By Keith Norbury

Sometimes refrigerated cargo can be as simple as frozen water. Iceculture Inc. of Hensall, Ont. exports crystal clear blocks of ice to five continents. Some of those 135-kilogram blocks are carved into intricate shapes using computer-controlled equipment, packed into refrigerated containers, and then re-assembled as ice lounges or restaurants in the world’s hot spots.

“We’ve done about 27,” said Iceculture founder Julian Bayley. Thailand, Greece, Dubai, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Portugal are among the destinations for these cool products. “Recently, we did one in Calcutta, and we’d already done one in New Delhi,” Mr. Bayley added.

Before the 2008 economic downturn, the company was exporting $5 million worth of ice annually. Most of that was in the form of 25,000 blocks destined to be shaped into table decorations at weddings and other special occasions. The company also makes customized ice decor, such as serving trays for the rich and famous, like Elton John, and ice sculptors of other famous personages like Nelson Mandela.

“It slowed when we hit the recession in 2008, but we still managed to keep going,” said Mr. Bayley, whose children are now in charge of the company that he and his late wife Ann founded in 1993.

The work takes place at Iceculture’s 4,800-square-metre facility in Hensall, some 60 kilometres north of London and 20 kilometres from Lake Huron. Using a process developed by American inventor Virgil Clinebell, Iceculture freezes ice blocks in a way that removes impurities that would otherwise create feathery bubbles in the centre.

Iceculture developed its own technologies for carving ice, including an ice lathe, of which it has sold more than 100 units for over $10,000 each. The company also uses numerically controlled cutting machines that can cut the blocks into intricate shapes. These can be fitted together to form such delights as a full-size model of a Mini Cooper, as well as the ice lounges.

“We carve it in our studio,” Mr. Bayley said. “We put it all together and we take it apart. And in theory, it should go together like Lego.”

An ice lounge, which can cost upwards of $15,000, usually requires two 40-foot shipping containers. Shipping to those remote Asian locales can cost $7,000 to $9,000, Mr. Bayley said. “The cost of shipping actually, I hate to say it, is getting prohibitive,” he said. For example, he was recently quoted $500 more per container to ship to Australia as compared to a quote on that shipment three months earlier. That’s in line with recent announcements of general rate increases from reefer carriers. Effective Jan. 1, for example, Maersk Line increased its base rate for a 40-foot-equivalent unit by US$1,500.

In announcing that increase, Maersk said the existing rates did not make it “financially sustainable” to invest in new reefer equipment. A surplus of ships and a depressed world economy have in recent years knocked down shipping rates. The recession has also created challenges for a company whose primary product is simply water. “We’re in the luxury business and manufacture what people want but don’t need,” Mr. Bayley said.

New markets in Asia and Europe have helped the company survive the economic downturn. From a shipping perspective, Hensall is an ideal location to serve those markets because it is also home to the Hensall District Co-operative, the largest agricultural co-op in Ontario. “They have a transportation division, which is Hensall Global Logistics,” Mr. Bayley said. “I can get a container here probably faster than I could if I were in Toronto.”

From Hensall, the containers are usually taken by road to Toronto. And from Toronto, they go by rail or road to Montreal, where they are loaded onto one of various ocean carriers. “We’ve shipped from Pennsylvania too, because that was the most cost-effective way of getting ice to Australia and New Zealand,” he said.

Since it takes seven weeks for the ice to reach Dubai, for example, he and a team fly over to assemble the ice into the furnishings of a lounge inside what is effectively a big walk-in freezer. “That’s how it’s meant to work,” he said.

While he described the system as “pretty cut and dried,” the order in which the blocks are packed is important. That’s to enable speedy and efficient assembly while minimizing exposure of the ice to damaging heat.

When shipping overseas, there are other things to take into consideration as well, such the timing of hurricane season and the location of war zones, he said. “We lost a big order to Israel [in the fall of 2011] because we couldn’t get timely shipping into Israel.” Mr. Bayley said. “Then you’ve got political hassles. You’ve got cultural hassles and logistical hassles you have to be aware of before you start shipping.”