Frank Zamboni couldn’t stand the time it took to resurface the ice on a massive ice rink in L.A. So, he invented a better way.

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Dave Young:
Welcome to The Empire Builders Podcast. Dave Young here along with Stephen Semple. And Stephen, when you told me what the theme was for today’s episode, my heart skipped a beat. This is the kind of guy that you’re podcasting with. When I was a little kid, probably remembered as my very first high school basketball game, it’s at least the one I could remember, and I’m watching these guys run up and down the court and I’m like, oh, okay. That kind of looks like fun. And then halftime hits and the janitor comes out with a big wide broom and he sweeps the whole court, one end to the other, makes a nice tight turn back to the other end, back, forth, back, forth until the whole thing is swept off. And I’m thinking that is glorious. I was fascinated by that.

And then I don’t know how long it was after that, a couple years later, my very first time going to an indoor ice rink, and that was fun. But then big pause and the Zamboni comes out, and this is like the janitor with the dust broom on steroids and I was hooked. It’s one of the only vehicles that I want to drive, but I’ve never gotten to drive. Other people aspire to Ferraris and things like that. I’ve driven a mining haul truck, but I’ve never driven a Zamboni. And you tell me that we’re going to talk about Zamboni today. Not exactly a household word.

Stephen Semple:
But it is a household word. I mean, how many people could you say the word Zamboni to and they know exactly what you’re talking about?

Dave Young:
Well, you’re Canadian.

Stephen Semple:
I’m saddened to say this, Dave. This broke my heart when I learned this. It was not invented in Canada. It was invented in, wait for it, Los Angeles.

Dave Young:
Well, okay.

Stephen Semple:
But I do want to back up one of the things you were saying, because I want to quote the great sage Charlie Brown. As the great sage Charlie Brown once said, there are three things in life that people like to stare at, a flowing stream, a crackling fire, and a Zamboni clearing the ice.

Dave Young:
You bet.

Stephen Semple:
Now, when Charlie Brown is referring to it, I could argue Zamboni’s a household name.

Dave Young:
I think you’re probably right.

Stephen Semple:
There’s a commercial that MGM has out now for their betting site. You’ll know one of these names, Wayne Gretzky. You may not know Connor McDavid. But Connor McDavid is kind of like today’s Wayne Gretzky. They do this bet on who’s faster and then it cuts to them driving across the ice on Zambonis, racing Zambonis slowly across the ice.

So coming back to the origins of Zamboni, and it’s kind of a fun story. And yeah, Zamboni is not a massive company. They make about 250 of them a year and they cost anywhere from 10k, the little ones pulled by tractors, up to six figures. But at the same time, they’re pretty big when you can say the word Zamboni and everybody kind of knows who you are.

Dave Young:
Not a big consumer product.

Stephen Semple:
Not a big consumer product, but they are the giant in their industry. So they were invented in 1949 by Frank Zamboni in, as I was saying, Los Angeles. Saddens me that he’s not a Canadian. And it’s a private company. As I said, they make about 250 of them a year. And they’re in hockey arenas, the Olympics, you name it. Here’s a fun fact. The top speed on a Zamboni clocks in at around 10 miles per hour, so they’re not going to win any races.

But Frank Zamboni was born in 1901 in a family farm in Idaho, and his education was cut short at the age of 15. He had to leave school to make extra money, and he left school making extra money fixing cars, so it was in the early days of the car business. And he was a tinkerer. Then in 1920, he moved to LA to help his older brother run an auto garage. It was around this time that refrigeration was getting popular. And businesses at this time were relying on huge chunks of ice to preserve and transport perishable items. We remember this from Budweiser, a bunch of other podcasts.

So the two brothers decided to make a business making refrigeration units for the dairy industry. By 1927, they were also starting to manufacture big blocks of ice that they sold to farmers. And in 1930, there was this huge advancement of refrigeration that nearly put them out of business. So all of a sudden, this big pivot happened that really changed the refrigeration industry. So they thought, well, we’ve got to do something different. Figure skating was getting popular because it was buoyed by the 1924 Olympics. And they started seeing these indoor ice rinks popping up. At the time, ice rinks were made using tubes filled with freezing brine water, which made it very lumpy. So they created a way to use big tanks, which made it much smoother.

So in 1940, they got a patent on that. And to really promote this, they also decided that they would open a skating rink. I’ve got to remind you again, they’re in Los Angeles. So they opened this huge skating rink. And it was huge. 20,000 square foot skating rink. And it was massively popular. They were getting 150,000 skaters a year through this rink. But there was a problem. By the end of the day, the ice is all chewed up and it took four men one and a half hours to restore the surface.

Dave Young:
Just using squeegee mops and buckets of water.

Stephen Semple:
Yeah. Well, here’s basically what they do. First thing is a tractor would run a scraper, scrape it down, the snow would then be manually shoveled, dirty water would be squeegeed away, and new layer of water would be sprayed on and spread out. So Frank looked at this and said, I’ve got to find a better way. And he spent a decade finding different ways to solve the problem. And he used parts from war surplus vehicles and bombers and you name it. And in fact, if you Google it, you can see some of the early iterations on the web and some of them are really, really quite interesting. But finally, in 1949, he comes up with a prototype. And basically, there’s a blade inside of a vehicle that shaves the surface of the ice, the ice shavings are picked up by a horizontal screw and funneled into a snow tank by a conveyor, and a second tank sprays conditioner on the ice to take away the imperfections, a vacuum sucks up the dirty water and the debris and clean hot water is dispensed on the ice.

Dave Young:
Wow. I mean, that’s complicated.

