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All That Glitters Is Gold for Christmas Decorating Firm

Small business: Dekra-Lite works year-round to deck the halls, malls and cities, generating $4 million a year in sales.

November 25, 1998|LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Lopez got into the Christmas decorating business because he wanted to work only three months a year and kick back the rest of the time.

Fat chance.

Lopez has done such a good job of snagging big contracts with cities and shopping malls that his company, Santa Ana-based Dekra-Lite Industries Inc., is busy all year. It now has some of the largest high-profile decorating assignments in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including South Coast Plaza, Fashion Island and the city of Beverly Hills.

Every year, the company, which Lopez has headed since 1987, starts out by undoing what it did the year before: removing enough holiday lights to stretch from Santa Ana to San Diego. Then employees begin lining up more work, designing and selling decoration packages that will be set up later in the year.

By November, Dekra-Lite's 120 workers are like elves on a mission. They move into malls at night, stringing lights and erecting Christmas trees. They tackle downtown areas while cities sleep, stretching snowflake displays over roadways.

Dekra-Lite and other companies that offer this sort of holiday wizardry are much in demand as shopping centers and city business districts clamor for splashy displays to help lure potential shoppers. The demand has spawned an industry that generates anywhere from $40 million to $80 million a year in revenue, depending on which industry insider is doing the guessing.

"For us, it's a very important part of our holiday shopping program," said Mary Cynar, Beverly Hills' business district manager. "We've actually gotten calls from people coming to Beverly Hills and wanting to know when the holiday decorations are going up."

The decorating business experienced solid growth during the shopping center boom from the 1960s through the 1980s. Cities jumped on the bandwagon, turning to professional decorators to put up more elaborate holiday displays.

The goal is not simply to decorate; it's to enchant, said Gordon Becker, owner of the industry's largest company, Baltimore-based Becker Group.

"We are in the business of making magic," said Becker, whose company's accounts include Irvine Spectrum Center. "When we do that, and people have that connection to childhood or family--the holiday spirit--we've succeeded at doing our job."

With annual sales now hitting $4 million, Dekra-Lite has become the largest holiday decorating company "west of the Rockies," Lopez said. It has holiday contracts with 40 cities and 400 strip malls and shopping centers, which means Christmas preparations take up most of the year.

Lopez, 41, attributes his success to a professional approach that separated his firm from what he calls "fly-by-night" competitors who took on decorating jobs when their regular jobs in construction and other seasonal businesses slowed for the winter.

While other decorators used one-page fliers to advertise their work, Dekra-Lite handed its customers a 60-page brochure. The firm "polished" its sales employees, Lopez said, sending them to manufacturing plants in Indiana and Mexico so they could understand the mechanics of decorating with huge displays.

The effort began to pay off in 1988, about a year after Lopez got into the business. Dekra-Lite landed its first mall assignment: putting up Christmas lights and a Santa cottage for MainPlace/Santa Ana.

"Decorating . . . on this scale is really quite an art," said Judy Bijlani, the mall's marketing director. "I just felt confident he could do the job. And he's been with us ever since."

But the job doesn't always end after decorations are put up. Dekra-Lite also has to make sure they stay up. Last year, for example, El Nino-driven winds and heavy rains took a $30,000 bite out of Dekra-Lite's profit as the company had to send out workers to repair malfunctioning lights and other damage.

One year, Lopez recalled, brisk winds hurled a 15-foot Frosty the Snowman into the bay at Huntington Beach.

Ironically, Lopez first got into the business because he wanted to work less, not more. While completing a college degree in business administration, he heard about a residential decorating franchise in which, supposedly, a person could make plenty of money by working just three months a year.

Great deal, Lopez thought. How hard can it be to put Christmas lights on houses?

He bought a franchise in Dekra-Lite, but quickly found that it was more lucrative to decorate businesses than homes.

"Like anything, you want to go to the heavy users," the Seal Beach resident said. He began collecting commercial accounts and bought the company name.

Lopez's mother helped finance the venture, taking out a second mortgage on her home to provide $40,000, he said. Later, his sister kicked in an additional $30,000 in seed money.

His first commercial account was a Conroy's Flowers shop, followed quickly by a couple of Wienerschnitzel fast-food outlets and other restaurants. Then he got the nod from MainPlace.

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