Fred Schwam wasn’t exactly a business wiz when he purchased American Christmas, a commercial holiday design company, after his father, who’d owned it for nearly 20 years, sold it to another buyer in 1988. Just 21 years old and fresh out of college, Schwam borrowed money from his father and two of his father’s close friends to buy the business back from the new owner. He was determined to make the company a success, despite his lack of experience in such a position.
“The only experience I had was working in my dad’s warehouse during school vacations,” says Schwam.
Twenty-five years later, Schwam has seen revenue grow an average of 15 percent each year. Providing everything from design and concept services to installation and removal of Christmas exhibits, the company now boasts 275 clients and does approximately 500 installations a year. Radio City Music Hall, The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Cartier, and Saks Fifth Avenue are just a few of the big-name clients Schwam and his crew help get into the holiday spirit.
In his first decade as owner, Schwam’s clients were exclusively in the New York metropolitan area. Now, American Christmas has clients around the globe, including Saks in Mexico City and Dubai, Cartier in Canada, and all Banana Republic and J.Crew locations worldwide. To complete all those installations, the company has 40 full-time and 120 seasonal employees, up from just one full-time and eight seasonal employees in its first year.
After renting various locations throughout the Bronx, Schwam was finally in a financial position in 2010 to buy a space in Mount Vernon to accommodate the growing company and its huge inventory. Schwam describes the 110,000-square-foot building as being “filled to the brim with Christmas decorations.”
Success did not come without a monumental struggle, though. “When I took over the company, we had a few accounts, and no working capital.” Growth really started in 1997, when, after years of pounding the pavement, Schwam signed significant contracts with the Rockefeller Group Development Corporation and Radio City Music Hall. “The growth was a result of a consistent effort to learn the business, a constant effort to improve our product and service, and my determination to sell tenaciously,” he says.
And he sold to very appreciative customers. “American Christmas is a company whose work is recognized and appreciated worldwide,” says Blaise Cresciullo, senior vice president of Asset Services for Rockefeller Group Development Corporation, for whom American Christmas works on displays at the Time & Life Building. “Their larger-than-life displays represent a very special part of New York City, and their willingness to listen and understand the needs of the client is what makes them stand out from the competition.”
It’s been a big leap from a one-person operation with no capital to one that designs some of the most iconic Christmas displays in the country, but Schwam never doubted his ability to carry on his father’s legacy. “There was never a moment where I thought it would not work out. I was determined to make the company a success and worked very hard to make sure it would happen.”