Ice queen.”

“Ice ice baby.”

“The coolest business woman in Ireland.”

Alison Ritchie smiles at the last of the line of headlines she has inspired to date.

“Finally, I’m cool,” laughs the 37-year-old MD of Polar Ice Ltd, before revealing that her three daughters also have a nickname for her.

“The kids call me Elsa,” she says of the Disney character from Frozen with the power to turn all around her to ice with a flick of her index finger.

But as head of the country’s leading dry ice manufacturer with a turnover of over €2m, Alison certainly has a magic touch; made all the more remarkable by the fact that she has been in the business since she was 15-years-old.

She is also a champion for women in business as a lead entrepreneur on the ACORNS programme, was recently named “accountant of the year” having gone back to college when her twin daughters were just five months old, is halfway to earning her black belt in taekwondo, and, most tellingly, is game for a laugh, taking our photo shoot completely in her stride.

(Do you know that old adage about working with animals and small children? You can probably add dry ice to that list.)


Dry ice is the common name for solid carbon dioxide (CO2). At minus 78°C, it is extremely cold but instead of melting when heated, it changes directly into a gas, hence the “smoke” effect people might be most familiar with through special effects. Polar Ice’s products have been used everywhere from the Game Of Thrones set to the Riverdance stage.

Alison explains, however, that this makes up just 2% of their business and that dry ice is in hot demand by many industries. For example, the Irish Blood Transfusion Board use it to transport vital supplies, Aer Lingus buys it to keep food chilled on long flights, while it is also used for everything from pharmaceutical manufacturing and meat processing to freeze branding and frozen exports.

“The amazing thing about the dry ice is that, for the vast majority of customers who use it, it’s a need as opposed to a want. So if they don’t have dry ice, production lines could close or flights may not leave,” Alison explains.

“It’s a critical bolt.”

But just how did she find herself in this business?

She acknowledges that on the surface, it might seem a bit “random” to have a dry ice factory in Portarlington, which is where she spent the early part of her life until her family relocated to Cork after her father, Colm Powell, a prison officer, was promoted.

Alison, however, continued to spend school holidays back in Laois with her grandparents and it was during the summer of 1995 that she first found out from a friend about the factory, which at that point was producing ice cubes for bars and restaurants.

Already business-minded, Alison brought her dad along to show him the operation. As it turned out, the company was up for sale by the then-owners for £45,000 and Colm and his two brothers, Enda and Brendan, decided to invest £15,000 each to finance the buy-out.

Alison also wanted in, but with little more than her “babysitting money” in her pocket, brokered her own deal: a 25% stake in the company if she agreed to work there at weekends and school holidays and study business in college.

“I absolutely, truly believed at that point in time that I was truly able to do this,” she recalls of her younger self, explaining that what she lacked in experience, she more than made up for with “passion and determination”.

“The right people put their trust in me,” she continues, “and it worked.”


And after graduating from DCU in 2002, Alison joined the company full-time. At that stage, Polar Ice was just importing a small quantity of dry ice, but their vision was to become the number one manufacturer and supplier in Ireland: a project that required a €2m investment.

“The joke is people say: ‘I’d love to win the Lotto,’” says Alison. “Try and come up with the Lotto: that’s effectively what we were trying to do.”

She admits it was the most stressful point in her career as the family “exhausted every avenue”– including re-mortgaging their homes – to try and raise the necessary capital, eventually peaking at €1.5m.And the whole project would have fallen apart at the “11th hour” except that a friend of a friend who was in farming agreed to meet them to discuss investing the last €500,000.

“He said he always looked at a field of grass and saw all the opportunities, rather than just the blades of grass,” recalls Alison of their meeting.“It was probably the most amazing moment of my entire life. You know you hear about angel investors? The man sprouted wings. He just said: ‘I’m not investing in your business… I’m investing in you.’ And he took out the cheque book and he wrote the cheque.The entire thing was to fall apart; and he just took a chance.”


And that chance has allowed Polar Ice to become the number one dry ice supplier in Ireland, with over 70% of the market, 14 staff and depots in Dublin, Cork and Northern Ireland in addition to the manufacturing plant in Portarlington, with business almost doubling in the last five years.

Along the way, she and her brother Robert also set up a second company, pioneering the use of dry ice in industrial cleaning, which they have since sold.

Alison explains that commitment to customer service is Polar Ice’s number one selling point, but her own drive cannot be underestimated.

For example, having grown tired of having to bring an accountant to every meeting, she decided to go back to college in 2008 to train herself: no small feat, considering her twin daughters, Emma and Kate, were just five-months-old at the time. She later went on to qualify as a certified tax adviser and this year was named “accountant of the year” at the Irish Accountancy Awards.

“When you know better, you do better,” says Alison, who took over Polar Ice with Robert earlier this year, following the successful completion of a family succession plan, and is already planning significant investment for 2018 in manufacturing capacity and capability.

One of the things she credits for her development as a business woman is the “Going For Growth” programme for female entrepreneurs that she completed in 2010. As a means of giving back, Alison has since taken on the role as a lead mentor on ACORNS: the programme designed to help early stage entrepreneurs in rural Ireland.

“I know what it’s like to be awake at night and thinking: ‘Oh, Mother of God,’” she admits, but says that one of the messages she shares is that while it can be tempting to wait for the “right time” to go ahead with a business idea, sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.“We’re all waiting for the ‘right moment’ because we want to do it ‘right’ and we want to do a good job on this but there’s never the ‘right’ time or the ‘perfect’ time,” she says.

“I certainly never found it.”


In the same breathe, however, she knows first-hand the pressure of trying to wear every hat when running your own company and stresses the importance of looking after yourself as well as your business.

“How am I going to take care of everybody if I don’t take care of myself?” she says simply.

In her own case, having taken very little time off when the twins were born, Alison knew she needed to re-structure the business when it came to having her third baby, Sarah (now three and a half). That shift included hiring an operations manager so that she could take her full six months’ maternity leave, but also making a commitment to herself.

“When I was 33, I decided that my big goal was to be ‘financially free, fighting fit at 40’. All the ‘f’s. And I tell you, plenty of ‘f’s in getting there,” she laughs, explaining that as well as setting up practical things like a pension plan, she also decided to sign up for a taekwondo class and is now half way to earning her black belt.

We don’t recall Elsa in Frozen counting martial arts amongst her super powers? But then, who needs Disney when you have Alison Ritchie? CL

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