Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
It was spring of 2012 and Anita Treiser needed dolphins, stat. The Republican National Convention was descending on Tampa, Florida, with more than half the delegations lodging in nearby Clearwater. Treiser, an independent consultant, was helping the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce create a public art installation featuring 20 six-foot-tall bottlenose dolphins. The bottlenose dolphin is something of a city mascot.
"There was so much media attention and excitement," Treiser says. Further raising the stakes, the dolphins had been presold to individuals and businesses for $1,200 each. But three months before the convention Treiser still had no fabricator for the sculptures. She'd tried two Florida companies, but neither could do it within her budget or time frame.
The consultant was skeptical when Icon Poly, a small family business in central Nebraska, promised to make the dolphins and truck them across the country in time for local artists to paint them. Complicating matters, orders kept coming in. The requisite dolphin count rose to 50.
True to their word, the Icon Poly team personally delivered the first 20 dolphins, and then returned two weeks later with another 30. That project evolved into the Clearwater Dolphin Trail: more than 200 decorated dolphins across a dozen Florida counties, everywhere their flesh-and-flippers counterparts are found. There have been postage stamps, T-shirts, and a calendar based on the sculptures.
"Millions of people have seen the dolphins," Treiser says. "This has been so important for Clearwater. Icon Poly made it work."
Public art displays featuring fiberglass figures have been popular tourism and fundraising schemes since cows first paraded across Chicago in 1999. Icon Poly didn't make those particular heifers. (It had just launched.) But over two decades, the company has churned out thousands of life-size--and often larger-than-life-size--sculptures. Among them: guitars for Cleveland; water towers for Chicago; lobsters and scallop shells for Plymouth, Massachusetts; herons for Ouachita Parish, Louisiana; streetcars for Tampa; and rockets for Stamford, Connecticut.
And that's just part of the company's output. Using lightweight resins, Icon Poly has reached $1.5 million in annual revenue by creating replicas of objects weighing hundreds of pounds for display at trade shows, in stores and museums, and on movie sets. "In an industry where your stuff is extremely heavy, you can pay somebody pretty good money to make it look real, but light," says Kyle Vohland, who founded the business with his wife, Daniele Vohland.
Icon Poly is based in Gibbon, Nebraska, a farming town of 1,800 people. The company occupies three concrete and steel buildings on 20 acres that in September and October are also the site of Grandpa Grimm's KneeKnocker Woods, the Vohlands' haunted attraction featuring family-made animatronic props and laser displays. The buildings house Icon Poly's milling machines, large-format 3-D printers, and the hot-wire foam cutters that carve, from Styrofoam, figures to be replicated. Roughly 500 molds crowd the warehouse.
A new facility downtown is dedicated to premade items that Icon Poly sells in volume. Mostly that means replica fire hydrants. The company's signature product comes in eight styles ranging from $139 to $389, and accounts for roughly 10 percent of the business.
But the vast majority of Icon Poly's work is custom. Since 2015 Bloomingdale's New York flagship has laced glamour with whimsy by populating newly renovated departments with the company's creations. Four eight-foot-tall dogs, modeled after an employee's pup, greeted the refreshed kids' section; followed by five fabulous seven-foot Stuart Weitzman pumps promoting the revamped shoe department. "Those shoes are today Bloomingdale's highest-Instagrammed moment," says Leigh Ann Tischler, director of window design.
"We like big oversized props," she adds. "Icon Poly has bent over backward for us."
A hot market for hydrants
Vohland gets his work ethic from his mother. For 31 years, Arleen Vohland rose at 3 a.m. to make the sweet rolls beloved by the farmers of Gibbon, who streamed through the doors of Arleen's Café starting at 5 a.m. In 1989, 13-year-old Daniele Rhoades got a job there washing dishes. That's where she met Vohland, who was 10 years older and already working in computers at the local meat-packaging plant. Five years later, Daniele was in community college studying to teach preschool. Vohland tutored her. Love blossomed.
Vohland quit the meat plant to help Arleen run the café, and later left to start his own company. That was MM&A, which at first provided training and service for consumers getting their first PCs. Vohland soon switched gears and began brokering software to government contractors. In 1997, he sold that business to a competitor. He had enough money to take his time deciding what was next.
Vohland's hobby was sculpture. He modeled small clay figures including animals both real and fantastic (dragons, monsters). If he could reproduce them cheaply, Vohland figured he could sell them--for fun more than for profit. A new kind of resin for model-making called RTV had recently hit the market. Vohland created rubber molds of his artwork and filled them with RTV. Out came perfect replicas of the sculptures, which he painted and sold at craft fairs and art walks.
