Suffolk-based Ice Watch helps keep winter weather at bay

Ice Watch chairman Paul Bowling, left, with operations manager Dean Harvey.

Ice Watch chairman Paul Bowling, left, with operations manager Dean Harvey. - Credit: Archant

While here in East Anglia it would generally be agreed that we have had a fairly mild winter, people in other parts of the country more prone to low temperatures and adverse conditions might not wholly concur.

But thanks to a company in Suffolk many organisations and businesses around the UK have been able to keep their operations running through the worst of the bad weather.

From its headquarters in Saxmundham the team at Ice Watch oversees 76 operator crews responsible for keeping over 400 sites as far flung as Aberdeen and Cornwall, Wales and Essex, and numerous locations in between, free of ice and snow. On call 24 hours a day to spread salt whenever it is needed, the firm’s clients include hospitals, schools, manufacturing plants, business parks and fire stations.

The company, which currently turns over almost £2million, uses data from around 40 weather feeds to predict down to the nearest hour where and when frost might strike, and has developed a state-of-the art computer system to manage the sizeable logistical challenge that results from its activities.

It’s an impressive operation and a success story, as well as a far cry from the company’s origins a decade ago when chairman, Paul Bowling, started the business to give him employment during the winter for when his summer work spreading chalk on agricultural fields dried up.

“I realised that spreading chalk in the summer used the same techniques as spreading salt in the winter and as I developed the winter business I discovered there was a niche market for spreading office walkways and car parks direct to businesses,” said Paul, who roped in members of his family to get the business off the ground.

“We started off near Saxmundham and my plan was to then start approaching businesses in Ipswich. When my daughters were younger they used to ski at the dry slope in Ipswich on Saturdays and after practice we used to go around the industrial estates and one would read the names of the companies on the boards and the other would write them down, so I could contact them later.”

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He continued: “One company who had a base in Ipswich asked if we could look after their Huntingdon site as well. I soon realised that to secure work you had to commit to looking after all sites belonging to a customer and not just the ones in the local area. Then we got in with a firm that had sites in Peterborough and another who had a base at Bury St Edmunds and things grew from there.

“In the early days there would be times when I’d drive around them all down as far as Stevenage and would sometimes not get back until eight in the morning – you do those type of things when you are getting a business off the ground.”

By his own admission, Paul says he found delegating work to others a difficult to thing to do in the early days but as the business has taken off he has had to learn to do so. The growing pains and decisions he has had to make will be familiar to many business owners who have moved from a one-man band to a medium-sized business employing staff and expanding its operations.

The business remains centrally-controlled from offices in Saxmundham, where a team of 11 are responsible for day-to-day activities. The company has been able to work with customers across the UK by employing local teams of operators who all live within ten miles of the sites they manage. On a busy night the company will have over 250 workers out and about around the country spreading salt. The company has also invested in a small fleet of tractors and quad bikes with snow ploughs on to use at some of their larger sites.

A few examples of the customers Ice Watch works with gives a taste of the different situations they face.

One of the sites they deal with is the Royal Blackburn Hospital, which is located a few hundred feet above sea level. The weather there can be harsh and Ice Watch ensures ambulances can access the site at all times and that the walkways are safe for pedestrians.

Another customer is a business park which is home to a distribution centre belonging to online retailer Amazon. At key times in the year, such as the weeks running up to Christmas, it is imperative the roads are ice free so their lorries can get in and out at all hours. Ice Watch also looks after a high security IT data centre where staff come and go all night while other office complexes are less stringent in their needs.

Central to the operation is a highly-sophisticated computer system, which has been developed over the years to manage the unique set of variables Ice Watch work with.

It assimilates weather forecast information from the Met Office and Weatherquest and factors that against the different criteria for each customer. Because salt does not melt ice, it simply prevents ice from forming; the crews have to get it down before there is a frost, so the weather reports give a breakdown of the weather expected at a given postcode over the next 24 hours in hourly slots. Reports are colour-coded – so operatives can see the situation straightaway. The system automatically generates text messages and e-mails which are sent to facilities managers to inform them that Ice Watch teams will be out spreading salt that night

But despite the introduction of this cutting edge technology, Paul still insists that some of the old ways of doing things are preserved.

“We physically talk to each operator we are sending out each day – we do not use e-mail or text when communicating with operators,” he said. “It’s a rule that I will not have broken. It allows me to sleep at night, knowing we have spoken to them and so far we have never been let down in all the years we have been doing it.”

He added: “We have some good guys working for us and if we are having a really bad spell of weather - like we did a few years ago - they will be going out every night. Being in voice contact with them provides a little bit of TLC. We can also tell them more about what conditions to expect and let them know what other teams around the country are dealing with – it all helps to make things run more smoothly.”

Talking to Paul, you get a different view of what is good and bad weather. When he says he has had a good winter, he means the weather has been bad and his business has been busy. “My friends laugh when it starts to snow and say: ‘Look, Paul is smiling again’,” he jokes.

Work-wise, Paul says this winter had a slow start before picking up in the middle of December. January was “good” while February was “patchy”.

“But it’s different for different parts of the country,” he added. “If you ask someone in the north west of the county what kind of winter they have had, they would say it’s been awful - they have had a lot snow up there.”

For the past three years, Paul has been ably-assisted by the now managing director Colin Bloom, who has been instrumental in helping take the business to the next level. He has overseen the company gain IS 9001, 14001 and and 18001 accreditations for quality management and environmental standards ,and improved health and safety policies. By having these standards in place he says the company is well-placed to grow further by securing new more substantial contracts. Colin projects that the company will grow its turnover to £5m in the next five years and double its staff headcount at the Saxmundham office. As long as there is Ice and snow- it would seem the team at Ice Watch will be there to deal with it.