Starting over from ground zero

Devastated by an explosion that leveled their plant, the Grucci family relaunched their renowned fireworks display business after learning some lessons in crisis management.

By Stephen J. Simurda

A menacing barbed-wire fence surrounds the 60-acre site amid the scrubby pine barrens. Along the fence, ominous No Trespassing signs warn of explosives and the dangers of smoking. Inside, the nerve center of the complex consists of three trailers, behind which is a rutted field used for testing explosives. Farther down the road are three small concrete huts where the devices are packaged. Beyond the huts are several rows of bunkers surrounded by 10-foot high walls of sand, where explosive materials are stored in huge metal containers.

This is not a chemical plant in Libya, or a Latin American insurgency center, or even the site of a U.S. weapons facility. It's the headquarters of Fireworks by Grucci Inc., the country's best-known pyrotechnics company, on Long Island. Patterned after a military installation, the Grucci complex in Brookhaven, New York, roughly an hour's drive east of New York City on Long Island, is a modern fireworks facility. If it all seems a little intimidating and sterile at first, the impression quickly disappears after a visitor enters the main trailer.

The visitor is escorted through a makeshift conference room to the kitchen by Donna Grucci Butler, vice-president of the family owned operation, which was started by her father, Felix Grucci Sr., in 1929. This is the informal boardroom of Fireworks by Grucci. The trailer was custom-made with an extra large kitchen that could comfortably accommodate the entire family. The kitchen is humming with activity as Donna handles the introductions.

Across the kitchen table is her mother, Concetta, whom everybody calls Clara. When her husband, Felix Sr., became a victim of Alzheimer's Disease and retired in 1986, she became the de facto head of the family. Clara plays many roles in the company, but one comes most naturally and is clearly most important to her: She's everybody's mom.

Seated to Clara's right is her nephew, Philip Grucci (called Philly), who is vice-president of operations. Standing behind him is Phil Butler, Donna's husband and vice-president of marketing. Felix Grucci Jr., Donna's brother and the company president, will be coming by later.

The room has become a cacophony. Phil Butler is on the kitchen telephone. Another phone is ringing. Two employees are talking in a corner of the room; others walk in and out. Donna is shouting across the table to finish the introductions.

At this kitchen table and in the offices around it, the Grucci family runs a $4 million fireworks company with an international reputation. Once virtually unknown outside of Long Island, the company has grown fourfold in the last decade and has put on extravaganzas from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, to the Persian Gulf. Although the company makes some of the fireworks it uses, the family's expertise, passed down through generations, is in organizing and staging the shows. Family members once carried torches to light the dozens of rockets that go into making a big fireworks show. Nowadays, when the show starts, one person (usually Philly) sits in a military-style bunker and throws mechanical switches that trip fuses which fire the shells. The rest of the family can sit back and enjoy the show.

One family member is no longer around to enjoy the fun. Jimmy Grucci, the oldest son and designated successor to his father, was killed at the age of 43, along with a cousin, in an explosion that rocked the Gruccis' former compound in Bellport, New York, on November 26, 1983. The explosion blew up the family's old factory and set off a series of rolling blasts that rocked their nearby home and damaged a number of houses in the suburban neighborhood hundreds of yards away.

We were devastated. We lost everything," recalls Felix Jr., 11 years younger than Jimmy. "All we had left was our name and our desire to go forward,"

Not all family members shared that desire at first. Clara and Felix Sr. had little enthusiasm for starting over. Fortunately for the Gruccis, a healthy degree of stubbornness is a family trait. Forced to go into debt, the family settled the neighbors' lawsuits against them, fought off a group of vocal residents who opposed allowing them to relocate in Brookhaven, and successfully rebuilt their business through the sheer force of reputation and skillful financial maneuvers.

The family traces its history in the pyrotechnics business back to the 1850s in the small town of Bari on Italy's Atlantic coast. "This is a tradition for us," says Felix Jr., a stocky man, now 39, who is called Butch. "It's woven into our genes. This is our way of life. We eat, drink, and sleep it."

The display fireworks industry is made up of about 40 companies, according to John Conkling, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group in Chestertown, Maryland. Most of these companies have fewer than 20 employees and revenues of under $1 million a year. Virtually all are owned by families of Italian heritage.