Like many family members, Vohland's brother Korry was a volunteer firefighter. Korry wanted a fire hydrant to decorate his 3-year-old daughter's room. "But not a real one because they weigh like 400 pounds," Vohland says. "If it tipped over, it could kill her." Korry knew Vohland could replicate seven-inch clay figures in resin, which is light. Could he repeat the trick with a three-foot-tall hunk of cast iron?
Korry, who worked for the water district, snagged an old hydrant torn out of the street, and Vohland worked on it for three weeks. Rubber still worked for the mold, although he had to add fillers and fiber to accommodate the larger-scale process. The hydrant also needed to incorporate different compositions of resin: an external layer that would take paint and multiple internal layers for strength. And he had to figure out how to rotate the mold so the resin moved into and around all the parts.
In the end, Vohland produced a perfect, 12-pound replica of the hydrant. Korry loved it. So did his friends, who wanted their own. Vohland used the mold to make more hydrants, threw them on eBay, and orders rolled in. Then 20th Century Fox called.
The studio was making a movie called Bruce Almighty. In one scene, Jim Carrey, newly endowed with divine power, points at a fire hydrant, which pops its cap and spews water. The prop masters were struggling to make that work with a real hydrant and asked Vohland to create a lightweight replica. Other studios needed fake hydrants as well, and soon Vohland's products were making cameos in movies like The Matrix and on TV shows like The Sopranos.
When the real hydrants' manufacturer threatened a copyright suit, Vohland made a counter-suggestion. Since the manufacturer's salespeople carried its products when they traveled, he says, "I agreed to give them a discount on light hydrants so they could cut down on their workman's comp claims from salesmen getting injured with the heavy ones." Icon Poly still serves that market and also makes smaller hydrants that manufacturers give out as promotions.
Another market, not surprisingly, is the pet industry. The company makes a "pet-training" hydrant that gives dogs a focal point in the yard, discouraging haphazard urination. Veterinarians buy hydrants for their offices. Most recently, real estate developers incorporating dog parks into their properties have begun ordering in volume. In response, Icon Poly introduced a dog park line that includes fiberglass logs, rocks, stumps and boulders.
The rocking horse rescue
One job, one market, leads to another. That's how Icon Poly has grown. In 2005, the Vohlands received a panicked call from a children's hospital in Akron, Ohio. For a fundraiser, the hospital had commissioned another company to create 40 rocking horses to be painted and sold at auction. But the vendor had neither delivered the order nor returned the money. Icon Poly produced the horses on a punishingly short deadline and did it at cost. That launched it into the public art market: the dolphins, the guitars, the herons.
And the Phillie Phanatic. In 2010, Philadelphia's baseball team ordered 20 models of its bulgy, bugle-nosed mascot for display around the city. That led to the Independence Visitor Center commissioning a model of Rocky for its lobby. "They liked that, so we ended up doing Ben Franklin for them as well," Vohland says. "And Ben Franklin got us into museums."
Custom projects cost anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on size and complexity. The company's most expensive job was $72,000 for an iceberg that appeared in a Coors Light promotion. Each additional figure costs 10 to 15 percent of the first one, with surface area determining the price.
Icon Poly works from computer files or multiple images provided by customers. First, it creates the model in 3-D sculpting software. Then it carves the original from Styrofoam, smoothing the surface to receive paint or covering it with clay to stamp in texture. It then makes a negative impression mold from rubber, loads it onto a machine that rotates to spread the resin--typically polyurethane or silicone--throughout the form, and fills the mold in layers, working from the outside in. The mold comes off the machine, the rubber comes off the resin, and voila! There is your shoe or oyster or mastodon.
Most of the work takes place up front as Vohland perfects the initial design with constant feedback from the customer. He says exceptional customer service has allowed him to raise prices 15 to 20 percent a year for the last five years--the only way he's been able to grow given limited capacity. Although Icon Poly's 13 employees develop multiple projects simultaneously--there are 16 currently in the works--the entire process may take as long as 16 weeks, and the business has a three-month backlog.
Vohland says he could easily double revenues: He has already turned away $750,000 worth of business in 2019. But with Nebraska's unemployment rate at 2.9 percent and Gibbon's relative isolation, hiring is a challenge. Fortunately for the founders, their two adult children work full time in the business and their 15-year-old helps out. (He also makes most of the props for the Halloween attraction.) "We are building it to pass on to our kids," Vohland says.
"People keep coming to us because someone else told them what they want to do is impossible," says Vohland. "When we see it, we don't say, 'Can we?' We say, 'How?'"