“40 Under Forty”

New York’s Rising Stars

Crain’s New York Business

In late November, all over New York, trees and wreaths begin popping up overnight in office buildings—artfully draped greenery adorned with twinkling lights and glittering balls.

It may seem like magic. But for Fred Schwam, whose Bronx-based American Christmas Decorations is one of the city’s biggest holiday decorating companies, it is a time of high stress.

“These trees, these lights, these bows, every single ornament is placed with thought,” says Mr. Schwam, an admitted perfectionist. “If I see a cord, that’s all I can think about.”

His relentless attention to detail has helped him expand the firm’s revenues at a brisk 16% annual pace since he bought the family business in 1988 for $150,000. At the time, he had just graduated from Ithaca College with a major in business management and had only vague thoughts of becoming an entrepreneur. That changed suddenly when his father decided the time had come to sell out.

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In the early years of his ownership, the younger Mr. Schwam juggled expenses, including payroll, on a dozen credit cards. Sales have since blossomed to $2.65 million.

Because almost all of those revenues pour in between August and January—while his staff rockets to 85, from 11 in the slow months—Mr. Schwam’s penchant for planning has proved a key asset. To give his firm stability, he has signed long-term contracts with prestigious clients like Lord & Taylor and Rockefeller Group. To get and hold on to that business, he carefully trains his staff not only in speed—needed to deck the halls and lobbies in the few hours when buildings are closed—but also in how to string lights and place ornaments for the greatest effect.

At his own house, Mr. Schwam takes a less complicated approach to the season. He lights a menorah.