There's no clear reason why Italians dominate the U.S. fireworks industry, Conkling says, since other European countries also have a long history of pyrotechnics. "Back in the 1880s and 1890s, it seems that someone just sent a message back to Italy that there was a market here for fireworks," he says. In those years, members of three Italian families who now own prominent fireworks firms started coming to the United States: the Zarnbelli family of New Castle, Pennsylvania, the Rozzi family in Loveland, Ohio, and the Gruccis. The only large, non-Italian fireworks family in the country is the Souzas of Rialto, California, who are of Portuguese descent.

Felix Grucci Sr., who was born in Bellport, worked in an uncle's fireworks business in Miami for a year before returning to Long Island where he founded the Suffolk Novelty Fireworks Company. The company had other names, including New York Pyrotechnic Products, before it was dubbed Fireworks by Grucci in 1984 to give it something of a designer touch.

Like other families in the pyrotechnics business, the Gruccis have their own family "recipes" that have been passed down from one generation to another. They are known for their split comet shells, which are eight inches in diameter and produce what George Plimpton, the writer and long-time friend of the family, describes as "thick, furry, tail-like appendages, like long golden boas, which then, at their ends, suddenly split into a triad of miniature comets."

While recipes for these effects have remained largely unchanged over the years, fireworks display companies no longer make all of their shells themselves. The Gruccis buy roughly 60 percent of their supplies from China and Japan, because the imports are cheaper and the quality is as good as anything they could produce. The Japanese, for example, have perfected such crowd-pleasers as the "chrysanthemum," in which a high, silent rocket releases a huge ball of red that trickles down and fades from the sky. So the Gruccis buy their chrysanthemums from the Japanese.

But the family still makes 40 percent of its fireworks, often developing spectacular effects. They have created larger-than-life images of Elvis Presley with his guitar, shaking a leg, of John F. Kennedy, and of horses trotting toward the finish line all on elaborate ground platforms. For corporate events, they can light up the night sky with the company's logo.

The Gruccis' business really started taking off in 1979 when they accepted an invitation to represent the United States at an annual fireworks competition in Monte Carlo. They became the first American firm ever to win the contest, a triumph that was immortalized in a book called Fireworks by George Plimpton, who accompanied the Gruccis to Monte Carlo. "It put them on the map," recalls Plimpton of the Gruccis' victory over teams from France, Denmark, Spain, and Italy. "Here they were, the champions of the world."

The Gruccis capitalized on their newly won recognition. 'They parlayed it into going from a small company to a rather large one," notes Plimpton. Before winning at Monte Carlo, the family's work consisted mostly of municipal Fourth of July celebrations and displays for Italian feast days, almost all within a two-hour drive of their central Long Island home. After winning at Monte Carlo, invitations started pouring in from eminent people and faraway places. "We've done every major fireworks program in the United States since 1980," Felix Jr. claims.

In 1980, the Gruccis provided fireworks displays for the winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, and, four years later, did the same for the summer games in Los Angeles. They orchestrated the bombs bursting in air for both of Ronald Reagan's Presidential Inaugurals as well as for George Bush's.

In 1983, Grucci fireworks lit up the New York sky during the Brooklyn Bridge centennial celebration, and in 1986, for the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday party-billed as "the world's greatest fireworks show." There have been some offbeat milestones as well. Last year, they were asked to travel to the United Arab Emirates to put on a $200,000 extravaganza for the wedding of Sheikh Hazza Bin Zayed Al Nahatyan.

Six family members work in the business full time, out of a total of about 30 permanent employees. Figuring out who does what in the company isn't always easy.

Donna, the chief financial officer, is also the most visible Grucci. When the Gruccis put on a show outside of New York, she usually appears on local television shows to answer questions about family traditions and fireworks safety. She also selects the music for many of the more elaborate shows.

Felix Jr., the president, spends most of his time troubleshooting. Philly Grucci, 27, Jimmy's son, handles day-to-day operations, including ordering supplies, manufacturing, and putting together programs. The first family member to graduate from college, Philly has brought computers to the company, among other innovations.

Phil Butler, whose background is in marketing, coordinates sales. Another family member, James Coleman, is the buildings supervisor and chief technician. And then there is Clara, the company mother and occasional spokesperson for the family, who quite probably demanded the extra-large kitchen in the trailer so she could make a lasagna for the whole family.

"As a mom, I'm here with my children and grandchildren, and I'm here to see that we all eat lunch together," Clara says. "We sit down and we iron out a lot of particulars and we talk for an hour or more. It brings closeness to the family."

