Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc.
Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc.
Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc.
Sales: $50 million (1999 est.)
NAIC: 339999 All Other Miscellaneous Manufacturing
Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc. manufactures a well-known line of equipment used to smooth and resurface ice rinks. The various models of the Zamboni ice resurfacer, which are assembled by hand, one at a time, enjoy a remarkable following in the United States and in the 60 countries where the machine is sold. The family-owned and -operated company capitalizes on the widespread popularity of its ice resurfacers through its subsidiary, Zamboni Merchandising Co., Inc., which sells toys, accessories, and apparel under the Zamboni brand name. While the company’s main manufacturing plant is located in Paramount, California, a second production facility operates in Brantford, Ontario. Moreover, to assist with overseas sales efforts, there is a company branch office in Zurich, Switzerland.
1920s: The Zamboni Family Arrives
Southern California was the birthplace of the most widely recognized ice resurfacing machine in the world, a machine that would enjoy a cult following among skating and hockey enthusiasts, as well as among many of those who never stepped onto or sat outside an ice rink. The Zamboni ice resurfacer was created in Paramount, California, where the Zamboni brothers—children of Italian immigrants—settled in the early 1920s.
George Zamboni was the first to arrive in Paramount. He opened his own auto repair shop and soon invited his younger brothers, Frank and Lawrence, to join him in Paramount to help him with his business. Frank and Lawrence arrived in 1922 to join the family business. However, entrepreneurial inclinations in the Zamboni family ran deep, and Frank and Lawrence soon set out on their own, establishing an electrical service business. The younger Zambonis started their company to serve the local dairy industry, for which the pair built and installed large refrigerator units designed to keep milk cool.
For Frank Zamboni, whose education stopped after the ninth grade, a lack of schooling proved no hindrance to his success in the business world. His mechanical skills provided an adequate means of financial support as a young adult, enabling him to establish himself in Paramount. Once settled in his new hometown, his penchant for invention gained full expression, providing the backdrop for his signal achievement, the Zamboni ice resurfacer.
Before Frank Zamboni made the leap from refrigeration equipment to ice resurfacing equipment, his partnership with his brother Lawrence took a fateful turn. The brothers’ business grew as the dairy industry it served grew, and it expanded as the local demand for refrigeration equipment expanded. When agricultural companies needed refrigeration equipment, they turned to the Zamboni brothers, who broadened their operational scope by building a plant capable of producing block ice. Frank and Lawrence supplied the ice to wholesalers who used it to pack their produce in rail cars shuttling across the country. The Zambonis’ business expanded, supported by both the growing dairy and produce industries, but the brothers’ success soon came shuddering to a halt. Improvements in refrigeration technology quickly rendered block ice obsolete, forcing the Zambonis to look for other areas to exploit their newfound expertise with ice.
1940: Zamboni-Owned Ice Rink Opens and Creates a Pressing Need
The Zamboni brothers struck out in a surprising new business direction; they decided to open an ice skating rink in southern California. Ice skating was growing in popularity during this time, and there were few rinks in operation in the area. Frank and Lawrence Zamboni, with the help of a cousin, began building one of the country’s largest skating rinks in Paramount in 1939, opening the Iceland Skating Rink in January of the following year. The rink was designed to hold up to 800 skaters at a time, who could skate throughout 20,000 square feet of ice under the sun-filled skies of a Paramount afternoon.
The intriguing dichotomy of ice skating during a perpetual summer, however, soon lost its attraction to the effects of hot sun and arid desert winds. In response, the Zamboni’s open-air facility was soon covered with a domed roof, but the improvement in the surface conditions of the ice was only temporary. The uppermost ice sheet in the rink, grooved and worn by the skaters’ blades, required periodic maintenance to regain its smoothness. During the early 1940s, rejuvenating the ice sheet was a laborious process requiring a tractor that pulled a scraper. As the scraper shaved off the tracked ice, three or four workers trailed behind the scraper, gathering the leavings. Once the worn surface had been removed, the workers sprayed water over the rink, cleaned it with a squeegee, and waited for the film of water to freeze. The entire process took an hour to complete, which stirred the inventive nature of Frank. In his mind, the resurfacing process was too cumbersome, prompting him to search for a more efficient solution. Zamboni’s search called upon his days tinkering with cars while working for his brother George, his experience developing refrigeration equipment, and his indefatigable energies as an inventor. Eventually, the result was the first Zamboni ice resurfacer.
Frank began his search in March 1942, when he purchased a tractor and started experimenting. Failure followed: Zamboni incorporated a scraping mechanism into a sled pulled by a tractor that neither smoothed the rutted ice nor cleared the shavings adequately. He continued to experiment with his prototype, spending the next five years trying to fashion his tractor-sled design into a workable model. Meanwhile, the laborious process of resurfacing the ice at Iceland Skating Rink continued. Skating crowds were growing, but the hour-long resurfacing process meant less available time for skaters in the rink and less money for the Zamboni family business. Frank pressed ahead with what was becoming his life’s challenge.
