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How does one make a worldwide business out of Christmas? If you're Wally Bronner, originator of BRONNER'S CHRISTmas WONDERLAND in Frankenmuth, Mich., you do it by remembering your VIGs (very important guests).
"They have made this business successful. They came to Bronner's and went back to tell other family and friends, spreading the word," he says. And the word has spread worldwide. Bronner's offers fact sheets in more than a handful of languages—including Arabic, Chinese, German, Italian and Japanese. What began as a sign business in 1945 grew to become a holiday-oriented gift and decoration business (Main Salesroom in 1954, Tannenbaum Shop in 1966 and the Bavarian Corner in 1971) and eventually the holiday-themed extravaganza that is today's Bronner's.
"I thank the Good Lord for a good staff that includes my wonderful family (wife, Irene; three of their children and their spouses and two grandsons)."
Today Bronner's is the world's largest year-round Christmas store with 2.1 acres (1.6 football fields) of sales space. The square footage of the entire complex totals five and a half football fields, including the end zones.
"Many people enjoy Christmas decorations and enjoy getting ready for the season. So many are in a happy mood as they tackle their assignment, particularly when they see our variety of more than 50,000 items," he says.
His secret to keeping Christmas fresh 365 days a year is joy. "Wouldn't it be nice to be in business one month out of the year?" he jokes. The reality is that someone needs to plan for displays—whether it's the places of worship, city halls and community parks or shopping centers.
"We spend the first few months of the year evaluating inventory and receiving procedures, purchasing stock and rebuilding our displays, but we're also meeting with those people who are in charge of developing decorating themes that must be included in photography and brochures (for shopping centers and malls, for example).
Bronner's also has more than two million catalog shoppers, with plenty of phone operators and shipping personnel to handle the load of orders that come in via the Web site (www.bronners.com) and the catalog.
"Summer and fall are our busiest times of the year. We have 500 full-time and part-time employees on staff serving more than 2 million guests," he says.
Although he's seen many changes in business, Bronner's has some unique business challenges, including an electric bill that averages $900 a day for all the lighted displays.
One of the greatest business challenges Bronner faced was computerization. "I'm thankful that we've had tremendous teams that are able to tackle the job. The second generation of family members, a knowledgeable staff and the assistance of our accounting firm of Yeo & Yeo, eased that transition for us," he says.
Inventory presents its own unique challenges. Half of all Bronner's merchandise sold is under $10; two-thirds is under $20. That's a lot of Christmas lights and ornament items to sell—and count.
"We divide the place up into a checkerboard and assign three employees to each square to conduct inventory. "We have a well-oiled system of buyers, managers and supervisors who use a combination of computerization and hand-counting to verify our inventory," he says.
A commercial artist and designer by trade, Bronner carries a pencil on him at all times. He's known to sketch out an idea on the spot for display, design or even marketing.
Although the day-to-day management of the operation has been completely turned over to Bronner's children, he continues to work full time. His wife Irene works part time. He shows no signs of stopping and still relishes the daily contact with staff and guests.
Bronner says he hopes that the lesson his staff has learned from him is that, provided they serve the guests well, they will be assured steady employment. And to his family he says that in addition to a wishbone, you need a backbone "and a funny bone also helps along the way."
One thing is certain—Bronner has found a market that never loses favor. In fact, it is in the unique position to adapt to whatever is happening in the country. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Bronner says many guests chose more patriotic themes for holiday decorating. Traditional multi-colored and clear lights were replaced with red, white and blue lights, ornaments and garlands.
Other visitors decided that family was the message that was most important to them. Regardless, customers always have their own reasons for shopping at Bronner's and it shows in the company's steady growth.
"Every year we've had steady growth and that really gives you confidence.
"I never set out to do big things, only to do a number of little things in a big way. After all, it's easier to sit on top of a mountain than the point of a pin." e
Yeo & Yeo PC provides management consulting, tax and estate planning, succession planning, auditing and employee benefits services to BRONNER'S CHRISTmas WONDERLAND. The firm, based in Saginaw, Mich., will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2003. Bronner's has been a part of Yeo & Yeo's history since 1953.