‘Ice King’ pushes cool ideas to sell hot commodity

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BY KRISTEL DACUMOS-LAGORZA PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN

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Gerry Santos, also known as “Mr. Freeze,” is by no measure a cold dude. He warmly greets everyone – from employees to distributors and partners – with his signature smile and charm.

Santos is a dynamic 51-year-old, who has the energy of a person half his age, and he credits this to being in a job that keeps his entrepreneurial juices flowing.

Ice baby
“I’ve been working with ice ever since I was five years old,” recalls Santos, narrating a childhood filled with memories of days with his dad, Manuel Santos, an engineer, whose main business was selling the commodity to restaurants.

The business was then a simple operation, which entailed buying blocks of ice from an ice plant, and then lugging these huge frozen pieces back home where the family would spend the entire morning breaking down the gargantuan “glacier.”

“Hindi pa uso yung tube ice [Tube ice wasn’t commonly used yet], so we would break it apart using ice picks,” chuckles Santos. Even through fever and chills, the young Santos would be there by his father’s side, helping chip away the ice into sellable sizes.

After graduating from San Beda College with a degree in Management, Santos continued to work for his dad. “When there was no driver, I would deliver the ice, or if we were one man down that day, I’d be the bagger as well,” he says.

But after 13 years, Santos decided to take a break in order to explore other opportunities. “I resigned because I wanted to establish my own business and learn to stand on my own two feet,” he explains. “I wanted to see what was outside of my comfort zone.”

Santos took out a loan from the bank to jump-start his buy-and-sell business dealing in used cars. The “speed” of that enterprise and the routine, however, eventually led to boredom. “And so I decided to go back to my roots, back to the basics, which was ice.”

Ice on the prize
But returning to the familiar didn’t mean Santos simply slipped back into the old ways. “I wanted to change it. I wanted to innovate,” he reveals. The opportunity lay in improving sales and productivity.

“Dati pipila kami sa plants, [We used to queue up for ice at the plants] which ate up time, of course.”

Instead of remaining as an ice reseller, Santos established Mr. Freeze in 2005, building his first 15-ton ice facility in Quezon City, which allowed them to manufacture the product themselves.

“I got the name Mr. Freeze from the movie, Batman & Robin. Ang kalaban ni Batman doon [Batman’s nemesis there] was Mr. Freeze (played by Arnold Schwarzenneger). Kapag binaril ka (niya) nagiging yelo ka, [When he shoots you, you turn into ice]” he laughs, recalling that moment of inspiration. But unlike the sensational movie plot, Santos made ice the protagonist in his own success story.

Cool opportunity
A new player in the industry, Santos filled the void that the bigger companies had overlooked or left open.

Gerry Santos has made his business – and life – all about ice. (Below) Santos is a hands-on leader who works closely with his children and staff

In addition to upgrading their technology and expanding plant operations, Santos tweaked his dad’s business model to include a livelihood program set up for tricycle drivers, who could market Mr. Freeze in their communities and other urban areas.

Using this network of small distributors, Santos was able to bring his product down to the household levels, tapping sari-sari store owners and even ambitious household help (maids), who wanted to increase their income.

“In the beginning, it was difficult, of course, in the sense that we were competing with the big players. Fortunately, I grew up knowing every aspect of the ice business and knew the areas of opportunity I could bank on,” he reveals. “I knew the weaknesses of my competitors, and so improved the quality and service to my customers and dealers. I also made sure to expand every year to cope with the growing demands.”

Making their product even more accessible and convenient to reach, Santos built ice plants nearer the communities of his dealers and customers, ensuring that they could get their daily supplies of ice fast.

In 2012, Mr. Freeze was reported to be producing around 400 tons of ice daily, and since then, the number has grown exponentially, especially with new technological upgrades and plant expansion.

“Sa totoo lang, hindi ka malulugi sa ice. [Honestly, you won’t fail in the ice business.] It’s a hot commodity that sees no season in the Philippines,” Santos says. “Unlike restaurants, where pwede ka magsawa sa food, ang tao hindi nagsasawa sa ice…sa malamig.” [You could grow tired of eating the same food, but not ice.]

One of Santos’ ingredients for success is focusing on his distribution network – the people. Santos prefers communicating directly with his smaller partners such as tricycle drivers and sari-sari store owners among others, because Mr. Freeze, more than just a promising enterprise, is his way of helping the community as well. There are numerous stories of ordinary folk, who have been able to build a better life for themselves and their families by joining the Mr. Freeze bandwagon.

“We are proud to be one of the country’s top ice manufacturers, and we got here, because we changed how the industry works. We gave people a chance to be a part of us. Our growth and success is truly inclusive,” says Santos.

“The more plants I’ve built, the more people I’ve helped.”

For his unique business model, Santos was recognized by Meralco as its first Meralco Luminary Awardee under the Small and Medium Enterprise category and was named Outstanding Bedan Alumni in Business & Entrepreneurship last 2016.

Greater horizons
Mr. Freeze, which is celebrating 12 years in the business, intends to roll out an ambitious expansion campaign, planting more ice facilities across the archipelago.

With the help of his offspring– Janina Mariz and Philip Gerald “Iggy” – Santos is training the new generation of Mr. Freeze executives. “I’m so lucky to have a good son and daughter, who’re now helping me in running the business. I think I have trained them well as my father trained me.” His children manage the day-to-day operations, while he provides the support and guidance in the big, decision-making moments.

“I’m just at the back of the scene, monitoring them. They’re doing great,” he beams. During his free time, Santos lives out his dream of traveling around the world – “I like cold places but not too cold!” – and playing golf and tennis with his friends. “I believe in the saying that ‘health will always be our wealth’,” which is why he has adopted an active lifestyle.

Planting jobs
Santos has also been exploring other passion projects. He recently introduced BLK513, a new healthy frozen yoghurt brand, which is fast gaining a following across Metro Manila malls.

“From six employees, we now have 60, and we’re opening up more stores in the metro. More business means more people to employ, and that really excites me!” he says.

When the founders of BLK513 approached him with the concept, Santos was hooked. “I told myself since I’ve been so lucky in the cold business, why not venture into frozen yoghurt? I agreed to finance the project.”

With a booming business in ice and frozen yoghurt, the possibilities of growing Mr. Freeze are endless. “In the next few years, I want us to grow by exploring new ways to give back to the community. We can build more plants so that we can provide more people jobs and give them the opportunity to become entrepreneurs themselves.

“I want to focus on teaching regular folk to become successful dealers and entrepreneurs, and help them define their own success.”

He continues: “We have been so blessed because our company is built on relationships. That’s how we grow, that’s how we have succeeded. From small entrepreneurs to large distributors to business partners, we work with everyone. We give everyone a chance.”

As one who has built his business from the ground up, Santos reminds other entrepreneurs of the real goal of their work. “At the end of the day, success is not (defined by) how much money you have, but how much you’ve accomplished. Use your gifts and talents to touch and help as many lives possible.”

Surely, there’s nothing cooler than that.

* * *

Going for glory takes guts

All business ventures come with risks. It’s how you handle them that determines success, says Santos

ON FAILURE
If you fear that you may fail, be ready to face the consequences. For me, failures make you successful. You learn from your mistakes.

ON RISK-TAKING
You have to remember, when it comes to business, “no guts, no glory.” No success is achieved without ever trying. Be a risk-taker, be passionate and be hardworking – and you can conquer all the obstacles that come your way.

ON COMPETITION
Do not be paralyzed by the fear of competition. They’re there for a reason. Instead, be creative and find ways to penetrate the industry even as a small player. Well-funded innovation and new ideas will surely be effective in attracting customers.

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