Trick-or-treaters still were prepping their Halloween costumes when Frederic L. Schwam’s crew from Mount Vernon raised a 72-foot Christmas tree to the façade of Radio City Music Hall above Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan.
“When you think about the most famous holiday displays in the world, that probably would make the list,” said Schwam, having stepped away from his CEO’s desk at American Christmas Inc. to lead a behind-the-scenes tour of another well-lit New York Christmas in the making.
At American Christmas, a second-generation business that Schwam at 21 bought with a $150,000 personal loan and rescued from its planned liquidation, the client list also reads like a list of New York’s and the world’s most iconic holiday displays.
There is Bloomingdale’s, also given its holiday makeover by Schwam’s crew before Halloween. At Saks Fifth Avenue, tourists this year might lament the absence of American Christmas’ musical-snowflakes light display on the department store exterior. (Bloomingdale’s will try projected images in their crowd-pleasing place this year.) Across Fifth Avenue is Rockefeller Center, whose trumpeting hosts of wiry angels were lined up in pre-holiday undress in the company’s 90,000-square-foot warehouse.
Bergdorf Goodman is another highly visible client. Gucci contracts with American Christmas for a different exterior display every year. Decorating the “Saturday Night Live” set at the NBC Studio in Rockefeller Plaza is prized work among American Christmas employees.
A growing list of clients
Schwam’s company this season added the New York Stock Exchange and Cartier to its holiday to-do list in Manhattan. In the company’s expansive production space at 30 Warren Place in Mount Vernon, several of its 80 seasonal workers stretched and strung ribbons of lights and decorated Christmas trees for the French jeweler’s midtown store.
After 22 years in business, “We’re already in the fortunate position where we have a very nice reputation and a large number of high-profile clients,” said Schwam. The displayer’s five-person sales team gets referrals to other high-profile prospects “because they want to work with us,” he said.
American Christmas does installation work in about 12 cities. It does interior designs for 10 Saks stores worldwide. The business has grown to include a roll-out program of holiday store displays across North America for major retailers, among them J. Crew, Banana Republic, American Eagle and Ann Taylor.
“No two are alike,” Schwam said. “Everything is custom-designed.”
Saving, sustaining the business
Schwam’s father, Marvin, in 1968 started the Christmas decorations business as an outgrowth of his company that supplied artificial plants and flowers to commercial properties. He sold the company in 1988 to a large conglomerate that planned to liquidate the American Christmas division. Newly armed with a business degree from Ithaca College, the younger Schwam used money borrowed from his father and two of his father’s friends to buy the holiday business.
The business has grown along with companies’ investments in more elaborate holiday displays. Last year, Business Week’s Small Biz magazine ranked American Christmas 89th on its Inner City 100 list of the fastest-growing inner-city companies in the U.S. based on compound annual growth rates from 2003 to 2007. The company, then based in the Bronx, had reported revenue of about $9.1 million in 2007 and a five-year average growth rate of 21 percent.
With the recession, “These last couple of years have been difficult,” said Schwam, who works closely with a staff of 35 full-time, year-round employees. “However, we have continued to have a lot of success, but it’s been harder in this environment. Our customers are staying with us but we do have some customers who are cutting back.” Other clients “have a sense of responsibility to their customers to maintain tradition,” he said.
Schwam this year broke with his company’s tradition in the Bronx, where American Christmas leased five buildings and was headquartered at 1135 Bronx River Ave. The company also leased a storage facility in Jersey City, N.J. Those operations, which occupied 68,000 square feet of space, have been consolidated at the 110,000-square-foot, four-story industrial building in Mount Vernon for which Schwam paid $3.6 million.
The relocation was completed in late July. For his employees who reside in the boroughs, Schwam bought a passenger van after moving to Westchester County to shuttle them to and from the nearest Bronx subway stop, seven-tenths of a mile from their Warren Place office and warehouse.
In this peak business season, the company sends out 48 decorators to locations. Six of those workers began stringing lights from trees on New York City streets on Sept. 20, a job that will continue until Nov. 20, Schwam said. Before going out, the decorators assemble every morning in the company’s meeting room, one of the new amenities, along with an employee cafeteria, that came with the move to Mount Vernon.
“It was a pretty significant undertaking, moving from the five factories to the one building,” said Schwam, an Armonk resident. “By the time we got everything done, the season was here. I’ll sleep well in February.”
The company’s holiday installation work will continue through the second week of December. “Two days after Christmas, we go out and start taking everything back down. And then we start again,” said Schwam.
“Everything we do is about teamwork,” said Schwam, a Jewish CEO who enjoys playing Santa Claus at his company’s annual holiday party.
“Everything is a collaborative project. We have multiple people who really take ownership of the project.
“That’s why we distinguish ourself, because of the passion with which we do everything we do.”