. . . and the stores and the streets. Fred Schwam '88 is New York's holiday makeover artist.

photography by DAVID HANDSCHUH

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But it turns out he's a Jewish guy whose workshop is in the Bronx.

Almost as much as St. Nick himself, Fred Schwam '88 is responsible for bringing Christmas cheer to people in and around the five boroughs of New York City. His company, American Christmas Decorations, is the region's leading holiday decorating enterprise. Focusing solely on the yuletide season, the firm is responsible for designing, creating, and installing some of the city's most famous holiday displays. Bloomingdales, Macy's, Lord and Taylor, and Madison Square Garden are among its high-profile clients. In January, while most people are winding down from the holidays, Schwam and his 15-person staff are just gearing up. By February 1 they are already beginning the sales, design, sourcing, and planning process that results in some of New York's most iconic holiday scenes. By autumn Schwam's staff swells to 85, large enough to handle installations ranging in scope from modest office lobbies to the 65-foot lighted tree that welcomes holiday visitors to Radio City Music Hall. "That one's pretty extraordinary," Schwam says. "Anytime you move in a crane and close two lanes of Sixth Avenue, it gets people's attention." Schwam had no intention of becoming New York's busiest Christmas elf when he graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in business administration. He was planning to attend grad school and pursue a career in sports management when his father called with a proposition.

The elder Schwam, who had just sold the family's commercial decorating business, explained that the new owners were liquidating unwanted assets, chief among them the holiday decorating division. He suggested that his son could buy back the promising division for virtually nothing and create his own company. At 21 the younger Schwam would be CEO, completely responsible for his own success or failure. Though the son's hands-on experience with the family business had hitherto amounted to a few weeks of warehouse work, the challenge piqued his interest.

"I thought it over and said, why not?" Schwam recalls. "I had nothing to lose." Armed with his degree, his wits, some leftover inventory, enthusiasm, and a client list rescued from the liquidation, Schwam admits he wasn't entirely prepared for the multitude of tasks ahead. With first-year revenues under a half million dollars, Schwam learned the practical lessons of small-business management the hard way. "It was a learning experience, every day," he says. "We had no working capital and no reserves. We could have gone out of business at any moment." But he decided to focus on impeccable service, which led to strong word-of-mouth recommendations and, ultimately, growth.

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 5 March, 2004