Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Mailroom Clerk Becomes Clinton's Favorite Christmas Decorator

Christopher Radko Story

Janet Adams is giddy with excitement. She had trekked all the way from New Hope, Ala., to Bloomingdale's flagship store in Manhattan and made sure she was the first in line to have her newest silver-sleigh ornament signed by its designer, Christopher Radko. "I just can't wait to meet him," Adams says, clutching her shiny bauble -- tag on and still in the box.

She has been collecting the coveted hand-painted glass baubles for more than a decade and this season decided to set up a separate 12-foot Christmas tree just for "my Radkos." And she's far from alone. In his 20 years as an ornament maker, Radko has inspired a loyal following for whom December is the time to showcase.

Radko, 44, has fans around the world, including Oprah Winfrey and Robert DeNiro. Former President Bill Clinton even had him decorate the mantle at the White House. By the late 1990s, the popularity surrounding Radko's ornament empire was so huge that he seemed poised for potential burnout. His delicate glass ornaments and their famous glitter detailing, which send some shoppers into a frenzy, could have easily gone the way of Tickle Me Elmo and other "must-haves" of past seasons.

But it's his knack for personalizing the Radko brand -- with signings and public appearances, high-quality workmanship, and a focus on what he calls the "emotional side" to collecting his creations -- that has allowed this self-made ornament king to turn a holiday trend into a beloved tradition that has lasted nearly 20 years.

He got the idea for his business back in 1984, when he insisted on replacing his family's old rusty Christmas tree stand with a newer aluminum one. The stand gave way, the tree fell over a week before Christmas, and Radko was left with the task of restoring the collection of antique, European glass-blown ornaments. He sketched the shattered ornaments as best he could from memory and ultimately traveled back to Europe to scout for ornament makers who could recreate them. It didn't take long for Radko, then a mailroom clerk, to realize there might be a business idea there, too.

Nineteen years and 10,000 designs later, he's in the midst of a cross-country tour, visiting more than 50 locations across the country, including various Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Saks Fifth Avenue stores before Christmas, to sign ornaments and meet his legions of fans.

At Bloomingdale's in New York, the soft-spoken holiday guru, clad in a pumpkin-hued sweater and corduroy blazer, was greeted with applause from dozens of people in line and even a plate of cookies from one fan. The collectors, it seems, enjoy the man as much as his ornaments.

Though many devotees have collections numbering in the hundreds, the ornaments aren't cheap -- around $50 for a medium-sized piece. Long Beach (Calif.)-based retail expert Bob Phibbs says specialty markets thrive on the more expensive items. Resisting the urge to discount, even after almost two decades in business, signals to the customer that they're getting "something unique and of good quality," says Phibbs, author of You Can Compete: Double Sales Without Discounting.

Listen to the designer's fans, and and you'll hear the "emotional side" that Radko speaks of. One woman in line at Bloomingdale's found a portly red ornament of a chef in a pearl-white apron for her restaurant-owner son in Portland, Ore., while a New York woman picked out two small snowmen to add to the collection she started for her young twins when they were born.

"Her tree will be like a family diary now," says Radko, who enjoys "recreating [Christmas] in a sparkly way." He currently commissions 3,000 workers in cottage workshops in Poland, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic to make the ornaments, along with 108 corporate employees.

"The collectors...they go crazy for this stuff every year," said Chris Wang, a sales associate at Macy's in San Francisco, one of over 2,500 Radko retailers across the globe.

The author of three holiday decorating books, Radko added dozens of new ornaments in this season's collection and rolled out a line of dinnerware and chocolates as well. Revenues reportedly have exceeded the seven-figure mark, a vast improvement from the $75,000 he made back in 1986, with just 65 ornament designs. Demand for earlier models continues to rise year after year. His 1993 "Partridge in a Pear Tree" ornament, originally priced at $38, has sold on the secondary market for as much as $1,000.

Next up, he plans to further address the male market by adding more retailers like Brooks Brothers. But for the most part, Radko will keep with the same formula that has worked for the past 20 Christmases "because tradition is what I depend on." For Radko and his fans, it really is the most wonderful time of the year.