Long Island's Gruccis have built their world-famous pyrotechnic enterprise on passion, audacity, courage -- and the savvy to diversify.
The Gruccis' approach to business challenges -- hanging tough in hard times by innovating and seizing opportunities -- can resonate with Long Island businesses still struggling in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
One challenge they faced: their revenue took a hit after the Sept. 11 attacks, when New York City banned professional fireworks shows for nine months. At the time, the Gruccis still owed debts accrued while rebuilding after a 1983 Bellport plant explosion that killed two family members and almost sank the company.
They were kept afloat by their little-known business supplying the U.S. military with simulated grenades and explosive devices.
"If we didn't have that diversity in our business it would have been very difficult to survive," said Phil Grucci, 48, a fifth-generation Grucci, executive vice president of Fireworks by Grucci as well as chief executive of Pyrotechnique by Grucci, which sells to the armed forces.
Started more than 160 years ago, the Grucci family business, now based in Brookhaven, got into defense contracting in the 1950s. The military business waned in the 1970s as the entertainment business grew, and the company shifted its focus. But the Gruccis got back into the defense business in the 1990s, seeing it as an opportunity for diversification and growth.
Today, a company-operated manufacturing plant in Radford, Va., builds simulators for the Department of Defense, in addition to fireworks and fuses for commercial use. That unit brings in 55 percent of the more than $20 million in revenues generated by the Grucci businesses, family members said. The Grucci companies employ 25 in Brookhaven, and about 135 in Virginia. And 300 part-time pyrotechnicians assist in staging the family's 200 to 300 fireworks shows a year.
Exporting fireworks shows is another surprising facet of the Grucci companies. "It's really expensive to transport product" abroad, given the hazardous and regulated nature of fireworks, said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, a trade group.
Nevertheless, the Gruccis have invested in foreign shows and attracted overseas clients with high-profile U.S. shows. Foreign revenue at Fireworks by Grucci, the entertainment business, rose from less than 5 percent of sales in 2000 to 30 percent last year and should surpass domestic sales by 2015, the company said.
While fourth- and fifth-generation Gruccis now run the business, it's rare for even the fourth generation to head a firm, said Norman Goldberg, a small business consultant. But for the Gruccis, pyrotechnics are in their veins.
The business originated in Bari, Italy, on the Adriatic coast, where by 1850 Angelo Lanzetta was providing fireworks for local festivals. Around 1890, the family moved the business to the United States, originally to Elmont.
Anthony Lanzetta, Angelo's son, was running the company in 1923 when he brought in his sister's son, Felix Grucci Sr., as an apprentice. After a brief relocation to Miami early in the Depression, the business relocated to East Patchogue, where a fire in the factory in 1932 killed Anthony and his son, Anthony Jr. A devastated Felix Grucci Sr. rebuilt the business in Bellport.
Felix Grucci Sr. was constantly innovating, family members said. He developed a fireworks shell that eliminated burning debris falling to the ground. After World War II, he contracted with the U.S. government to build training devices, including one simulating an atomic bomb's intense flash of light, noise and mushroom cloud on a smaller scale. He also built items such as flare pistols.
Felix Sr.'s children -- Felix Jr., James and Donna Grucci Butler -- followed in their father's footsteps.
Felix Grucci Jr., 60, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Fireworks by Grucci, said he was hooked as a boy by "the exhilaration and excitement of the action of the fire when you put the torch to the fuse and it took off. You hear the roar of the crowd." His brother James pushed the company to compete in the prestigious 1979 Monte Carlo international fireworks competition, where Grucci was awarded first prize. Four years later, the company's elaborate fireworks for the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial, which included a pyrotechnic "waterfall" from the bridge, boosted its profile even higher.
Then came the 1983 Bellport plant explosion that killed James and a cousin. The blast left acres of rubble and damaged nearby homes. The cause was never identified. Family members, stressing safety is paramount, said they think heat generated in a drying process, since changed, was a factor.
The company's inventory was wiped out. Insurance covered property damage in the neighborhood, but, "We were literally in ruin," said Felix Jr.
Family members used their homes and savings as collateral for bank loans. Donna Grucci Butler, 62, now president of Fireworks by Grucci, said, "It was a good 10 to 11 years to getting back on our feet," and fallout from the blast and rebuilding effort was still being felt two decades later.
The Gruccis, by nature, are driven to top their last, best show. For now, the one to beat is the November 2008 opening of the Atlantis Dubai resort. Some 250 pyrotechnicians positioned more than 250,000 aerial shells to paint a multidimensional canvas on the night sky.
Phil Grucci watched it with his son, Christopher, then 15. "It was 25 years, to the week, the anniversary [of the explosion] that took my father and cousin," he said. Christopher "had no idea of the scale and drama of the program. When the show unfolded in front of him, you could see it click -- that's what we do."