Why holiday lighting businesses are a growth industry in the suburbs
Kelly Fitzsimmons is several minutes into a detailed and thorough description of her business when she pauses to state what by now already has become pretty clear.
"You can tell I'm passionate about what I do," she said. "I mean I literally love this because it's the beauty of the eye. The eye just wants to see this beautiful display that doesn't have all the nuts and bolts being revealed."
Fitzsimmons is in the holiday lighting business, one of a growing number of companies that will design, install, maintain, remove and store your home's or business' outdoor -- and sometimes indoor -- holiday lighting.
We're grateful for her time to talk about her business, Light Up Your Holidays, of course, because let's face it, this time of year is prime time in the holiday lighting business, though it is about to slow down. Everyone wants their lights in place well before Dec. 25.
It's why Ben McBurney, owner of It's a Wonderful Light, and his staff are working 50-60-hour weeks, starting early in the morning, with the crews sometimes going until 10 p.m.
"But it's short-lived," McBurney said, noting the snow and cold weather are more difficult to deal with than working after the sun goes down. "You can get through anything in a month, a month or two, and then it slows down."
A different business model
These are not businesses operated out of the back of the owner's T-top car, and they don't just grab a string of lights out of a storage shed and sling them over a tree.
At least not anymore.
Fitzsimmons said her 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Wheeling is "bursting at the seams." McBurney said his 7,000-square-foot warehouse gets pretty filled by the end of takedown season. That's what it takes for McBurney to make about 700 residential and commercial customers happy, including some homeowners associations entranceways and a couple of shopping malls.
McBurney, with an office in Elk Grove Village and an office in Elburn, employs nine crews of three people each plus office employees in each. He runs a flooring business in the lighting "off-season," which works out well because his flooring business slows significantly when cold weather returns to the suburbs.
He started the business in 2009, when he talked to an employee of another company who said they were "super swamped." He created an LLC "and went from there. Started advertising and it slowly has grown.
"I'd say the last four or five years the public knowledge of professional holiday lighting installers has grown, which in turn has made our business grow. I don't think anyone was very aware that there was professional holiday (lighting) installers 10 years ago. The market's definitely growing," McBurney said.
Fitzsimmons started 22 years ago out of the back of her car. She vividly remembers driving from home to home with a "huge" portfolio of designs to show potential customers.
"I would pull up in front of a client's house in my car. I would open up my portfolio on my hood because we were standing out in front of the house, looking at the house and telling them what's possible," she said.
Now she and her team of designers work with clients via Zoom to digitally come up with a design to show homeowners that will make them and their neighbors smile.
"OMG have we come far," she said. "I'm so grateful I don't have to do that anymore. You don't understand, I mean, it's not scalable."
She saves on gas and time, and her health is better too.
"I just remember sitting and eating lots of Cheetos in my car," she said with a laugh, "from stress and boredom and overwhelm."
She got started after meeting a handyman who included putting up holiday lights among his services.
"I just could not stop thinking about that," she said. "Like, I didn't intend to think about that. It was almost like heaven was knocking at my door, but my head, and just saying, 'You're supposed to do this. Do this.'"
She hasn't regretted it, despite all the long, lonely drives while chewing on Cheetos during her early days in the business.
Love the work
Fitzsimmons, who runs a painting company as well, bases her lighting business on her love of colors and design, creating "an elegant, classic holiday look," she said.
"It's always about highlighting the architectural details, not going overboard and then creating a sense of balance, which means if we're decorating the peaks with an outline of lights, how are we balancing the middle portion of the home and also the ground level. And then creating an amazing entrance so the door typically gets a special treatment."
Christmas isn't the only holiday these companies focus on. Halloween is a big one for both, with McBurney mentioning Diwali and birthdays too. Fitzsimmons added Valentine's Day to the list.
But Christmas is the holiday that brings in the most business by far.
And while you might consider putting up and taking down holiday lights a chore, McBurney and Fitzsimmons sure don't.
"It's fun," McBurney said, focusing on the relationships he and his staff have built with clients. "We like doing it. We're putting smiles on faces and hopefully we can continue to do it for years to come."
"I think what's really fun about what I do and why I still love it so, so much is that every house is different and every design is different and that truly if you sit back and you look at what the essence is of Christmas and then what the outdoor holiday lighting is all about, it's about an experience," Fitzsimmons said. "And to me that's the ultimate gift is when you experience something that typically makes you happier or makes you smile or perks you up a bit. It just never gets old."