At age 21 and while still a senior at Ithaca College, Fred Schwam borrowed $150,000 from his dad and two of his dad’s best friends to buy back his father’s Christmas-decorating firm from a conglomerate that was about to liquidate it.
“I had no intention of working for my father’s company,” Schwam remembers. “I had absolutely no experience, I was immediately in debt — and off I went.”
Today, 23 years later, that company — American Christmas — boasts million-dollar clients and the good will of millions of people who smile every time they see one of the company’s iconic Christmas displays at dozens of Manhattan landmarks. His roster of clients includes Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, Cartier, Bergdorf Goodman, the Four Seasons Hotel and McGraw-Hill.
His 110,000-square-foot headquarters in Mount Vernon boasts 35 full-time and 100 seasonal employees, and despite the recession, the company has posted 17 percent revenue growth this year.
The creative and production departments there spend most of the year designing, building and installing made-to-order Christmas decorations — sparkly trees, colorful garlands and glittery bouquets and packages — for corporate offices, hotels, restaurants, banks, malls, and theaters across the country. And for all those cool New York City landmarks, too, of course.
The company has met with lots of success in recent years, but it wasn’t always that way.
“I was on the verge of going out of business every day those first couple of years,” says Schwam, who has called Armonk home for the last 11 years. “If nothing else, it has taught me a work ethic and the hunger to be successful.”
OK, we know he’s got lots of business savvy. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about Fred Schwam.
He’s Jewish, and you won’t find a single sign of Christmas at his Armonk home—just a menorah to celebrate the eight nights of Hanukkah. “Admittedly, it’s pretty funny,” he says with a laugh. “But in reality, what I do has nothing to do with religion.”
He grew up in Nanuet and played football, baseball and basketball at Nanuet High School (Class of 1984).
New clients this year include the Empire State Building, the Disney Store and Madison Square Garden.
Cartier and the New York Stock Exchange came on board last year. The 60-foot live Christmas tree in front of the exchange this year came from West Nyack. Last year, it was from Haverstraw.
Christmas comes early at American Christmas. His designers and sales teams begin to meet with clients in January to talk about plans for the December holidays. The seasonal workers begin in May, and by the first of October all 135 employees are fully on board.
After 22 years in five factories in the Bronx, American Christmas moved to one commercial building on Warren Place in Mount Vernon last year, and Schwam is thrilled with his new digs. To say thanks, he had his team decorate Mount Vernon City Hall as well as the police station, public library and fire headquarters. “I really wanted to do something nice for the community, something positive,” he says. “People in Mount Vernon have been great to us.”
You’ll see his garlands and boughs well outside of New York. The company does work in about a dozen American cities, and he’s even sent a team to Dubai to decorate the Saks there.
He admits to being quite the baseball nut. He played in college and has gone on to coach about 15 youth teams in Armonk.
He and Samantha, his wife of 19 years, have known each other since they were 8.
Want to see more of his work? Through Jan. 27, the 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery is hosting a free show called “Holidays in New York.” Conceived and curated by Schwam, it features 67 photos of holiday scenes all over the city — and not just his stuff.