWN - How hard is it to make ice?

It's harder than you think. And that's the secret behind Home City Ice Co., which has grown into a Tristate powerhouse by focusing on the fundamentals.

With a raw material that everyone can get at the same price - water - and a technology that basically has stayed the same since the mid-1960s, the family-owned company has concentrated on service and delivery to make a difference.

And it's worked.

It now sells $62 million worth of ice every year, three-quarters of it during the five warmest months. It's acquired smaller ice companies and has spread its name across the Midwest, claiming the mantle as the largest family-owned ice company in the country.

And unlike many industries where survival means getting bigger, Home City is perfectly comfortable the way it is. That includes its unassuming headquarters in an office suite overlooking Harrison Avenue.

"We can grow all we want to grow, really," said president and chief executive officer Tom Sed-ler, whose father, Frank, bought the former Home City Ice, Feed and Coal Co. in 1924. "But we're not really sure this consolidation thing is working. Being a family, we can do a better job with service than other companies can."

• Founded in 1896 on South Side Avenue in Riverside.
• Named for the small town of Home City, Ohio, now called Sayler Park.
• Sold to Frank Sedler in 1924.
• Posted sales of $97,000 in 1947. Sales topped $1 million for the first time in 1975.
• Operates 21 plants and 23 distribution hubs in eight states, including plants in Forest Park and Wilder.
• Employs about 200 full-time workers and up to 700 part-time workers.
• Makes 3,300 tons of ice per day.
The real action occurs at the plants, including local locations in Wilder and Forest Park. There, workers freeze water into 3/4-inch sheets, each one about 6 feet by 3 feet. From there, each sheet goes into a machine that takes the fire - or powder - out of the ice, then into a bagging machine.

The result is a product purer than tap water and one that "compared favorably with bottled water," according to a study commissioned by the company several years ago.

And while consumers generally buy a certain brand of ice for the convenience of the store, Home City has achieved 76 percent name recognition in the Tristate, dwarfing competitors.

The company owns all of its trucks and the ice freezers visible at convenience stores and supermarkets across the Midwest. That way it can control service and delivery, up to 1,000 bags a day for some locations, Sedler said.

"The whole business is keeping the bags in the stores," Sedler said.

After last year's $62 million in sales, this year's revenue will decline slightly because of cooler weather, he said. But the company had a good July 4, traditionally its biggest single day of the year, with more than $1 million in sales.

Home City doesn't advertise much, preferring to pour those dollars into acquisitions, which have been the preferred way to grow, Sedler said. The company might be "back in the buying mode" after taking several years off following its purchase of Polar Ice in Indiana in 2000.

But it's the family history that defines Home City Ice. And that should continue, because Sedler - a Xavier University product like several of his children - is one of eight shareholders in the company, and there are eight in the family's next generation working in the business.

Lawyer Nelson Schwab, who nabbed Home City Ice as his first corporate client in 1948 and still attends the annual gathering of family shareholders, said the family ownership is the company's biggest strength.

"This family has remained intact," Schwab said. "They've communicated with each other. I think that's the secret."


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