Last December, as 2013 ticked to a close, a clutch of more than 200 U.S. fireworks technicians based temporarily in the United Arab Emirates heard the bad news: The four cargo vessels that Fireworks by Grucci, Inc. shipped out had been delayed by Typhoon Haiyan. The missing pyrotechnics were vital to staging what their client, the emirate of Dubai, was promoting as the world’s Largest Fireworks Display.
As the big night approached, executives from Guinness World Records, the self-appointed adjudicators of global superlatives, arrived in Dubai and set up their own camp. The Guinness team would audit Grucci’s display to determine if Dubai’s event deployed more firepower than Kuwait had three years earlier, when it celebrated its 50th constitutional anniversary with a record-setting 77,282 fireworks.
Grucci workers set up some 500 computer-networked launch pads across more than 60 miles of Dubai coast as they awaited the missing containers. The vessels “were delayed for about a week, which upended the entire production process,” says Phil Grucci, the company’s chief executive. “We worked together. We maybe worked a little harder. In the end it all came together successfully.”
Ultimately, the technicians and management team logged more than 5,000 hours rigging the New Year’s spectacular. The display was designed to showcase the capital’s two most renowned structures: the Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building, and the Palm Jumeirah international hotel.
Twenty seconds before midnight, the Gruccis set off the first round of aerial rockets from high up on the tower, encasing the skyscraper within a grid of exploding lights. Over the next 60 seconds, tens of thousands of fireworks popped thunderously amidst a barrage of aerial illuminations, smoke and explosive cheers.
The program continued into the early minutes into 2014. As hundreds of thousands roared their approval and flashed cellphones, the Gruccis produced a series of customized designs against the night sky: a serial countdown in Arabic numbers; the red, green, white and black flag of the U.A.E.; and a depiction in exploding pixels of an international award recently bestowed on Dubai. An orchestral score composed for the occasion played from loudspeakers, synchronized to the rocketry. Five minutes into the new year, Grucci sent out its final salvo: tens of thousands of fireworks depicting a midnight sunrise along the seafront.
All told, the Gruccis detonated half a million fireworks, an amount more than six times Kuwait’s total. The “Largest Fireworks Display” title was now Dubai’s.
“Truly impressive,” declared Guinness World Records chief Alistair Richards. “All eyes are on Dubai.”
Indeed. As a global business city intent on demonstrating its world-class scale, Dubai had seized the world’s attention and showcased its two preeminent structures as millions around the world watched on TV and the Internet. Grucci, of course, had been instrumental. “The purpose of the show was to raise global awareness of Dubai and to position Dubai as one of the world’s great cities, like Paris and New York,” says Jerry Inzerillo, chief of IMG Artists, the international festival-management company and a frequent Grucci collaborator. “It worked,” he adds.
At a reported price tag of $6 million, the event was Grucci’s top revenue producer last year, as the company’s exports topped its domestic sales for the first time. It won’t be the last. “Grucci is a key player in the global fireworks market,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnic Association. “There are very few American companies that are actively exporting.”
She adds, “Grucci showcases what the U.S. fireworks industry is all about.”
Well known as a major fireworks producer serving the New York metropolitan market from its Long Island base, Fireworks by Grucci has been steadily expanding its footprint in recent decades. The company has handled a series of increasingly high-profile shows including seven consecutive presidential inaugurations; the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Lake Placid; and public festivities such as the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge centennials. More recently, Grucci has advanced its brand prominently on the world stage, handling such global commissions as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the grand opening of the Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis Resort in Dubai the same year, and the 2012 World’s Fair in Yeosu, South Korea.
The company’s first significant overseas exposure came in 1979, when the clan competed in what was then the world’s foremost international fireworks competition, in Monte Carlo.
At age 16, the future CEO was working after school at the family business when he accompanied his grandparents, father and aunt to Monte Carlo. Along for the ride was George Plimpton, the bon vivant author and fireworks buff. After a shaky beginning, the Americans pulled off a memorable upset, snatching the Gold Medal ahead of a field of far better known, internationally experienced competitors. It was the first time an American fireworks company had taken first prize in Monte Carlo. Thanks to the prolific and participatory Plimpton, several books, a widely-viewed network TV documentary and a series of magazine articles ensued. The media attention introduced the irascible patriarch Felix J. Grucci Sr. and his family to a national audience. When a journalist dubbed the Gruccis “America’s first family of fireworks,” the tag stuck.
