Christmas Incorporated

Baltimore's Becker Group provides the holiday decorations for thousands of malls, offices and casinos worldwide. Its chairman and founder, Gordon Becker, recently discussed the multimillion dollar industry and the fallout from the Sept. 11th attacks.

When did you get your start in the holiday business?

I started playing Santa Claus when I was 14 years old right here in Baltimore. Then when I got to the University of Maryland in 1951 I was doing Santa and I guess I was a hit. Shopping centers were just beginning and different centers started asking me if I could get them Santas. So I started a school for Santa Clauses. By my senior year I had 50 guys working between Baltimore and Washington. My Santa Clauses were trained and costumed. It was like my equivalent of Kelly Girl ... Kelly Santa, Gordy Santa.

Today, it's a totally different business. The Santa piece went away just because it was the law of diminishing returns. Once again, it was by request, you know, "Can you get me a Christmas tree?" There were no products; there were no companies. It was all based on innovation. That's really how the company was [born]. We literally have grown up with the shopping center industry. We have narrowed our focus over the years. The Christmas holiday ended up being our niche.

How big is the business now?

We probably have about 85 year-round employees. We're in well over a thousand malls on any one given Christmas in the United States. We also have malls that we do in 27 countries.

Do you have to tailor the decorations to different cultures?

It's interesting. In Japan, the decorations are the same as in Baltimore. It's holiday, it's Santa. There are certain countries [with differences.] In Belgium, you don't use purple; they associate it with death. In South America, they celebrate the three kings. But there's very, very little difference.

What is the economic size of Becker Group?

It's larger than a breadbox.

I saw something from a few years ago that said you had $22 million in annual sales.

That sounds good.

What are some of the local malls that you decorate?

Most of the malls in the Baltimore-Washington area have Becker products. What's interesting is that while we're based here, we probably do the most malls in any one area in California, which has the most malls of any state.

[At the] Annapolis Mall, we have "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." We have a new division that we started a few years ago called Barnstorm Productions. [Licensing agreements are] the newest thing. We partnered with Universal Studios last year for the Dr. Seuss event, and it had a significant impact on sales and traffic. We have associations with the vast majority of the great children's properties -- Sesame Street, United Media for Peanuts, Beatrix Potter for Easter, Raggedy Anne and Andy and on and on and on.

So how does that work? If a mall wants to have Snoopy or the Grinch or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you have the exclusive rights to those copyrighted characters?

Yeah, that's the way it operates. It is cyclical. It's not like you form an alliance and it's forever. The Universal Studio alliance for the Grinch is a two-year event because that's their arrangement with the Dr. Seuss estate. Last year, it was the hoopla associated with the release of the movie. This year, it's the release of the video.

How much of your business is Christmas-related?

Up until now, Christmas was 98 percent of our business. The other two percent were spring and Easter. Over the last few years, because the exchange rate has been so unfavorable in so many instances, it has become almost impossible to do business. If they want to buy a product that we?re selling for $1, it costs them $2.20 to buy that product in Brazil with their currency. So we are now starting a franchise concept and Brazil is the first country where we have a franchisee. That looks very promising. We have had a very good first year.

What's a mall's typical bill for Christmas decorations?

The national average budget will probably be in the range of $150,000-$200,000. Of course, there are exceptions. We have certain clients that will spend $250,000. I have some clients that will spend $300,000 or $400,000.

That may sound like a large amount of money, but they keep those decorations for at least four Christmases. On an annualized basis, if you take any relatively large mall, they budget $50,000 or $60,000 for holiday decor. It's not a lot of money.

Are you seeing malls cut back on their spending because of the economy?

No. Actually, this year our business has been good. We were supposed to do the World Trade Center this year, the retail component. My people were there four days before the 11th. That was devastating, and it had a ripple effect. We were doing the American Express building across the street, too. So, where this could have been a phenomenal year, it will be a good year, and I'm very grateful for that.

What is the biggest project you have ever done?

We've done a number of them. We've done the Mall of America outside Minneapolis. That's equivalent to four malls. I guess the mall in Sao Paulo, Brazil was the largest, most elaborate Christmas program that we've ever been associated with. It was a Walt Disney theme and in addition to all of the visual components that we were responsible for, there were three shows a day in a specially constructed theater that had been a parking garage adjacent to the mall. They played to 150,000 people. Every time I shared this with our U.S. clients they just shook their heads because they couldn't understand the economics of it. This was millions of dollars.

It was great for us. On the outside of the shopping center there was a 150-foot-high castle that literally had hundreds of thousands of lights. It looked like a jewel-encrusted image at nighttime. Of all the events that I've been associated with, that one really knocked my socks off.

Your sons, [Sylvan Learning Systems founder] Douglas and [Sterling Venture Partners managing partner] Eric are both very involved with the local technology community. Has that made what you do more technically advanced?

No, not really. They've never been what I'd call actively involved with the company. They grew up with the company. I used to take them on sales trips. Eric used to work in the warehouse in the summertime. They used to call him "Sparky." He would be testing light bulbs and not paying attention. And Douglas, when he was at Gilman, he and a schoolmate developed a computer mall directory that a very dear friend and client was brave enough to purchase from me. That was probably one of Douglas' first business experiences. Then I quietly traded it back in the next year.

Do you have a big holiday at home or do you get sick of it?

I never get sick of it. I'm probably weird, but maybe that's part of what keeps the company charmed, I hope.