Company gives malls the holiday touch


November 27, 1990|By Maria Mallory

You won't find any elves in Gordon Becker's workshop, but just the same, his staff is busy year-round getting ready for Christmas.

The Becker Group designs and markets holiday displays for malls across the nation. Of course, unlike St. Nick, Mr. Becker does get paid for his trouble: His company, with headquarters in Baltimore's Mount Vernon area, stands to make $13 million this year, making it one of the country's largest seasonal-decorations companies.

For this holiday season alone, the company is pinning up bows and stringing lights in more than 140 malls across the United States.

The key to the Becker Group's large market share lies in Mr. Becker's emphasis on corporate accounts. Instead of knocking on the doors of local mall management, Mr. Becker goes directly to the mall development company, securing decorating contracts for its whole family of malls with one handshake.

Sixty-five percent of Becker Group projects, at shopping centers from coast to coast, stem from such package deals, he says.

That's good business for Becker because the collective agreements save the sales staff the time, expense and trouble of canvassing individual malls to drum up business. In addition, the displays usually are paid for from a pool of funds collected from mall tenants. As a result, in today's rough retail sales climate, Becker isn't as vulnerable to cost-cutting at any one store.

Mr. Becker has signed on 13 major developers and plans to push for more. "My goal is to be 100 percent corporate," he says.

The Becker Group, with 70 employees in the Baltimore area and a separate manufacturing facility in Charlotte, N.C., offers clients the widest variety of licensed characters in the business, Mr. Becker says. Through its "celebrity group," Becker artists can feature in their sets characters from Sesame Street and Walt Disney, the Peanuts kids, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- a copyrighted character -- and others.

Cranberry Mall in Westminster chose Garfield this year. The tTC "Help Garfield Find Pooky" display, which cost more than $50,000, fills the mall's central court.

"It's adorable," says Nancy Brown, promotions coordinator at the mall. "It's got Garfield, Odie and Garfield's house," and it also serves as the place where children meet Santa, she says.

Garfield figures powered by compressed air pop up in the various windows of the house as the cat "searches" for his prized stuffed animal, Mr. Becker says.

That kind of technology is a long way from business in the early days of his company, says Mr. Becker, 57.

"We would do a plywood reindeer and put a bulb on its nose to light it up, and people would say, 'Wow!' " he says.

He actually got his start in the Christmas cheer business at age 15, when, bedecked in Santa Claus gear, he entertained youngsters at a children's store on Bel Air Road for less than $1 an hour.

After enrolling at the University of Maryland College Park to major in speech and advertising, Mr. Becker corralled a crew of 50 Santas, whom he hired out to the local shopping center for cash. But over the next few years, Mr. Becker branched out into decorations and holiday props, finding more profit in that business, not to mention fewer headaches. Keeping up with all those Santas was a hassle, he says.

For the first few decades, the business grew "by millimeters," says Mr. Becker. In 1973, he was able to win the exclusive license to use Walt Disney characters in his displays. Still, Mr. Becker says, "I feel like the first 30 years of my career I was just getting ready, because everything significant has happened in the last five years," since he began taking on corporate accounts.

After agreeing to do business, the developer usually sends a representative to Baltimore to peruse the Becker showroom, which houses samples of the company's wares, says Mr. Becker.

In addition to the licensed characters, Becker markets two other categories of design. One is the "middle tier," or traditional designs of the "tree, reef and bell group," as Mr. Becker calls it; the other is the "5th Avenue" group, the costlier and more extravagant designs.

After deciding on a decoration style, the Becker designer works closely with the mall representative to tailor the display to the space allotted, keeping within budgetary limits.

Once the final design is approved, Becker's manufacturing arm creates the props and ships them with complementary materials to the mall, where Becker workers help with the initial setup.

Building a holiday display is similar to designing a set for a play, Mr. Becker says.

"It has to look like the Rock of Gibraltar but has to be light enough so that one or two people can move it," he says.

Ninety-five percent of the company's business comes from sales of Christmas decorations. The newest strategies for expansion include a catalog sales operation and plans to start marketing holiday displays to hotels and office buildings.

But when it comes to Christmas at the Becker household, Mr. Becker keeps it "simple, very simple."

"My wife likes just lights," he says.

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