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Titans of industry: Brema Ice Makers

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Cesare Maroli has built a highly successful company from his passion to produce quality ice-making machines that fulfil his client’s needs – a passion he’s passed on to his son Alessandro Maroli, reports Andrea Tolu

When Cesare Maroli founded Brema Ice Makers in December 1984, the North of Italy was going through one of the coldest winters on record. A few weeks later, Milan would experience what is still remembered today as “the snowfall of the century”.

“It was a kind of ambiguous sign,” says Cesare, explaining that at the time he wasn’t sure whether it augured well or ill for his new company. In hindsight, the response could not have been anything but positive: in thirty years, Brema grew from three employees to 110 and built a brand that is recognised worldwide for the quality of its products and after-sales service.

When asked how they did it, Cesare’s recipe sounds simple. “We defined clear goals and how to get there.” The simplicity is, of course, only apparent.

In fact, Brema’s winning strategy and relentless quest for quality required dedication and significant investments.

The first ingredient however, was the passion of its founder for ice. “I was doing something completely different before,” says Cesare, “but once I got to know ice, I never stopped.” Maroli handed on this passion to his wife and son Alessandro who has had a long experience in the family business and works as commercial director and operations manager. Although his father’s example played an important role, Alessandro Maroli (pictured below) admits it wasn’t that hard to be fascinated by ice. “It’s a beautiful material,” he says. “Although it’s cold, it brings back warm memories: a cocktail with friends, a bottle of wine in a bucket, or even the relief of a bag of ice on the knee after playing football.”

Succeeding fast and early

During the first 10 years of its existence, Brema focused on developing solid infrastructures, quality standards and management. When the company moved to Villa Cortese near Milan in 1994, it already had a state-of-the-art production plant with an area of 10,000 sq m. Today, that extension has more than doubled and can boast a high level of automation and efficiency.

Brema gained its first foothold in the market following an inspired decision: instead of going after the large food and hospitality chains, they targeted small independent coffee shops and bars. The leading product then was the CP (cubetto pieno – full cube) line. However, it soon became clear that with small businesses no two situations were the same, each one of them had different needs.

The company then had to embrace flexibility, adding more ice shapes, such as granular ice, flakes and nuggets. Now its catalogue includes six types of ice and sixty different models. One of the latest developments is the Be Eco Active line, which uses natural gasses.

The second thing that Brema did right from the start was to produce for the foreign markets. Today the company exports almost 90% of its products and has a network of over 600 resellers across more than 100 countries. With the expansion abroad also came new market segments, such as restaurants, hotels and supermarket chains.

Delegation and control

Growing fast means you have to find a way to scale up production without compromising quality. For any entrepreneur, that’s a nice problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. For Brema, the main challenge of managing growth has always been about finding the right people. “There is such a thing as growing too fast, for example when you’re growing 25% in a year and you need a service manager and know that it may take a year and a half to find a good one,” says Alessandro.

“As an entrepreneur, this forces you to think differently, and learn how to delegate.”It’s an effort that pays off, though. “When you have great managers, you don’t have to deal with everything,” he says. “In fact, when you’re not around they may even do a better job.”For Brema, the importance of delegating goes hand in hand with a strict definition of every detail. “I consider myself a specialist in complete control over processes,” says Cesare.

“Every product that comes out of our plant has its own ID, where all the details are recorded – from production to quality control to the customer’s details. This ID will follow the product throughout its life.”The need to have this level of control explains why, despite its strong worldwide presence, Brema’s production remains in Italy, with no plan to relocate it anytime soon.“Delegating to people is much more difficult when you’re not there,” says Alessandro.

“Anyone can produce an ice maker, but making one that can last 10 or 15 years is a different story. That requires serious investments. We invest €1m per year in R&D and we couldn’t expect to repeat that in different parts of the world. I want to focus on doing one thing well in one place.”“If Ferraris have always been produced in Maranello, that’s for a reason,” says Cesare, before adding: “We don’t rule out the possibility of investing abroad, but it will always be for commercial reasons.”

