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Bright Lights, Big Business

This Christmas Decor franchisee builds a business by being a real-life Santa's helper.

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Right now, Christmas is still a blip on the radar, loud enough to hear yet far enough away to be manageable. But while the rest of us are still caught up in the impending excitement and frenzy, Jeff Oxley is already moving on. For him, the holiday rush is over.

For the past six years, Oxley's Denver-based landscaping business Swingle Tree and Lawn Co. has been operating a Christmas Decor franchise, hanging lights, garlands and wreaths on homes and businesses. This seasonal add-on, which takes up most of Swingle's attention from October through mid-December, was a great match for a business that doesn't get much garden work during the cold Denver winter.

On October 7, Swingle's army of two-man crews (between 12 and 25 working at a time, depending on the week) begins re-installing lights and other Decor on the homes of existing customers. By getting the re-installs out of the way early, the company has plenty of time to focus on new customers from the middle of November on. "We won't hang any of the daytime decors--the greenery, wreaths and garland--because it's one thing to install lights the first part of October, but when you hang garland and wreaths before Halloween, people get a little upset," says Oxley, 35. "What we do is we'll hold off on hanging the daytime stuff until the middle of November."

Re-installs are sprinkled throughout November, but for the most part it's all about getting new customers. A potential customer will call Swingle to arrange a meeting with a customer service representative, who visits the home and discusses the customer's vision and budget (average contracts run between $500 and $1,200 for product, labor and storage). Once a decision has been made about the Decor, the customer buys all lights and daytime Decor directly from Swingle. Because the franchise stocks all merchandise, the new client's home can be decorated within a day or two.

With their rush season behind them, today the employees of Swingle are doing maintenance on existing Decor, installing lights for new clients, and taking calls from interested customers for both the Christmas Decor and landscaping sides of the business. Though they'll be getting fewer and fewer Christmas jobs as the month rolls on (Oxley says many customers like to have their lights up for Thanksgiving), there are the occasional procrastinators who arrange to have their house decorated on Christmas Eve.

On December 26th, as wrapping paper is being thrown away and leftover ham made into sandwiches, Swingle's crews are already taking down lights, a process that will last through the end of January. The franchise stores everything for its customers, who sign a continuing service agreement with Swingle, basically allowing them to decorate unless otherwise specified, making it easier for the crews to begin re-installs the next year. "We don't give our customers the option to store or not store," Oxley says. "This way, we're in control and can dictate when we can do the lights."

Swingle decorates nearly 800 homes and businesses; some jobs are worth as much as $10,000 and involve 18-foot wreaths and waving Santas. "It's unbelievable. When we got into this business, we never thought people would spend $10,000 to light their residence," Oxley says. "It's crazy, but they know what they're going to get and they're excited about it, and each year they'll add on, too."

All making for another busy Christmas season next October.

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