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The Ice Man Cometh on Strong Once Again : Union Ice on Solid Footing After Near-Liquidation

July 19, 1987|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | Times Staff Writer

Generations of Californians have watched the red, white and blue shield of Union Ice Co. roll by, emblazoned on the side of horse-drawn wagons and a succeeding line of trucks carrying the company's frozen product.

But after surviving the twin indignities of the home refrigerator, which nearly wrecked the ice industry, and a price-fixing consent decree, which nearly wrecked Union Ice's business, the state's oldest ice maker almost melted away under new owners in the early 1980s.

Now, Union Ice is trying to come back in from the cold, armed with a new marketing focus and a string of acquisitions.

"Slowly but surely, we're growing again," said H. G. Richard Williams, Union Ice's new president. "Our mission is to be the finest refrigeration services company in the state of California."

In these days of automatic ice makers and mini-refrigerators, it is difficult to remember the time when the 105-year-old company loomed large in the state's business community. Union Ice today is much different from the giant that once ruled the state's ice industry.

For one thing, it has been based in Los Angeles for only two years. During most of its life, Union Ice called San Francisco home. An early headquarters building even burned down in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake.

What's more, Union Ice now is less than half its peak size. The company, which is privately held, expects to reach sales of about $20 million this year, nearly equally divided between its ice and cold storage divisions, Williams said.

In the 1940s, Union Ice was posting annual sales of between $40 million and $50 million, and "back in those days, $40 million to $50 million was tremendous," Williams said.

"The Union Ice Co. was like a utility," he said. "It was like turning on your electric lights. You needed ice to keep your food chilled."

Nowadays, Union Ice sells the cold stuff--80,000 tons of it last year--to restaurants, bars, food processors, sports arenas and as bagged "party ice." Some of it even ends up in concrete to slow the drying process on hot days.

The cold storage warehouse side of the business is "like a hotel for food products," both fresh and frozen, Williams said. The company also quick-freezes a variety of products, from berries to burritos, in a "blast freezer," where temperatures drop as low as 40 degrees below zero.

The history of Union Ice, as recounted in the company's promotional literature, mirrors the history of California.

The firm can trace its earliest roots to 1868 when Boca Mill & Ice Co. began the first commercial ice production in California on a 30-acre pond in the Sierras. Its product, the company boasted, was "good mercantable ice, free from deleterious substances not less than 10 inches thick."

Union Ice was founded in 1882 by Edward W. Hopkins, a nephew of pioneer businessman and railroad tycoon Mark Hopkins, after Boca and four competing ice companies decided to end a fierce price war by forming a single delivery firm.

Six years later, Union Ice bought Boca Ice to assure a supply in the face of still more competition. The company continued to grow, buying out many of its competitors and building ice manufacturing plants rather than relying on the harvesting of pond ice.

Union Ice played a major role in the growth of the state's agricultural industry, pioneering techniques in food preservation, quick-freezing and cold storage.

Union Ice lays claim to the first refrigerated railroad cars, which were cooled through a combination of block and crushed ice, to ship produce to the East. Union Ice also developed a portable hydrocooler that removes "field heat" from produce immediately after harvesting, thereby checking the ripening process.

Decree Hurt Company

But Union Ice was probably best known to California households through legions of ice men who regularly delivered heavy blocks of ice to keep the icebox cold.

The business changed drastically when the household refrigerator began appearing in kitchens of the 1930s.

The household refrigerator "really put the industry down the drain until it almost phased out," said John Yopp, editor of Refrigeration magazine, a trade publication for the ice and cold storage industry.

After World War II, Union Ice began expanding its cold storage division to make up for the shrinking ice division, which was also becoming more seasonal.

Then, in the mid-1940s, the ice giant was challenged. Accused of price-fixing by the government, Union Ice entered into a consent degree that lasted for 40 years and dramatically changed the way it did business, Williams said.

"It dealt such a devastating blow that the company virtually changed its operating practices and walked away from many opportunities," he said.

For example, Union Ice responded by setting up a network of distributors that acted as a buffer between the company and customers, Williams said. Many of those distributors eventually went into business for themselves and became competitors.

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