On July 4, Christopher Grucci planned to be up in Boston working. When you’re a Grucci, working on the 4th means painting the night sky above a major city with rocket-fueled explosions as thousands ooh and ah.
A pyrotechnician trained – like all members of the Grucci extended fire-works family – by his dad, uncles and older cousins, Christopher bounces around the Charles River job site making sure all needed supplies are accounted for, and that all coworkers are there.
“If something’s missing, I hop in the car and go get it,” says Christopher.
Welcome to Independence Day, Grucci-style. One of 47 gigs the family has booked for July 4, 2018, Boston has enjoyed pride of place with the family since the Gruccis celebrated the nation’s Bicentennial in Beantown two generations ago to a soundtrack provided by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. These days, Deborah Grucci, Christopher’s mom, stakes out a private view of the proceedings from a nearby high-rise while dad – that’s Phil Grucci, fifth generation CEO – stays closer to the ground.
“When the show starts,” he says, “the Esplanade is lined with people. They put the flags out and the whole environment is electrifying.”
He allows a grin.
“I admit it,” he says. “I like patriotic scenes.”
It’s a natural preference for a man whose business is celebrating America’s birthday and big holidays. Increasingly that business has expanded to helping the rest of the world celebrate everything from casino openings to Persian Gulf commercial construction. Domestically, July 4th has spread out to cover the entire seventh month of the year.
The largesse reflects the preference of municipal governments, country clubs and nonprofit organizations – the Big 3 of the fireworks customer base – to commission holiday celebrations in the weeks following Independence Day as well as during the holiday itself. This year, Grucci will hold 28 performances on Long Island alone in July.
And that’s leaving out the growth in Christmas season fireworks displays.
For the Bellport-based company, which began in Italy in the mid-19th century, the bulk of revenue growth in fact comes from sales overseas.
Since taking over as chief executive five years ago, Phil Grucci has emphasized export sales, targeting Asia and the Gulf States.
Fireworks by Grucci produces about 250 shows annually: around 50 internationally, another 200 produced in the U.S. While domestic engagements are still their mainstay, export growth continues to outpace domestic sales. The company’s overseas shows are generally larger and flashier than their U.S. productions, reflecting customer preferences overseas. Gulf states especially demand the spectaculars, which play to global audiences.
Over the past decade, Grucci has handled such global commissions as the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and the grand opening of the Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis Resort in Dubai. They staged the fireworks at the 2012 World’s Fair in Yeosu, South Korea. On New Year’s Eve 2013, the Gruccis lit nearly half a million fireworks above Dubai’s skyline, setting a new world record. In the United Arab Emirates, 2018 began when Christopher launched the largest aerial firework shell in history, a 5-foot-diameter projectile weighing more than 2,400 pounds. A team from the Guinness Book of World Records was on hand to validate both Gulf State records, as were countless video cameras.
It’s very much a family business. Sister Lauren handles photography and promotional tasks for the family business and a cousin, Corey, 34, focuses on the human resource side, helping administer a company with more than 750 pyrotechnicians working around the globe. The three young people are prominent members of the rising sixth generation, a rare experience for a family business. Phil also heads a sister corporation, Pyrotechnique by Grucci, which sells munitions-testing services to Washington.
From its base on LI’s South Shore, the company has spread around the world. Grucci maintains regional offices in Doha, Qatar; Dubai; Liuyang City in Hunan Province, China; and St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Domestically, it has offices in Oahu, Hawaii; Radford, Virginia, for defense contracting and manufacturing; and Las Vegas, in support of the company’s growing casino customer base.
With nearly 170 years of pyrotechnic success, the Gruccis are Bellport’s most famous family. Uncle Felix, known hereabouts as Butch, served a term in Congress from 1996 through 2000. Various relatives are active in community organizations and local businesses. Phil and Debbie enjoy the fare at several local restaurants, and own commercial property on Bellport Lane; the popular Carla Marla’s Ice Cream Parlor and two other small retailers are tenants. Through their family foundation, the Gruccis donate pyrotechnical evenings to several nonprofit organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club of Suffolk County and the local Boy Scouts chapter.
