Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But it turns out he’s a Jewish guy whose workshop is in the Bronx. Almost as much as St. Nick himself, Fred Schwam ‘88 is responsible for bringing Christmas cheer to people in and around the five boroughs of New York City. His company, American Christmas Decorations, is the region’s leading holiday decorating enterprise. Focusing solely on the yuletide season, the firm is responsible for designing, creating, and installing some of the city’s most famous holiday displays. Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Lord and Taylor, and Madison Square Garden are among its high-profile clients. In January, while most people are winding down from the holidays, Schwam and his 15-person staff are just gearing up. By February 1 they are already beginning the sales, design, sourcing, and planning process that results in some of New York’s most iconic holiday scenes. By autumn Schwam’s staff swells to 85, large enough to handle installations ranging in scope from modest office lobbies to the 65-foot lighted tree that welcomes holiday visitors to Radio City Music Hall. “That one’s pretty extraordinary,” Schwam says. “Anytime you move in a crane and close two lanes of Sixth Avenue, it gets people’s attention.” Schwam had no intention of becoming New York’s busiest Christmas elf when he graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in business administration. He was planning to attend grad school and pursue a career in sports management when his father called with a proposition.
The elder Schwam, who had just sold the family’s commercial decorating business, explained that the new owners were liquidating unwanted assets, chief among them the holiday decorating division. He suggested that his son could buy back the promising division for virtually nothing and create his own company. At 21 the younger Schwam would be CEO, completely responsible for his own success or failure. Though the son’s hands-on experience with the family business had hitherto amounted to a few weeks of warehouse work, the challenge piqued his interest.
”I thought it over and said, why not?” Schwam recalls. “I had nothing to lose.” Armed with his degree, his wits, some leftover inventory, enthusiasm, and a client list rescued from the liquidation, Schwam admits he wasn’t entirely prepared for the multitude of tasks ahead. With first-year revenues under a half million dollars, Schwam learned the practical lessons of small-business management the hard way. “It was a learning experience, every day,” he says. “We had no working capital and no reserves. We could have gone out of business at any moment.” But he decided to focus on impeccable service, which led to strong word-of-mouth recommendations and, ultimately, growth.
“I think our real success was our attitude,” Schwam says. “We decided from the outset to really take care of our customers. We work with building managers, visual merchandisers, restaurant owners—very busy people who aren’t set up to do this themselves. We say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of everything for you.’ And we do.”
As the client list grew, so did the firm’s need for creative talent. The lessons Schwam learned at Ithaca College, from faculty mentors like Don Eckrich in the business school and Wayne Blann in sport studies, taught him the value of a strong team. This in turn helped him assemble a staff capable of taking the company to the very top of its industry.
The recent growth of Schwam’s firm has been both impressive and improbable. Despite a dismal economic climate and the calamity that befell New York City in 2001, American Christmas Decorations has doubled in size over the past three years. Its annual sales growth during the period has ranged from 25 to 47 percent. The company is currently expanding beyond metro New York, supplying holiday decorations for Banana Republic and Old Navy stores nationwide.
With the success has come a degree of celebrity. Schwam and his company have been profiled in publications as diverse as the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Inc. magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Crain’s New York Business recently named Schwam to its prestigious list of the region’s 40 top executives under age 40.
Schwam’s success with American Christmas Decorations is even more surprising considering he doesn’t celebrate the holiday. His young family gathers around a menorah instead, at their home in Westchester County. Schwam is the first to chuckle at the irony.
“Customers always say, ‘I’d love to see your Christmas tree,’ and they’re always surprised to hear that I light a menorah in my house,” he said. “But really, the work we do isn’t about religion—it’s about celebration. It’s about creating a festive mood, a spirit of goodwill and cheer. That’s what makes this job so special.”