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The elf that grew Niche: Baltimore-based Becker Group has developed from a one-lad Santa operation into the world's largest designer of holiday decor for shopping malls.


As chief executive officer, Gordon Becker sets an example for his staff by wearing Santa Claus cuff links and, at times, a red, fur-trimmed hat to match. His company markets itself with the tag line "Making reindeer fly." Major departments are Christmas and Easter, and a corporate conference room is trimmed in holly, wreaths and bows most months.

For Baltimore-based Becker Group, founded more than four decades ago, Christmas is no holiday. It's year-round work, with more than $22 million in sales and hundreds of clients as far-flung as Brazil, Paris and Tokyo.

Part design house, part marketing firm, part theatrical set producer, it's a business like few others -- the world's biggest designer of holiday decor for shopping malls.

For Becker, it all started when he was a teen-ager in the late 1940s, when he donned a red Santa suit and sang and told stories to drum up business at a cousin's Belair Road store. In college, he perfected the role at shopping centers that pre-dated today's malls.

The young entrepreneur soon began training others. While a University of Maryland sophomore, he started a Santa School, using his parents' house in Baltimore's Forest Park as headquarters.

For years, he sent his recruits out to shopping centers and now-defunct department stores such as Hochschild Kohn and Hutzler's, building a $20,000-a-year business. Before long, merchants' associations and store owners were asking for decorations, lights or a tree, to come with the Santas.

Today, the Becker Group provides no Santas but designs or manufactures just about every other part of a mall's holiday display. That ranges from trees, wreaths, bells, banners and lights in common areas to elaborate "Santa sets" that form the centerpieces.

"It's the most unique niche I've ever seen in the retail arena," said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group, a retail consultant and placement firm in Lutherville. "He's been able to capitalize on a growing trend. Forty years ago, there were no malls, just strip centers. As power centers and regional centers came up, Gordon was the guy who had the specialty."

At "Christmas House," on Read Street, the century-old former German Consulate around the corner from the company's Cathedral Street office, Becker led the way through showrooms of oversize props: glass beads, huge bows, gift-wrapped boxes, flying angels, red and gold banners, wooden soldiers, a toy workshop with animated elves at work.

Soft-as-cotton snow blankets the floor, multicolored lights blink and an antique orchestrion, which combines a piano with other instruments, plays music from "The Nutcracker."

A letter on a table, signed by Morty the Mailroom Elf, reads, "Dear Santa. Could you please get me some help in the mailroom?"

Becker disappeared for a few seconds. A life-size Rudolf reindeer poking its head through a curtain began to speak -- in a higher-pitched version of Becker's voice -- saying, "Thanks for coming to visit."

Reappearing, Becker's face lit up as he flipped a switch that brought an animated lion to life. "I never get tired of this stuff," he said. "It's never lost its magic for me."

The rooms offer a glimpse of Becker designs that can be found each year in more than 1,000 shopping malls worldwide. A mall's program, which typically lasts from three to five years, can cost from $60,000 to $1 million, averaging about $150,000.

Behind the scenes in Baltimore is a team of 100 sales people, designers and production, art and administrative employees who work with malls to design and produce displays and oversee initial installation.

Many of the sets and animated elves and reindeer are manufactured in-house, either at the Baltimore warehouse or at several studios around the country. The malls usually store and install their own displays.

The company has introduced its brand of Christmas to 25 countries, succeeding in large part by concentrating on the details, no matter how small, and catering to clients, Becker said.

"I don't draw. I don't paint. I don't drive the trucks," he said. "But if something is wrong, clients know they can call me. Everything's in the details."

He has no plans to step down from the helm anytime soon, even at 65, saying, "I love what I do."

This year, Becker's two sons took on a bigger role in the business they'd grown up with. Doug Becker, co-founder and president of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. and a member of Becker's board of directors, and Eric Becker, vice chairman of the Becker Group, are also principals of Sterling Capital, an investment and consulting firm based in Baltimore and Chicago, which became a major Becker shareholder this year.

Over the years, the company has focused more on the Christmas season and gone after more clients who use Becker as their single decorating source. Becker estimates that it has a 50 percent market share nationally and says it competes mostly with smaller, regional companies.

One single-source client is Michigan-based Taubman Co., which uses Becker displays at each of its 27 malls, including Marley Station in Glen Burnie. Themes vary, said Karen Mac Donald, a Taubman spokeswoman.

For instance, the company's Fairlane Town Center outside Detroit has a musical theme to tie into Motown while a mall in Sterling Heights, Mich., which draws families with children, features Snoopy and other Peanuts characters, a brand Becker is licensed to use. The design at its Beverly Center, an upscale Los Angeles mall, evokes an altogether different mood, with mirror balls and gold starbursts.

"The centers make the decisions about the themes," Mac Donald said. "You do run out of ideas, and that's where Becker comes in. You might know it's a traditional market, but you're trying to get past toys all the time. If you're stumped, they'll present you with different concepts."

For Columbia-based Rouse Co., which has Becker designs in about half its 54 regional malls and mixed-use centers, "we sort of view Santa as an American tradition and character," said Bob Rubenkonig, a Rouse spokesman. "We take into consideration the ethnicity of the market and try not to have religious overtones. We try to appeal to as broad a sector as possible. We look for timeless and we look for classic.

"And then sometimes there is a color palette that is selected that varies with the center. If a center has a teal blue and peach decor scheme, hunter green may not look great," he said.

Rouse, like other mall owners, has moved away from a look that overwhelms a center, in favor of more of an accent, he said, adding, "You don't want to take away from the visual merchandising of the retailer's window, or interfere with the amount of space to make the trip."

Designers usually start on the 150 to 180 new displays as early as February.

"You start to ask questions, like an interior designer. You get to know your clients," said Ken Hobart, Becker's director of creative services. "Are they contemporary? Are they classic? They know their market and they have to live with it."

"Sometimes, [the display] is for children, and the magic of the holidays is about Santa," he said. "But there are some centers that don't really cater to children. For upper-end shoppers, they might want to be more decorative."

Displays have become less garish and disposable but more high-technology over the years, he said. For instance, children can now e-mail their letters to Santa at the mall.

One of the more high-technology displays can be seen for the first time this year at Christiana Mall in Newark, Del., where a 35-foot tall Christmas tree entertains shoppers with a computerized light show of constantly changing colors and patterns. Outside J. C. Penney sits an ice castle dripping with icicles and adorned with snowflakes, silver balls and blinking white lights.

It's the most elaborate set ever for the mall, a $450,000 project that required extra electric capacity and took two years to design, said Moffat Welsh, mall marketing director.

"It's to set us apart and create an attraction, another reason to give people to shop here," Welsh said.

Finding something new to attract shoppers can be crucial as malls try to distinguish themselves, she said. In a season that accounts for as much as a quarter of retailers' sales and half their profits, the Becker Group says a new design can boost sales over the previous year by about 6 percent.

"This puts people in the holiday mood, and they spend money and they shop," Millman said. "That's why you're seeing seasonal decor happening earlier and earlier. When people are in the holiday spirit, they open up their pocketbooks."

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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