Not long ago, the Consultant debunking unit (CDU) went to its email inbox and found a call for help. "Could it be true?" wrote an anguished reader. "Are consultants right when they say that what we're doing in our company is the equivalent of selling ice to Eskimos? We need to know! And please don't tell us to chill!"
Never one to shy away from a cry from the cold, the CDU set out to defrost this complex premise. The assumption, which has long gone unquestioned, is that an ice salesman would have a snowball's chance in hell of selling ice to Eskimos. "There are mountains of ice around Eskimos," says Jon Spoelstra, author of Ice to the Eskimos: How to Market a Product Nobody Wants (Harper Business, 1997). "And even with all of that ice, they probably make more. After all, it's a lot easier to throw a few ice cubes into a glass than it is to chip ice off your wall."
But what are the cold, hard facts? Time for the CDU to start this ice capade. Dropping anchor in Anchorage, Alaska, the CDU talked with Steve Sommerfeld, owner of Alaska Pure Water Products Inc. If anyone knows about selling ice in Alaska, it's Sommerfeld.
"Being in the water business, it was just natural to get into the ice business," says Sommerfeld, who decided to pursue obvious line extension after conducting comprehensive market research. "We put our name in the phone book under 'ice' and got a bunch of calls," he laughs. The result? The Glacier Ice Co. In addition to selling cubed, bagged, and bulk ice, Glacier Ice is targeting the high-end market, with plans to sell dry ice, purified ice — even harvested icebergs. Yes, but could he sell ice to Eskimos? "People say I could sell freezers to Eskimos," Sommerfeld says. "I consider it a compliment. I wouldn't be doing anything else up here right now."
Next the CDU traveled 180 miles south to Homer and spoke to Patrick Quinn, owner of Quinntek Ice Alaska. With a plant that kicks out up to 5 tons of ice a day, a fleet of refrigerated trucks, and a growing list of satisfied customers, Quinntek is a formidable presence on the Kenai Peninsula, where the economy is driven by fishing. A constant supply of Quinntek ice helps keep the catch fresh.
Quinn didn't always have his assets frozen. Just five years ago, he was searching for an entrepreneurial venture to launch in Alaska. Seeking advice, he turned to a friend who worked at a local grocery store. "I was chatting with him one night in the meat department," Quinn recalls, "and I asked, 'If a guy wanted to come up here and start a business, what would he do?' He and his partner spun around in unison and said, 'Ice.' "
There was no turning back. "Who would ever have thought a guy could make a decent living selling ice in Alaska?" Quinn asks.
And the all-important ice-to-Eskimos market test? Quinn recalls a call he received one summer from Seldovia, a remote village of Alaska natives on the Kachemak Bay. The village ice machine had broken down. "For three days," he says, "we'd pack ice in wet lock boxes, drive to the airport, throw the boxes into this little plane, and watch it fly away.
"You deprive these people of ice, and it's like keeping a fat lady from her doughnuts."
For its final stop, the CDU headed north to Barrow, 340 miles above the Arctic Circle, where for 51 days between November and January, the sun doesn't rise. It also boasts one of the world's largest Eskimo settlements.
Once there, the CDU looked up Dennis Fast, who works for the Alaska Commercial Co. As branch manager of the 35,000-square-foot store, Fast is responsible for selling a lot of things — everything from Mexican food to furniture. He also sells ice to Eskimos. Why would the people of Barrow need ice? For drinks, for keeping coolers cold, for packing fish — nothing unusual. What is unusual, Fast says, is the length to which they'll go to get it. "Never in my career did I think I would be selling a freezer to an Eskimo, putting it on a sled, covering it with caribou hides, and hitching it to the back of the guy's snowmobile so that he could pull it across miles of snow to his village," says Fast. "It's actually happened several times."
And so the CDU breaks the ice on another consulting case. It turns out that selling ice to an Eskimo is as easy as, well, Eskimo pie. Now, what's this we hear about sending coal to Newcastle?
A version of this article appeared in the April 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.