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Pioneer in mall displays is sold

The Baltimore Sun

The Becker Group, the Baltimore company best known for its mall Christmas displays, has been bought for $24 million by a Phoenix firm that designs exhibit and trade show displays.

Company founder Gordon Becker and other executives said the sale to Viad Corp. would help the 53-year-old company continue a strategy it started several years ago to expand the business beyond mall decorating to casinos and other venues.

The deal also will enable the company to own displays rather than just manage them, and further its international business, said Glenn Tilley, Becker's president and chief executive officer. Becker Group has offices in Los Angeles, Brazil and Mexico.

"As we continue to evolve, we felt that to go to the next level the best thing to have was a partner," Tilley said. "We needed someone who had the synergies and resources to help us in our next phase of growth."

The 80-employee Becker Group will become a subsidiary of Viad and continue to be headquartered in Baltimore. The privately held company does not release revenue figures.

"Nothing will change," Tilley said.

The company was the outgrowth of a gig Gordon Becker had as a teenager to dress up as Santa to help drum up business for a family member's business. While a student at the University of Maryland, he started a Santa School, sending other college students to shopping centers and department stores such as Hochschild Kohn and Hutzler's. He managed that into a $20,000-a-year business.

Soon he started offering the shopping centers Christmas decorations, operating the business from his parents' house. The first decorations were cardboard Santas that he hung on light poles.

"When a strong wind came through, Santa would lose a right arm," Becker said.

He started off in strip shopping centers, then expanded the business when the first enclosed malls were built. Harundale Mall in Anne Arundel County was the first enclosed mall on the East Coast when it opened in 1958 and the first that Becker decorated.

"We literally grew up in parallel with the industry," Becker said.

The Becker Group no longer provides Santas to retailers and malls, its multimillion-dollar Christmas displays having become much more elaborate. For a mall in the Persian Gulf state of Dubai this holiday season, the company created a 70-foot Christmas tree.

Three years ago Becker Group created an exhibit where shoppers could walk through a life-sized snowball where fake snow would fall on them.

Tilley said mall displays have had to become more expansive to attract shoppers. They give people a reason to come to the mall.

"Anybody can put a tree up in a mall and have a holiday," Tilley said. "But what is it we're about? Is it about selling Christmas trees or creating a real guest experience? It has to draw traffic volume and traffic retention."

About six years ago, the company began focusing on building exhibits that weren't holiday-themed. It also began seeking clients other than retailers.

Becker worked with Disney to create an exhibit for the movie Ratatouille, about a rat from the French countryside who is a chef. The exhibit, displayed at food shows, included a 35-foot cheese slice that kids could climb and slide down. It also included a large tent with an Eiffel Tower where people could watch parts of the movie.

The company also has created holiday displays for various Trump projects, including the Taj Mahal, Trump Marina and Trump Plaza casinos.

The deal with Viad marks the first time the company ownership has left family hands. In 1998, Sterling Capital, an investment group owned by Becker's two sons, became a majority shareholder in the Becker Group. One son, Douglas L. Becker, was co-founder and president of Sylvan Learning Center Inc., the Baltimore educational company that changed its name to Laureate Education. The second son, Eric Becker, was vice chairman of the Becker Group.

Viad said the partnership with Becker will help it expand beyond the trade-show environment.

Viad operates from three segments providing services that include the design, installation and warehousing of exhibits. It also builds mall kiosks.

"We think there is a cultural fit as a well as a good strategic fit," said Paul B. Dykstra, president and CEO of Viad. "We operate in similar businesses."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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