After Monte Carlo, the Gruccis accrued a series of high-profile commissions: the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in 1980; Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration in 1981; the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982; the Brooklyn Bridge centennial in New York in 1983. Business was booming.
Then tragedy struck. In November 1983, several months after the Brooklyn Bridge show, the company’s fireworks plant in leafy Bellport was rocked by a lethal explosion. The blast took the lives of Phil’s father James and a young cousin, Donna. Two dozen neighbors were also injured and more than 100 homes damaged. In the tight-knit community where nearly everyone knew a Grucci and the Gruccis knew nearly everyone, the devastation was widely felt and highly personal.
Felix Jr.—Phil’s uncle, and the patriarch’s surviving son—recalled the emotional turmoil nearly 20 years later in an interview with The New York Times. The accident “destroyed the family morale,’’ he told the Times. ‘’But my sister and I decided we couldn’t leave the fireworks business and let that be the final chapter.’’
The company decided to relocate its headquarters to a commercial district in the town of Brookhaven, far from residential neighbors. As for the plant, a location was chosen near a military compound in Radon, Virginia.
As the patriarch’s health declined, operational responsibilities shifted to his two surviving offspring. Phil, having graduated college with a degree in finance, came back full-time. Bean-counting, however, was not in the picture. “I focused on design and manufacturing,” he recalls. “I tried to fill the void left by my father’s death.” His uncle, meanwhile, shifted his attention to politics, pursuing a series of elective town offices that led to a term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Donna’s role increased, as did Phil’s.
The Gruccis “are incredibly proud of Uncle Felix, no doubt about it,” recalls his nephew. “But if having a Grucci in Congress helped the family business any, I’d have to say the answer is no.”
The family business seemingly needed no help from Washington; it was again doing quite well on its own. Once known mainly for entertaining metro New York crowds on the Fourth of July and other holidays, as local government commissions have diminished, Grucci has branched out significantly, building an international year-round portfolio of events sponsored by hotel groups and luxury brands, professional sports team owners and festival management companies, sovereign states and NGOs. Steve Wynn, head of Mirage Resorts, says, “Grucci has dedication to first-class performances. They make me very confident and safe whenever I put myself in their hands, and I intend to do it as often as possible.”
Major buzz-building shows from the ’90s included the three-city Columbus Quincentennial, both Clinton presidential inaugurations, Yves Saint Laurent’s launch of Champagne Perfume and Macy’s July 4, 1995, festivities.
In the aftermath of 9/11, however, government anti-terrorism restrictions temporarily shut down the public fireworks industry in New York and other population centers. Grucci fell back on its secondary business, providing munitions testing to defense procurers. It also began paying more attention to markets overseas. At the time, exports accounted for perhaps 5 percent of revenues.
Developing an international market can be a “long, arduous task to achieve the first invitation,” says Phil Grucci. You “must be prepared to invest in travel to physically meet the prospects. There are many communities that respond very positively to the personal handshake and face-to-face meeting.” He adds, “I still believe very much in this style.”
Not surprisingly, Grucci views shipping explosives as the company’s biggest exporting challenge—by far. “We are continually trying to streamline the process but with the many borders that are crossed to get the fireworks from the United States, Europe and China to Dubai, that is a challenge.”
Much pre-event preparation involves setting up lines of communication with various levels of government authority. The Gruccis’ routine advance work includes contacting the police department, fire department, civil defense, coast guard, national parks service, federal transportation department, protective services, private and public security services, aviation authorities and the local bomb squad. Internationally, the list can stretch even longer.
Good logistics and careful attention to safety practices are paramount concerns, he says.
“Overseas, our clients tend to be sovereign states that want their displays to make a statement,” Grucci says. “Often, we’re commissioned as part of a national celebration, an anniversary, a commemoration or a national accomplishment. There’s a great deal of pride involved. The displays need to be perfect in their eyes. There is no room for anything to go wrong. In this industry, you’re only as good as your last show.”
When your last show is hailed as a global success, that’s a good place to be. As Phil Grucci points out, producing a successful international show is the best route to being asked to produce further international shows.
“There is no guarantee that when you take a brand that transcends generations and it’s your last name, just because your father or grandfather was great at something doesn’t mean you’ll be great,” observes IMG chief Inzerillo. “Phil has taken a great entertainment company and has shown the quality and innovation to be the single most powerful brand in his field. It is undisputed that when you say Grucci you are talking about the Rolls Royce of fireworks.”