By 1947, Zamboni had abandoned the tractor-sled concept for a design incorporating the chassis of a used a World War II surplus Jeep. The finished model, dubbed Prototype No. 3, featured all aspects of the resurfacing process in one vehicle, including an elevated tank designed to hold all the scrapings and snow gathered in a single resurfacing. Again, the design was unsuccessful, but parts from Prototype No. 3 were eventually used to construct an ice resurfacer that met Zamboni’s performance criteria. In the summer of 1949, more than seven years after he had begun his quest to build an efficient ice resurfacer, Zamboni at last had a machine capable of consistently producing a clean sheet of ice. At Iceland Skating Rink, he unveiled the “Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer,”featuring four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, an in-tank snow melting system, and a patented “Wash Water”system that ensured a pristine sheet of new ice.
Zamboni had labored throughout the 1940s to satisfy his need for a competent resurfacer, and though he considered himself primarily an ice rink operator, not a budding manufacturer, his course would change shortly after he had finished work on the Model A. In 1950, he sold his first ice resurfacer, the $5,000 Zamboni Model B, to the nearby Pasadena Winter Garden. Also that year he would gain world renown, becoming unofficial spokesperson for his pioneering machine. The time had come for Zamboni to regard himself as a full-fledged manufacturer.
Zamboni’s Resurfacer Goes Global in the 1950s
In 1950, ice skating’s most influential ambassador, three-time Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie, arrived in Paramount. Henie, winner of the women’s singles title in 1928, 1932, and 1936, had spent her post-Olympic career starring in her own traveling ice show, which stopped at Zamboni’s Iceland Skating Rink to practice between tour dates. When Henie saw Zamboni’s novel ice resurfacer rejuvenate the rink’s surface, the Norwegian skater was immediately won over. She asked Zamboni if he would make one for her for an upcoming performance in Chicago. The deadline was tight, but Zamboni could not refuse.
He reportedly spent day and night getting a Model B ready for Henie. He loaded the resurfacing parts into a U-Haul trailer and hitched it to the Jeep that would serve as the chassis for the Model B. Zamboni drove the Jeep to Chicago and assembled the ice resurfacer in time for the opening performance of the Sonja Henie Ice Review. The following year, Henie ordered another Model B and took one of the ice resurf acers with her on tour to Europe, giving Zamboni invaluable exposure overseas. In 1952, the Ice Capades purchased the last Model B Zamboni made, a machine that later found a permanent home in the Hockey Hall of Fame. By this time, Zamboni had turned his ice resurfacing invention into a full-time business and was ready to move on toward the next generation of Zamboni ice resurfacers.
Zamboni continued to operate the Iceland Skating Rink, but as the orders for the Model B came in one after another, he decided to form a separate company to oversee his manufacturing activities. Initially, he wanted to call his company the Paramount Engineering Company, but that name was already in use, so he chose a corporate title that was sure to be original: his own name. Frank J. Zamboni & Co., whose manufacturing site was established down the block from the Iceland Skating Rink, began its corporate life just as the U.S. economy began to show signs of enormous postwar growth.
In the early 1940s, Frank Zamboni had an idea. Now, nearly 50 years later, his name is synonymous with the machine he invented. In fact, ice resurfacers like the one he developed for his own rink in Southern California have had a tremendous impact on skating and ice sports throughout the world. And Frank Zamboni’s belief in ongoing product improvement and innovation lives on today in the company he founded.
During these halcyon years of robust economic expansion, Americans embraced the concept of leisure time as they never had before, fueling, among myriad other pursuits, the popularity of ice skating and increasing the number of ice rinks in the country. Although he could not have known it when he first began experimenting with a new ice resurfacer, Zamboni’s timing was perfect. His revolutionary machine was already beginning to gain widespread notice just as a wave of new ice rinks were opening up across the country. Zamboni worked diligently to supply the growing community of ice rink operators with improved versions of his original ice resurfacer. Some of his alterations worked, while others produced no improvement in performance and were scrapped, but all the changes represented evolutionary steps in the development of the founder’s signature line of machines.
Zamboni’s next series of ice resurfacers featured an elevated driver’s seat, giving the operator a clearer view over the snow tank. After the debut of the Model C in 1952, Zamboni introduced the Model D with a redesigned dump tank, but the alteration did little to improve performance, prompting Zamboni to abandon the design concept and move quickly to the Model E. Introduced in 1954, the Model E was the first Zamboni ice resurfacer designed for mass production. Within two years, 20 of the Model E machines were sold, including one to the Boston Garden. Following the success of the Model E series, Zamboni turned his attention to addressing the particular requests of his customers. Ice rink operators, whose ranks were growing steadily by the mid-1950s, clamored for greater snow and water capacity, which led Zamboni to make fundamental changes in the Model F, introduced in 1956. Instead of using a complete Jeep, Zamboni stripped away much of the vehicle, providing for increased water and snow capacity. After this initial spree of new model releases, Zamboni waited eight years before making any substantial changes to his invention, and when the next version debuted, its characteristics set the standard for the industry for the remainder of the 20th century.