Philip Grucci calls the fireworks business "the glue that held the family together" after the accident that killed his father in 1983. Of course, the threat of an accident always hovers over their work. The explosion occurred in one of the metal containers that were kept inside the old factory; Jimmy Grucci and his cousin were working just outside at the time. To this day the Gruccis remain uncertain of the cause. There was no evidence of sabotage, and they rule out human error. Sometimes when the powder in the explosives gets wet and sits for a long time, a chemical reaction can take place that ignites it. But any theories about the disaster remain speculative. Lengthy investigations by the insurance company and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms failed to uncover a cause.

Clara recalls telling her husband after the accident, "Let's give up this business before we have to worry about the other kids getting into it." But her children and grandchildren wouldn't hear of it. She says: "The reaction I got was that this was Daddy's business and he worked so hard and we lost Jimmy and we don't want to stop where Jimmy left off. It's been that way ever since."

"What else could we do," Philip Grucci asks, "split up and become brain surgeons and electricians? This is what we've always done, this is what we do best."

If the Gruccis don't aspire to be brain surgeons, they do like working with their hands, even getting them a little dirty. Make no mistake, this isn't a company managed by a bunch of MBAs. The Gruccis manage the business the same way they run their family: with a strict sense of right and wrong and a work ethic that often keeps people in the shop until midnight during the busy summer months. "You could never find 10 people to do that kind of work without having to pay through the nose," says Philly.

The family's values tend to be conservative, emphasizing hard work, family loyalty, and a faith in God shaped by their strong Catholicism. Donna says it was her prayers that enabled her to get through the tragedy in 1983. Earlier this year, her brother Felix ran as a Republican for the New York State Assembly in a campaign that stressed his fiscal conservatism. He pledged to work for lower taxes anti-crime legislation, and laws to deter abortion, but lost in a close race.

The Gruccis also possess another trait common to large Italian families: They tend to expand, drawing all those around them into their loving embrace — "Like an octopus with tentacles," as Donna jokingly puts it. Whether it's the grandchildren's friends, employees of the company, or long-time customers, everyone becomes part of the family.

During the summer months, and especially over the July 4th weekend, family members begin appearing from all over Long Island to help with the business. As many as 40 members are enlisted as the work force expands to nearly 300. Every adult in the family — aunts, cousins, nephews — knows how to put together a fireworks show, even if they do something else for a living. And they look forward to joining in the fun. "Whether it's your aunt or your uncle or your sister you're working with, a lot of times they end up being your best friends," Philip Grucci says. "The family unity kept us together after the explosion," he adds. "A regular corporate structure would have just folded and not done this anymore."

If the decision to remain in the fireworks business seemed simple, getting the company back on its feet was another story. The first challenge was preparing six shows booked for New Year's Eve, just a month away. The company had no inventory, and their top operations person, Jimmy Grucci, was dead. 'We had no time to mourn, and that's really the truth," says Donna.

Meanwhile, the neighbors whose homes had been damaged in the blast were suing the Gruccis, and a vocal group of residents had sprung up to oppose any further storage or production of fireworks in the vicinity. As the family worked to pick up the pieces of their shattered business, it became clear that few elected officials were eager to help them find a new home.

The final blow came when the company's bank cut off its line of credit. In the fireworks display business, a line of credit is crucial because even in the off season, employees have to be paid and fireworks and supplies ordered. With their New Year's Eve commitments looming, the company suddenly had no money to prepare for the shows.

Working out of the two-car garage at the home of Jimmy's widow, Debra, the Gruccis met their New Year's Eve commitments. The shows were able to go on thanks to their warm relationship with suppliers, who were willing to defer their bills. Their lawyer and their accountant (both of whom sit on the Gruccis' board) also continued to work with them, even though they wouldn't be paid right away.

A few months later, the Gruccis received a Small Business Administration loan to keep the business afloat in the new year. Then, with contracts in hand for the next July 4th, they were able to get a line of credit with another bank.

The Gruccis' insurance company paid more than $2 million in damages to the neighbors, but the business itself was not insured, and the family thus received nothing for its losses of inventory and materials. As for calming public clamor for their exile, the family had to be creative. They hired a direct mail company to write letters to their neighbors asking for their support. More than 95 percent of those responding supported the Gruccis' desire to remain on Long Island.

