The elf that grew Niche: Baltimore-based Becker Group has developed from a one-lad Santa operation into the world's largest designer of holiday decor for shopping malls.

December 13, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

As chief executive officer, Gordon Becker sets an example for his staff by wearing Santa Claus cuff links and, at times, a red, fur-trimmed hat to match. His company markets itself with the tag line "Making reindeer fly." Major departments are Christmas and Easter, and a corporate conference room is trimmed in holly, wreaths and bows most months.

For Baltimore-based Becker Group, founded more than four decades ago, Christmas is no holiday. It's year-round work, with more than $22 million in sales and hundreds of clients as far-flung as Brazil, Paris and Tokyo.

Part design house, part marketing firm, part theatrical set producer, it's a business like few others -- the world's biggest designer of holiday decor for shopping malls.

For Becker, it all started when he was a teen-ager in the late 1940s, when he donned a red Santa suit and sang and told stories to drum up business at a cousin's Belair Road store. In college, he perfected the role at shopping centers that pre-dated today's malls.

The young entrepreneur soon began training others. While a University of Maryland sophomore, he started a Santa School, using his parents' house in Baltimore's Forest Park as headquarters.

For years, he sent his recruits out to shopping centers and now-defunct department stores such as Hochschild Kohn and Hutzler's, building a $20,000-a-year business. Before long, merchants' associations and store owners were asking for decorations, lights or a tree, to come with the Santas.

Today, the Becker Group provides no Santas but designs or manufactures just about every other part of a mall's holiday display. That ranges from trees, wreaths, bells, banners and lights in common areas to elaborate "Santa sets" that form the centerpieces.

"It's the most unique niche I've ever seen in the retail arena," said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group, a retail consultant and placement firm in Lutherville. "He's been able to capitalize on a growing trend. Forty years ago, there were no malls, just strip centers. As power centers and regional centers came up, Gordon was the guy who had the specialty."

At "Christmas House," on Read Street, the century-old former German Consulate around the corner from the company's Cathedral Street office, Becker led the way through showrooms of oversize props: glass beads, huge bows, gift-wrapped boxes, flying angels, red and gold banners, wooden soldiers, a toy workshop with animated elves at work.

Soft-as-cotton snow blankets the floor, multicolored lights blink and an antique orchestrion, which combines a piano with other instruments, plays music from "The Nutcracker."

A letter on a table, signed by Morty the Mailroom Elf, reads, "Dear Santa. Could you please get me some help in the mailroom?"

Becker disappeared for a few seconds. A life-size Rudolf reindeer poking its head through a curtain began to speak -- in a higher-pitched version of Becker's voice -- saying, "Thanks for coming to visit."

Reappearing, Becker's face lit up as he flipped a switch that brought an animated lion to life. "I never get tired of this stuff," he said. "It's never lost its magic for me."

The rooms offer a glimpse of Becker designs that can be found each year in more than 1,000 shopping malls worldwide. A mall's program, which typically lasts from three to five years, can cost from $60,000 to $1 million, averaging about $150,000.

Behind the scenes in Baltimore is a team of 100 sales people, designers and production, art and administrative employees who work with malls to design and produce displays and oversee initial installation.

Many of the sets and animated elves and reindeer are manufactured in-house, either at the Baltimore warehouse or at several studios around the country. The malls usually store and install their own displays.

The company has introduced its brand of Christmas to 25 countries, succeeding in large part by concentrating on the details, no matter how small, and catering to clients, Becker said.

"I don't draw. I don't paint. I don't drive the trucks," he said. "But if something is wrong, clients know they can call me. Everything's in the details."

He has no plans to step down from the helm anytime soon, even at 65, saying, "I love what I do."

This year, Becker's two sons took on a bigger role in the business they'd grown up with. Doug Becker, co-founder and president of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. and a member of Becker's board of directors, and Eric Becker, vice chairman of the Becker Group, are also principals of Sterling Capital, an investment and consulting firm based in Baltimore and Chicago, which became a major Becker shareholder this year.

Over the years, the company has focused more on the Christmas season and gone after more clients who use Becker as their single decorating source. Becker estimates that it has a 50 percent market share nationally and says it competes mostly with smaller, regional companies.

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