1960s-70s: Development of the Modern Ice Resurfacer
The Model HD, introduced in 1964, was the first Zamboni ice resurfacer devoid of any remnants of a Jeep chassis. The machine also featured a revamped system to carry snow from the ice surface to the snow tank and it was equipped to discharge snow from the tank at a significantly faster rate than previous models. The next innovative leap in the Zamboni ice resurfacer occurred in 1978, when the 500 Series was introduced. The 500 Series, produced by Zamboni & Co. for the remainder of the 20th century, replaced the air-cooled engines of its predecessors with a liquid-cooled engine. The Model 552 used new battery technology to give customers the first electric ice resurfacer, which along with the Model 500 developed into the most popular ice resurfacers made by Zamboni. For the legions of admirers who transformed Zamboni’s bulky-looking invention into a cultural icon, the 500 and the 552 were most commonly the objects of their tributes.
Although Frank J. Zamboni & Co. succeeded as an enterprise largely because of the pioneering work of its founder, the widespread popularity of the machine among the general, nonbuying public played an instrumental role in the company’s success. In the minds of many of those who watched it in action, the Zamboni ice resurfacer transcended its existence as a piece of athletic equipment to become an object of adoration. Zamboni ice resurfacers appeared in Charles Schulz’s hugely popular “Peanuts” comic strip, debuting in January 1980 and making more than 50 appearances during the ensuing 20 years. People wrote songs about the Zamboni ice resurfacer, a race horse was named after the machine, and celebrities such as Disney chief Michael Eisner, country singer Garth Brooks, and race-car driver Richard Petty used their influence to get behind the wheel of the famed ice resurfacer. The machines were featured in films, advertising campaigns, and in popular television shows such as the situation comedy “Cheers,” in which a reccurring character was killed by a Zamboni ice resurfacer traveling at its top speed of nine miles per hour. Perhaps the ultimate recognition of the ice resurfacer’s fixed position in the mindset of the nation occurred in the mid-1990s, when Zamboni appeared as a proper noun and brand name in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
Supported by successive waves of improved models and by what amounted to a fan base that stretched across the globe, Frank J. Zamboni & Co. attained startling prominence in an otherwise insignificant industry niche. By the late 1990s, more than 6,500 machines had been sold to customers in 60 countries, with the standard model selling for approximately $50,000 and the most inexpensive model—an ice resurfacer designed for backyard use—retailing for roughly $7,000. The decades of unbridled success during the company’s first half-century of business enabled the Zamboni family to establish a second manufacturing facility in Brantford, Ontario, as well as a branch office in Zurich, Switzerland.
- Zamboni family’s Iceland Skating Rink opens in Paramount, California.
- Frank Zamboni tries to build his own machine to resurface ice.
- The Model A Zamboni Ice Resurfacer debuts at Iceland Skating Rink.
- The HD Series is introduced, with technological innovations that set the standard for the industry.
- The release of the 500 Series marks the advent of the modern ice resurf acer.
- Frank Zamboni’s death triggers transition to the second generation of family management.
- Subsidiary Zamboni Merchandising Co., Inc. is established.
As the company’s 50th anniversary approached, the second generation of Zamboni management was in place. Frank’s death in 1988 forced the company to make its first significant change in management—often a stumbling block for family-operated companies-and continued success ensued under the leadership of Frank’s son, Richard Zamboni. In the late 1990s, Richard’s own son, Frank, headed the Brantford manufacturing operations, auguring a third generation of Zamboni management. Perhaps the most notable achievement in the decade following Frank’s death was the establishment of a merchandising subsidiary, Zamboni Merchandising Co., in 1997 that produced toys, apparel, and accessories under the Zamboni brand name. The addition of a merchandising arm, which promised to provide a significant stream of revenue, coupled with the entrenched market appeal of the company’s ice resurfacers, created a powerful business combination at the century’s end, one that promised to exude strength in the century ahead.
Zamboni Merchandising Co., Inc.
Resurface Corporation; Jimbini Manufacturing Company.
Hillburg, Bill, “California’s Zamboni Co. Makes Ice-Rink Machines, Stays in the Family,” Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, June 13, 1997.
Miller, Jeff, “Slow Ride,” Orange Country Register, December 19, 1999, p. Dl.
—Jeffrey L. Covell