Keeping production in Italy is not just a business decision for Brema it’s also a matter of pride, especially in a country where GDP and unemployment rates are being heavily affected by aggressive delocalisation.

“We’re not the only ones with this type of mentality,” says Alessandro. “If you look behind the counter of a bar or a restaurant anywhere in the world, you’ll notice there are a lot of Italian SMEs in the foodservice equipment sector. Rather than moving production to cheaper countries, hoping to keep the same quality, many of them decide to remain in Italy and invest here. It’s something that makes me proud that Brema is one of them.”

Certification as strategy

If better processes make for better products, then certifications also become quite important. Each Brema ice maker comes with a long list of certifications attached, like the latest 2015 version of ISO 9001 (Quality Management) and OHSAS 18001 2007 (Health & Safety Management) to name a few.

For Brema, certifications are more than a mandatory requirement, they’re part of the strategy. “Rather than having the same machine in different versions for each region, we make a single version that is compliant with any market we operate in,” says Alessandro.

The company often goes the extra mile to certify its products, like in the case of EU regulation 1935/2004 regarding the safety of food contact materials (FCMs). To certify its compliance, Brema hired an independent body, although the law allows operators to simply use a self-declaration. Behind that additional effort on FCMs, there was also a particular way to look at ice.

“Ice is food, so it must be clean when it comes out of the machine,” says Alessandro. “Ice is food” sounds like a self-evident remark, but it’s not. For most people, ice is something you add to a drink to make it cooler. Viewing it as food reveals, perhaps more than anything else, how Brema takes quality – and ice – very seriously.

The future looks bright

Brema’s future is open to different options, but with a few certainties. “There are many large markets we haven’t explored yet. My son and I evaluate what to do almost every week,” says Cesare.

“As long as we’re having fun, all options are on the table. The biggest challenge for us will be to keep making everyone happy: suppliers, customers, collaborators, and all those who believed in my family’s dream and have accompanied us in this journey since 1984. In any case, quality will remain the main ingredient.” And to give a full picture of what comes next for Brema, Cesare shares a ‘secret’: “No one is irreplaceable. Me for one.”

Another thing that won’t change for Brema is having the foodservice sector as a natural reference. “Foodservice professionals are the link between us and our customers,” says Cesare. “We both have one goal in common: to make sure that the ice-making equipment satisfies the client’s needs.”

Alessandro’s vision of where the sector is going is quite clear. “I think we’ll see the growth of a new format of medium-sized chain,” he says. “It will be something between your typical mega fast-food chain and the trattoria Toscana (a traditional, but casual, Tuscan restaurant) that stays the same generation after generation. New formats will bring new ways to consume food, and that will affect the market of ice makers too. Our way of eating and drinking changes and ice, because it is food, inevitably changes with it.”

Thanks to its solid company structure, Brema has managed to stay true to its origins during 33 years of continuous growth. “Although we are an SME in all respects, we are still a family business, and proud to be one,” says Cesare. “This makes us special because it allows us to value relationships with customers, suppliers and collaborators.”

This type of attitude, together with the real passion of the Maroli family for ice is very well expressed by the motto “Ice by warm people,” which stands out on their website.

Business lessons

Great passions can be a problem though, especially when they don’t leave room for anything else. Did the same happen to them? For Cesare that was never an issue. “I still work five days a week. Although I no longer need to work to live, I’m not one of those who live to work either. Those who do that, get to the end of their careers feeling disoriented and frightened, cut adrift like an orphan child. I enjoy all the collateral aspects of my job. I travel for pleasure, not only for business, and I never tire of it. It’s a passion that I share with my wife and son and I consider myself lucky.”

Our travelling back and forth between Brema’s history and near future ends with Cesare’s reflection on the most important business lesson he learnt. “Never feel as if you’ve finally made it, recognise your fears and don’t change who you really are. It was a gift from a colleague of mine, who shared his personal view of life many years ago when I was still an employee. I never forgot about that and I built my company on those principles.”

Andrea Tolu