Business Irish

Friday 9 December 2016

The coolest businesswoman in Ireland

While still at school, Alison Ritchie did a deal for 25pc of her family's new dry ice business. She tells Sean Gallagher how it all turned out

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Alison Ritchie and Sean Gallagher at Polar Ice Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Alison Ritchie and Sean Gallagher at Polar Ice Photo: Colin O'Riordan

While movie buffs and theatre enthusiasts may recognise it as the fog-like vapour used by special effects teams to enhance the dramatic impact of tense scenes, the uses of dry ice go way beyond entertainment.

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In fact it is an important coolant used in the transport and storage of perishable food and high-value pharmaceutical products.

Last week I visited Co Laois to meet a woman who knows more about dry ice than most. Her name is Alison Ritchie and she is managing director of Ireland's leading manufacturer of dry ice - Polar Ice - a company that she helped set up in 1996 along with her father and his two brothers. Based in Portarlington, the company now employs 17 staff and has an annual turnover of over €2m.

"Dry ice is a form of solid or frozen carbon dioxide or CO2," explains Alison as she walks me through the purpose-built facility. Her brother, Robert, who looks after the operations side of the business, is also on hand.

The CO2 is delivered to the facility in liquid form, in pressurised tankers, from where it is pumped into 100-tonne on-site storage tanks. This is then injected into a number of heavy duty machines that lower the temperature to -78C, causing it to solidify into a snow-like consistency. This, in turn, is extruded through three separate pieces of equipment to form either large dry ice blocks, slices or small granular pellets.

And it's cold. So cold that when I pick up a small sample, it all but burns my fingers.

"Unlike normal ice, dry ice never actually melts," Alison explains. "Instead, it converts directly into a white fog-like gas, through a process known as sublimation - the reason it is popular by movie makers.

"While we supply dry ice to many special effect companies - including those involved in making Game of Thrones - this represents only about 2pc of our business," explains Alison. "For the most part, it is used as a refrigerant in the shipping and storage of products that are required to be kept frozen."

Among the company's many customers is Aer Lingus, who use it in their on-board catering storage units. And pharmaceutical firms such as Pfizer use it in their containers when shipping high-value drugs that are required to be stored at continuous temperatures of less than -20C. Dry ice is also widely used in hospitals and labs to store samples, and by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service for transportation of plasma products.

In the food sector, it is used for shipping large volumes of vacuum-packed meats on their long journeys to export markets.

I can't help but wonder, how did this young woman from Portarlington end up setting up a dry ice business, of all things?

"It was during the glorious summer of 1995. I was 15 at the time and still in secondary school," explains Alison. "I had gone to visit a friend who had just gotten a job in a company that made ice cubes. When my dad, Colm, came to collect me, we ended up being given a tour of the factory - and it was then that he spotted a chest of dry ice that had been specially imported for a customer.

"Having never seen it before, he was fascinated. As it turned out, the owner of the company was looking to exit the business - and after discovering that there was no one else making dry ice in Ireland, my dad decided to buy the company with a view to concentrating on manufacturing dry ice, rather than regular ice cubes."

The business came with a price tag of £45,000. So Colm, who worked as a Prison Officer, approached two of his brothers; Enda, who worked for the ESB and Brendan, a Garda and each agreed to chip in £15,000. While what they bought amounted to only a couple of wet ice-making machines, some office furniture and a van, at least they now had their own business from which they could grow.

"I didn't have much more than pocket money to contribute at the time," explains Alison. "But I was promised 25pc of the business if I committed to work there at weekends and during school holidays and if I went on to study business in college," she adds.

And that's what she did. After completing Business Studies in DCU in 2002, with her degree under her belt she joined the business full-time. And true to their word, her father and her uncles gave her the 25pc equity stake in the business as they had promised. She was now a full-blown entrepreneur.

"Turning it into a sustainable dry ice business was not without its challenges though," explains Alison. "By far the biggest of these was trying to raise the €2m we needed to buy the specialised manufacturing plant. We invested all the savings we had, re-mortgaged what we could and set up a BES scheme to raise the rest. We eventually managed to gather up €1.5m - but at that point, we had already paid the deposit for the equipment but was still sitting in the US and couldn't be shipped because we were still short the last €500,000. It was a scary time and the whole project was just about to collapse," she admits, her face wincing at the thought of it. "That was until a friend introduced me to a business angel investor. After hearing my pitch and dilemma, he took out his cheque book, looked me straight in the eye and said to me: 'I'm not investing in your business, I'm investing in you…' and handed me a cheque for €500,000."

With the final investment bagged, she was able to get her equipment shipped and was soon up and running as the only manufacturer of dry ice in Ireland. Keen to find new uses for dry ice, she set up a separate non-abrasive cleaning business, Polar Ice Tech, which used tiny pellets of dry ice - the size of rice grains - to clean plant and equipment, such as medical devices and power turbines.

Not only did she manage to create a further channel for her dry ice product, she also managed to turn this into a profitable business which she sold earlier this year to one of her former employees. Not one to sit still, she returned to college part-time and, in 2011, became a qualified CPA account. Two years later and eager to expand the business further, she invested another €500,000 in upgrading the facility to food grade standard, something that resulted in overall growth of 63pc in the past three years alone.

Alison Ritchie has a warm smile and an amiable personality. Behind this charm though, is a shrewd entrepreneur and a woman with a steely determination to succeed. With her husband, Henry, they have three girls, twins aged eight and a two-year-old.

"I was always determined, but joining the women's enterprise development programme 'Going for Growth' was inspirational - a real game changer for me," admits Alison. "I found myself surrounded by like-minded women who had been through the same challenges as me - and yet were not afraid to go after growth in their businesses," she enthuses.

Currently in the process of buying out her father and her uncles, she tells me this is something they have planned for some time - to coincide with the company's 20th birthday.

"It is a very exciting time for us right now," explains Alison. "We are currently in contract negotiations with some very large companies who are users of dry ice who are planning to set up operations in Ireland within the next two years. For me now, it no longer about settling for good - but more about going for great," she adds with a confident smile.

For further information: www.polarice.ie

Overview

Company: Polar Ice Ltd

Business: Manufacture of dry ice

Set up: 1996

Founders: Colm Powell, his brothers Enda and Brendan and his daughter Alison Ritchie (nee Powell).

Turnover: €2m

No of Employees: 17

Location: Manufacturing facility & HQ in Portarlington, Co Laois with offices and depots in Dublin, Cork and Craigavon

Alison's advice for other businesses

1. Find or build a support team

"It is important to surround yourself with good people. Join with like-minded business people in programmes such as 'Going for Growth', 'ACORNS' or 'SMÁCHT'. They will support and inspire you. Find a good mentor or coach - someone who will help keep you focused both during the ups and the downs."

2. Respond to what your customers value

"Be very clear on what your customer actually wants and what they value. Be adaptable when dealing with customers and open to learning from them. While it is important to focus on winning new business, never forget to look after your existing customers. They have helped you get to where you are now."

3. Create a business that works without you

"The best businesses are those that can function effectively without you being there all the time. Aim to build a team, a structure and processes that can work without your constant involvement and supervision. That way you can carve out time to focus on new strategies and new opportunities for growth."

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