Company News

Fireworks Light up the Skies – and Bottom Lines

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Americans love fireworks, as evidenced by the millions they set off and watch every year.

These fireworks range from screeching bottle rockets to sparklers to mortars that create multi-colored explosions in the sky. They’re set off at rural barbecues and in the Big Apple, where Macy’s sets off 50,000 in less than half and hour.

The tradition tying fireworks to the celebrations of America’s birth goes back to its creation. On July 3, 1776 – the day before the Declaration of Independence was signed – John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, suggesting how the day would be celebrated.

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival,” he wrote. “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with … bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forever more.”

And those illuminations, as the second president called them, are as popular as ever. Nearly 244 million pounds of consumer fireworks were sold in the United States last year, along with 24.5 million pounds for professional displays. The total revenue of consumer fireworks last year was $825 million, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, up from $284 million in 1998.

The busy season for fireworks stores begins in late May and early June, says Phantom Fireworks Vice President Bill Weimer. But it’s the week before – and especially the weekend before – when the chain’s stores and roadside tents are at their busiest

“I know we’ll be slammed. It’s like Black Friday every day,” said Mike Hadzigeorge, assistant manager of Phantom’s store on Meridian Road a week before Independence Day. “It’s already starting to pick up.”

Phantom’s most popular items are mortar kits, variety packs and aerial repeaters, “probably the most popular single line we have,” Weimer said Monday. The variety packs, he added, range anywhere from about $50 all the way up to $1,500 for the “Grounds for Divorce” package.

And at each Phantom store, a blackboard near the exit keeps track of the store’s “Big Spenders.” Topping the list at the Meridian Road store was a purchase earlier this year of $8,826.68.

“We’ve actually had people make it to the big spender board, get outspent and then come back to spend more so they can get their position back,” Weimer said. “There’s a lot of competition amongst neighbors and neighborhoods.”

What makes the mortars so popular is that enthusiasts have the “sensation of using products similar in fashion to what a professional display person does,” the vice president said. Phantom sells racks of mortar tubes, used to launch the fireworks, and the mortars themselves. The kits range from the six-piece, $15 “Mighty Mites” to the 120-mortar, $600 “Vulcan Fortress.”

But even those kits aren’t as complex as what professional companies use when they put on fireworks displays. At New Castle’s Pyrotecnico, creating a show begins with a producer meeting with the client to design the display around the event – of the company’s 3,000 shows a year, 800 are Fourth of July celebrations – while administrative staff ensure that all insurance and legal issues are handled.

Among the agencies with which they’ve worked are the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the local fire departments, municipalities and state fire marshals.

“First and foremost is safety,” says Mary Killingsworth, Pyrotecnico marketing coordinator. “We have to know about the firing site and what safety radius we can have around it. That let’s us know what type and size of shell can be featured.”

Most states follow the National Fire Protection Association’s recommendation of 70 feet of clearance for each inch of the shell’s diameter. A three-inch shell, for example, has a required site clearance of 210 feet. Pyrotecnico uses a 100-foot radius.

Among consumer fireworks, Weimer noted that safety is coming to the forefront and injuries are dropping. In 1994, there were 10.7 injuries for every 100,000 pounds of fireworks used. Today, the rate is 4.2 per 100,000 pounds.

Once a site is established, designers work on creating the show. There is no standard, Killingsworth says, because every project is different based on site constraints, audience positioning and local regulations.

Important across all, though, is the display itself and creating levels to the show, she added.

“We want to make sure there’s a full-body display that’s layered,” she said. “If a site can hold five-inch shells, you don’t want just five-inch. It’d be a very one-dimensional show with the shells all breaking at one altitude. You want to add in some lower-breaking shells that are one or two inches.”

In business more than a century – Pyrotecnico was founded in Italy in 1889, before founder Constantino Vitale came to the United States and put down roots in New Castle – the company has converted its experience with fireworks into new businesses. Over the years, its added event production for concerts, festivals and corporate events. Most recently, Pyrotecnico handled the confetti cannons for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship parade as well as the confetti and fireworks for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ parade.

However fireworks are enjoyed, whether with sparklers for kids or thousand-shell professional displays, they are getting only more popular. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, legislation is in the works to open up consumer fireworks sales.

Iowa opened its borders to consumers this year and a New Jersey bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. Michigan, meanwhile, began allowing consumer fireworks sales in 2012. Today, only three states – Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey – ban the sale of all consumer fireworks.

With that mind, it’s easy to see what makes fireworks the celebration of choice for the Fourth of July.

“I’m like every other American. I remember as a kid going to the neighborhood department store where there was a fireworks show,” Weimer said. “We looked forward to it every year. And I’m still a kid. I still go every year.”

Pictured: The rush to buy fireworks starts in midMay, says Mike Hadzigeorge, assistant manager of Phantom Fireworks’ Meridian Road store, and Phantom Vice President Bill Weimer.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.