Armed with this public mandate, the family persuaded community officials to help them find a new home. The Gruccis had earlier bought 200 acres of property in Brookhaven that included wetlands that town officials did not want to see developed. They agreed to trade that land for the 100-acre site in an industrial section that they now occupy, which has a large, wooded buffer zone around the fenced compound.

Although the business survived the disaster, its recovery was costly. Revenues, which had grown from about $1 million in 1980 to $2 million in 1983, fell back to $1 million in 1984 as the family tried to avoid overextending itself.

The company is still digging out from under the debt acquired after the explosion. Grucci headquarters remains in four trailers because there has been no money to build permanent office space. Whatever funds the family has been able to take out of cash flow have gone to constructing the current military- like facility, which is designed to insure that nothing like the November 26 disaster will ever be repeated.

"It still amazes me to this day that we were able to recover," says Phil Butler. Felix Jr. says: 'We mortgaged everything we had ... we were really as far down the ladder as you can get." Fortunately, the economy was booming nationally and the Gruccis' reputation as a world-class entertainment company was undamaged. They maintained a steady stream of income and now day-to-day operation has returned almost to normal.

"Technically, we're booked forever for the Fourth of July," says Phil Butler. Regular customers usually book the holiday, but he admits that the family can always squeeze in another show if it wants to. This year the Gruccis' biggest shows on the 4th — each costing $50,000 or more — will be in New York, Boston, Las Vegas, Omaha, and Corpus Christi.

Phil Butler says more corporate promotion work is essential to long-term growth for the company. The Gruccis have worked with such companies as Coca-Cola, Lever Brothers, and Philip-Morris. Since 1987, Lever Brothers has used the Gruccis to prepare fireworks shows across the country to promote Wisk laundry detergent. The shows include a giant ring of fireworks in the air to symbolize the "ring around the collar" that is part of the company's advertising. "It's like sponsoring a big rock concert," notes Beth Crehan, director of promotional services for Lever Brothers. "It's entertainment, but much more targeted to our audience, which is families." Inevitably, says Crehan, a Grucci show generates "millions upon millions of consumer impressions" because evening news shows, radio stations, and newspapers provide a great deal of publicity for the fireworks displays, and its sponsor.

If the Gruccis can develop more corporate business over the next few years, they can maintain a more seasonal balance in their business. But if they don't, it certainly won't change what they do for a living. "My grandchildren will do it and my great-grandchildren will do it. It will always be our family business," Clara Grucci says.


Defusing the neighbor's fears

After the tragic explosion that leveled their fireworks complex, the Gruccis hoped to find a site for a new factory on Long Island. But a group of residents persuaded local officials to block the Gruccis' plan to relocate in Brookhaven. In an effort to defuse the opposition, the Gruccis learned a useful business technique: direct marketing.

The family felt that residents opposing them were a small, albeit highly vocal, minority. "We knew all along from the years we've been there the type of community support we had," says Donna Grucci Butler. "We just didn't know how to demonstrate it." Their attorney suggested a direct mail campaign and introduced the Gruccis to Mullen & McCaffrey Creative Response, a Long Island firm run by a couple of former New York advertising executives.

"We all decided that if we could present letters with 10,000 signatures to the town board, it would show the type of support the Gruccis had," recalls Mary Ann McCaffrey. A letter signed by Felix Grucci Sr. went out to 20,000 Brookhaven residents in early 1985, asking them to express their opinion on the family's attempts to rebuild and giving them a returnable form with a yes-no option. Based on the response to this first mailing the Gruccis would determine how many more letters would have to go out in order to reach their goal of 10,000 signatures.

McCaffrey says that a 10 percent response rate would have been good for such a plea. Instead, 40 percent of the letters were returned with more than 95 percent supporting the Gruccis! Since many letters had more than one signature, the family had a total of 12,000 names and decided that further mailings were unnecessary. Donna brought the letters to a meeting of the town board and emptied bags of them onto the floor. "We made our point," she says.

Having learned to appreciate the benefits of direct mail, the Gruccis decided to use it again in 1988. They wanted to build on the small base of shows they had been doing for corporations and create a subsidiary to manage this growing part of the business.

To convince large companies that a fireworks display is a way to sell a product, they sent letters to the top 1,000 advertisers, in the country, inviting chief executives and vice-presidents of marketing or promotion to view a show personally.

For this type of cold prospecting, the response rate is, typically low — "you might get 2 percent," McCaffrey says. The Gruccis got expressions of interest from 12 percent of those who received the letters.

—S.J. S.