It’s the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, and Phil Grucci is looking out the window of his corporate fireworks studio in New York to see 20 pyrotechnicians working on some finishing touches.
As the president and fifth-generation leader of a family-owned fireworks business, Grucci is making sure the holiday weekend goes as smoothly as possible. More than 400 pyrotechnicians will be producing 82 fireworks performances across the country – from Massachusetts to Florida and all the way to Hawaii.
And if you’ve ever seen a fireworks show, you’ve probably enjoyed a performance by Grucci’s company at some point. Fireworks by Grucci is a 166-year-old fireworks entertainment business that blends the traditional fireworks display with modern technology. Since the 1850s, the Gruccis have kept the business alive and thriving – even breaking a world record for “largest fireworks display” in 2014.
Most importantly, they’ve kept it in the family. “We’ve been offered a number of times to go public or get purchased, but none of the generations has been interested in any of that,” Grucci, 52, says. “I’ve committed my life to this business, and I want to see it stay strong and vibrant.”
Fortune spoke with Grucci about building the multi-million dollar business, keeping it in the family and using technology to innovate.
This Q&A has been edited for grammar and clarity.
How long does it take to prepare for the Fourth of July weekend?
All year. It starts very soon after this Fourth of July week – getting the information back from the clients about which scenes worked and which didn’t. We work on the functionality of the shows and we implement what we learned from this year into the next year.
The real surge comes in February after the New Year as we’re preparing the submissions for all the permits we need. As you can imagine, we’re moving explosives from coast to coast, so the logistics side is as important as the design side. Yes, we’re producing an entertainment medium, but we’re using explosives as our medium.
Fireworks by Grucci has been in business for 166 years. What are your secrets for staying in business for so long?
The theory is that a typical family business becomes hard to maintain after the third generation. The first and second generations are easy – it’s a vertical structure with a clear leader. During the third and fourth generation, the tree becomes wider and there’s more management. In the fifth generation, I decided to make the business vertical again. When my aunt and uncle retired, I purchased their stock so that there was a single leader. My children and nephews are part of the business, but there’s a clear leadership structure to maintain the vertical nature of the business.
What is the appeal of keeping the business in the family?
I’ve committed my life to this business. Certainly, the addiction to the business is there. It’s easy to be addicted to this art form – you’re entertaining people, people appreciate what they see. But it’s important to remember that it is dangerous – I lost my father to this business. I lost my dad in 1983 in a factory explosion that we had.
Any advice for entrepreneurs who do business with family members?
We’ve had our blowouts, just like any other family will. Remember that nothing is accomplished by one person. The secret to the success of a family business is to respect each other. Our resource is our people. We can build all the fireworks we want, we can make all the equipment we need, but if we don’t have the proper people who are passionate about it, we’re nothing.
Some municipalities have cancelled or modified their fireworks shows due to lingering budget constraints. What are your thoughts about the future of fireworks displays?
This year has been a pretty stable year for us. If we’re not booked on the Fourth of July, we’re doing something wrong. By and large, we see the economy loosening up from a corporate perspective. The key to survival to this industry is what happens before and after that Fourth of July bell curve. It’s consistent work all year-round.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about being a business owner?
Stay within the means of what your expertise is. There are some times you can go outside of the box, but always maintain a strong foundation on what pays the bills time and time again. Investing in innovation is critical to the existence of any business.
What are some of the innovations we can expect from Fireworks by Grucci in the coming years?
We’re working on the environmental side of the business. We’re using biodegradable products and developing chemistries to reduce the smoke. We’re also taking advantage of the computerization of the industry. We’re building small microchips inside of shells that we call “pixel bursts” that go up to a height we can dictate and put a dot in the sky. If you can take thousands of those dots and put them in a pattern, you can easily create the shape of the American flag, for example.