“They’re kind and polite people, courteous commercial landlords, and generous,” says Bellport Mayor Ray Fell. “It’s amazing to think this company got started in Bellport and now does business around the world.”
When their complicated schedules allow, the Gruccis like to kick back at home. Phil, 55, and Debbie, 54, met with Long Island Press contributing editor Warren Strugatch at their stately bayside home for a conversation about how they met, life as a family business, and how they discovered the 8-bedroom, 13-bathroom, 9-fireplace house built in 1917. Excerpts are below.
Warren Strugatch: How did you meet?
Phil Grucci: We met in English class at Longwood High School. This is a historical fact!
Debbie Grucci: I was born and raised in the Bronx. I remember the first time he brought me home to meet his family. There was this small table in his grandparents’ home with maybe 25 people gathered around. Phil was the golden boy in his family.
PG: Come on!
DG: Well, you were! They looked at me like: Is this person good enough for him?
WS: How did he propose?
DG: We had dated for eight years, so he had time to make up his mind. We were heading out to East Hampton for a fireworks display by George Plimpton.
WS: Was this the one at Boys Harbor?
DG: Yes, the one Tony Duke organized every year. As we were heading out, he said: ‘Why don’t we go to Queens and pick up a ring?’
PG: Debbie, you know I would never propose on the 4th of July.
WS: Where did you get started as a family?
PG: We moved next door to my grandmother.
DG: We came from a nice, humble beautiful home that we built up from a one-bedroom cottage. It was initially about 900 square feet. We outgrew that house after our first child. Once Grandma passed away the whole dynamic changed. It was time to find our own grown-up house. This had to be the 20th home we looked at.
WS: What made you decide to buy it?
DG: It felt like a house we could finish growing in and eventually retire in.
PG: We love to entertain. When I saw the billiards room I nudged Debbie and said, “Don’t show the agent how happy I am.”
DG: My parents saw the table. My father said, “Philly, let’s have a game and the whiskey will come out.” Now they live here with us.
PG: We go away for weeks at a time. Someone is always traveling. When we do get home and everybody is here we put the call out so we can get together.
DG: When we were a young family it was Phil’s grandmother who was the family nucleus. The guys would be in the office and the women would be in the pool with the kids or outside in the yard. That’s what I want us to become here: the family nucleus.
TIMELINE: NOTABLE EVENTS
1850: Angelo Lanzetta founds small fireworks company in Bari, Italy
1870: Lanzetta and family emigrate to New York; settle in Elmont
1899: Lanzetta dies. Company ownership passes to son Anthony.
1923: Felix Grucci, Sr., Anthony’s nephew, joins business as apprentice
1929: Family relocates to Bellport
1940: Felix marries Concetta DiDio. Their children are James, Donna and Felix Jr. All three enter family business
1960s: Company consolidates grip on tri-state market
1976: Gruccis produce U.S. Bicentennial celebration
1979: First American family to win Gold Medal at the annual Monte Carlo Internaional Fireworks Competition.
1981: First Presidential inauguration (Ronald Reagan)
1983: Factory explosion in Bellport kills 2 Gruccis, including Phil’s father, James, and injures 24 residents. Cause of blast never determined.
1984: Felix Grucci, Jr (Phil’s uncle) becomes head of company
1986: Statue of Liberty Centennial
1997: Presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton
1999: New Year’s Eve Millennium Celebrations in 12 Time Zones
2000: Felix Grucci, Jr. elected to one term, U.S. Congress (R – E. Patchogue)
2002: Opens missile simulator facility in Radford, VA
2006: Wynn Macau Casino Resort, Grand Opening, Macau, China
2009: Guiness’ 250th Anniversary, Dublin, Ireland
2013: Felix Grucci Jr and Donna (Grucci) Butler retire; Phil Grucci named CEO
2014: Sets Guinness world record of firing nearly half-million shells in six minutes on New Year’s Eve.
2015: 70th anniversary commemorating end of World II
2018: Sets Guinness record for firing largest shell in history