Stephen Semple:
It is complicated. We just see this thing going along and there’s just this smooth ice, but there’s a lot. There’s the scraping, lifting of the snow, doing this other stuff, and then it’s being put down. And it also has to go down as hot water. When you use cold water, the problem is it freezes too quickly and it’s hard to make smooth. So you actually have to put warm water down because it’s what allows you to spread it out.

Dave Young:
It melts a little bit of ice beneath it and that smooths it out.

Stephen Semple:
Yeah. And so this 20,000 square foot ice rink, instead of taking an hour and a half, they’re able to do it in 15 minutes.

So he patented this and he started selling it to other rinks. The first entrepreneur that he sold his machine to was a nearby ice rink, Pasadena Winter Garden. But the biggest breakthrough came in 1950 when the Norwegian film starlet and Olympic champion skater spotted one of the Zamboni contraptions and offered to use three of them for her international figure skating tour.

Dave Young:
Oh, nice.

Stephen Semple:
And this gave the machine worldwide exposure and soon demand just ballooned. And from 1950 to early ’60s, sales doubled each year. The company’s customer base included NHL teams, the Winter Olympics, touring shows like the Ice Capades. But the Zamboni company really has this competitive advantage that goes back to the roots of Frank Zamboni. Frank Zamboni, this invention of the Zamboni is such a big deal, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. And you know one of the things I forgot to check? He also should really be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but I don’t know-

Dave Young:
Yeah, he should.

Stephen Semple:
But I don’t know whether he is or not.

Dave Young:
Figure skating hall of fame.

Stephen Semple:
Yeah. All of those. All of those things. All of those things. But the part that I found that was really interesting about Frank Zamboni is we often talk about unleveraged assets. So from a marketing perspective, we go to businesses and we look for unleveraged assets. And what we’re looking for are things that they’re not telling the world that we can tell that will make them more attractive and help us in the marketing, maybe warranty. It doesn’t matter what it is. That’s one of the things we hunt for, because that’s what we’re doing is we’re improving their message and their marketing and their advertising, so we look for those things when we go and spend a day with a customer.

But this got me thinking about the fact that there’s also businesses out there that have other unleveraged assets where there’s something that they have developed for themselves that helps make their business better, that they could actually sell to the industry. Frank Zamboni had a problem and he solved it. He knew other ice rinks had this problem as well so he patented it and he went out and he sold that to other businesses. But it got me wondering. I’ve also seen this with other businesses where people go, oh, we’ve got this problem in this industry, solve this problem and then turn around and market it to their industry. And sometimes, that thing ends up becoming way bigger than their original business.

Dave Young:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the things that you wouldn’t think it would be as interesting as it is, but it’s fascinating to watch you. And it’s satisfying. It’s one of those weird, unique things that you watch that just satisfies you as the ice becomes perfectly smooth again.

So businesses that have one of these unleveraged assets, they may not even know it. You often don’t even find those things out until you’re doing what we call an uncovery visit, where you’ve just been hired by a client and you go to their market and you start learning about them and their competitors and about their city. And oftentimes, those unleveraged assets are just things that are thrown out nonchalantly over lunch. Why didn’t you tell us that on day one?

Stephen Semple:
It’s true.

Dave Young:
Because that’s where we’re going. That’s the thing. It’s always fun looking for them because the business owner’s blind to them because they don’t even realize that they have something that they’re doing that is kind of unique to their industry. Because they figured out how to do it and it solves a problem, and it usually not only solves a problem for them, but for their consumers. It’s like, man, you got to look for those things.

Stephen Semple:
And it didn’t take long until the advertising industry learned that people loved watching the Zamboni, and so guess where one of the really valued advertising spaces are, is right on the side of that damn Zamboni.

Dave Young:
Darn right. And the other thing about that is the timing. Even though he experimented for 10 years, I guarantee there were other people trying to figure out that problem at the same time because with the change in refrigeration and the rise of ice rinks all over the world, there were other people trying to solve that problem. And he just probably had a bit of a headstart because he had this big labor problem with his giant ice rink. If he just had a small hockey rink size ice rink, it may not take you more than half hour or something. I don’t know. But since his was so big and so labor intensive, he had a vested interest and an incentive to solve that problem. Very cool story. Very cool.

Stephen Semple:
And the other thing too that’s interesting that he probably wouldn’t have thought of, because again, we get fascinated with the Zamboni going around, is that because it takes 15 minutes and because we’re fascinated watching it and it takes way less with a smaller rink, is you also create a better skating experience because you can do it a couple times through the course of the day, and you’re not losing people. You’re not losing people. We’re all going to sit there and stare at that damn thing, and then also be excited because we’re going to go out and skate like, man, I love skating-

Dave Young:
Fresh ice, man.

Stephen Semple:
Fresh ice is fabulous to skate on. It is the best. Again, when I came across the Zamboni thing, I was like, wow, I cannot believe this is from Los Angeles. We just don’t think about LA and outdoor. This was an outdoor skating rink in Los Angeles.

Dave Young:
Holy moly.

Stephen Semple:
Go on online and there’s pictures of this rink, and it is massive. It is massive.

Dave Young:
All right. I love the lesson here about solving problems and getting that unleveraged asset, which you often get by solving some problem that other people are frustrated with. So thanks for sharing the Zamboni and bringing back some awesome childhood memories, Stephen.

Stephen Semple:
There you go. Thanks, Dave.

Dave Young:
Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please share us, subscribe on your favorite podcast app and leave us a big fat juicy five star rating and review. And if you have any questions about this or any other podcast episode, email to [email protected].