“Setting Stage for Christmas”

South Bronx company lights up the holidays; resorted to credit cards years ago for payroll

Daily News

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — and Fred Schwam is partially responsible.

He got down to business on a recent balmy night, while tourists strolled Sixth Ave. in sleeveless dresses.

Schwam showed up outside Radio City Music Hall in a red shirt, like one of Santa’s helpers, ready to keep watch as his crews assembled a 72-foot artificial Christmas tree and hoisted it onto the theater marquee — the first big job of the year for his South Bronx company, American Christmas.

At midnight, it started pouring. Schwam was unperturbed.

“We could plan for every single detail, but we can’t control the weather,” he shrugged.

A few workers paused to put on slickers, then continued their eight-hour task, flagging cars away from the lanes of the avenue where they were bolting pieces of the tree together.

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By the time they’re done this season, they’ll have installed 700 trees, 1,700 wreaths, 38,000 feet of garlands — and no fewer than 2.6 million lights.

Every day through the second week of December, they’ll do high-profile holiday decorating jobs at department stores, office towers and hotels, delighting many locals and tourists from around the world.

“Our work is viewed by millions of people,” Schwam, 41, said. “Our employees are intensely proud of it.”

After 19 years as sole owner of American Christmas, Schwam’s got 35 full-timers and 70 seasonal employees working three to nine months of the year.

At sprawling workshops in four rented warehouses on Bronx River Ave. in Soundview, they design and make decorations for building façades, lobbies and store interiors.

“No two jobs are alike,” Schwam said.

The display of giant light bulbs in front of the McGraw-Hill Building at 1221 Sixth Ave. — that’s American Christmas’ work. So is the shimmering curtain of lights wrapped around Bloomingdale’s, and the forests of arching branches on the main floor of Saks Fifth Avenue’s midtown flagship — which will be replicated in Saks stores as far away as Mexico City and Dubai.

Schwam bought the company at age 21, and taught himself how to turn it into a money maker.

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Schwam’s late father, Marvin, started American Christmas in 1968 as a unit of the family’s Florenco Foliage Systems. Marvin sold Florenco when Fred was about to graduate from Ithaca College with a business degree — and the new owner was going to shut down American Christmas. His dad asked him if he wanted to buy it instead.

Schwam had hoped to go into sports management or sports marketing, but instead borrowed money from his dad and two of his dad’s friends for the $150,000 purchase, and began work five weeks after graduation.

The first two years were tough. Sometimes Schwam used his own credit cards to make payroll.

His company got paid only when decorations were installed, so cash flow was a problem. He solved it by getting clients to pay 50% of each year’s bill in advance. Now he has a line of credit from Wachovia and a roster of repeat customers who’ve signed four-year contracts.

For years, Schwam controlled every aspect of his business but, in 2000, he started making more management hires so American Christmas could grow. “It was hard to delegate,” he admitted.

To prep for further growth, he overhauled the computer and back-office systems two years ago. Now, American Christmas makes holiday decorations for more than 1,000 Ann Taylor and Banana Republic stores. And the company sells wreaths and garlands through the catalogues and Web site of Frontgate, a home furnishings retailer.

Schwam said sales will hit $8.5 million this year, up 36% from 2006. The company has grown 19% a year on average since he bought it.

Though Schwam’s decorations are seasonal, his business is bustling all year long.

On Dec. 28, it will be time to start removing displays from buildings. By Jan. 12, all the wreaths will be hung from the ceiling of the company’s workshops, and giant toy soldiers will be shrouded in plastic and stored on shelves.

It will take until the end of January to do inventory and review the season’s performance. Starting Feb. 1, the company’s sales force will hit the pavement, and artists will start to plan and build next season’s designs.

It’s all Christmas all the time for Schwam, except at home, where his only holiday décor is a menorah.

“People get a laugh out of a Jewish guy running this Christmas decoration company,” he said. “But the business is about creating a mood and a festive atmosphere. We’re not putting together religious displays.”

Q&A

What would you have done differently?
“Certain hiring decisions turned out to be regrettable — but I learned from each experience.”

What’s been your biggest challenge?
“Putting together a team of people who were committed to being great, not good.”

What’s been your biggest surprise?
“The fact that we’ve been able to continuously improve.”

Where do you want your business to be in a year?
“Besides the obvious answer of profitable growth, I spend a lot of energy making this an organization my employees are proud of. That’s what I want most.”