Insights on Selling Fireworks from a Retail Veteran

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September 15, 2021
Insights on Selling Fireworks from a Retail Veteran

In this episode, listen to Chris & Dave interview Debbie Gord, president of Thunder Fireworks Inc in Tacoma Washington.  Listen to the crew discuss the challenges and opportunities related to starting and running a fireworks business.

Dave Guccione:

Welcome to Get Loud with Black Cat Fireworks. With your host, Chris Noland and Dave Gooch Guccione.

Chris Noland:

Welcome to Get Loud with Black Cat Fireworks. I’m Chris Noland, VP of marketing here at Black Cat, along with the world famous video poker player and director of sales at Winco Fireworks, Dave Gooch Guccione.

Dave Guccione:

And you didn’t say degenerate gambler either on that. So I think the description was not complete.

Chris Noland:

They go hand in hand.

Dave Guccione:

Well, Yeah. So anyway, Chris, how you doing? We’re back.

Chris Noland:

Good man, we’re back. Episode four.

Dave Guccione:

Absolutely. After the season we’ve survived.

Chris Noland:

We survived, barely.

Dave Guccione:

I don’t know if I have any fireworks to sell, but we’ve survived.

Chris Noland:

Yeah, we did survive and it was a good season.

Dave Guccione:

It was a great season. We were very, very fortunate.

Chris Noland:

Yep. Well, today we’ve got the world famous, the one and only, Dynamite Debbie from Thunder Fireworks.

Dave Guccione:

Yes.

Chris Noland:

Yes.

Debbie Gord:

Thank you.

Chris Noland:

How are you doing today, Debbie?

Debbie Gord:

Good. How are you?

Chris Noland:

Good.

Debbie Gord:

Thanks for having me, Chris and Gooch.

Chris Noland:

Yeah, this is fun, isn’t it?

Debbie Gord:

I got my Fireworks and Fireballs shirt on just for you.

Chris Noland:

Have you started the fireball yet? Or is that… It’s, almost noon, 45 minutes to noon. So we still have 45 minutes until Fireball, right?

Debbie Gord:

Yeah, exactly. No, I hold that until at least five o’clock tonight.

Chris Noland:

Yeah. Fireball’s dangerous. I don’t like Fireball.

Dave Guccione:

Yeah. We’re kind of going in when we were recording this, it’s Labor Day weekend, and historically for fireworks people, Labor Day weekend is sort of the end of the season before we start up in the Fall and I just don’t want to be over served this weekend basically so, okay.

Chris Noland:

Just focus on not being over served and it’d be good.

Dave Guccione:

Absolutely.

Chris Noland:

Any video poker plans?

Dave Guccione:

No video poker, a concert tonight and hanging out with friends the rest of the time. So I’ll be not degenning this weekend.

Debbie Gord:

No fireworks?

Dave Guccione:

Oh, tomorrow night, possibly. Yeah. Fireworks tomorrow night. That’s right. There we go.

Debbie Gord:

Yeah, fireworks tomorrow night.

Dave Guccione:

That’s right. We can see some new 2022 stuff I think. And some other stuff, anyway.

Chris Noland:

Where’s this at? I haven’t heard about this.

Dave Guccione:

You were invited.

Chris Noland:

Yeah, I know. I’m well aware. Anyway, well it’s good seeing you, Debbie.

Debbie Gord:

I can invite you Chris.

Chris Noland:

Thanks. I appreciate it.

Debbie Gord:

You’re more than welcome.

Chris Noland:

I’m just never included. That’s the way it works.

Dave Guccione:

Well, let’s talk to Debbie, Chris.

Chris Noland:

Yes, let’s do so.

Dave Guccione:

So I guess we could start off with me, and Debbie and I met before I was in the fireworks business. I was working for Hot Topic and my wife was doing some research on her company and I had a couple of hours off and I was in the Sea-Ta, Seattle Tacoma area and being the guy from California who was so fascinated with fireworks. First thing I was going to do was go check out the Black Cat dealer in the Seattle area. So I got in my rental car and went out to Tacoma and ran into Debbie and we met and she was wondering why was this guy from Hot topic in my office asking a lot of questions, right? And I think I might’ve been trying to pitch a T-shirt to you or something, correct?

Debbie Gord:

Yeah. You were. And I thought, “Wow, he’s amazing.”

Dave Guccione:

I think you said, “You’d be a really good fireworks salesman.” I’m like, “Yeah. So the next career move here.” I drove back to the store thinking maybe I could sell some fireworks. Anyway, but it was great meeting Debbie, I was so excited. I think I got back to my hotel room and I called my wife and I said, “Hey, I met this really cool lady that sold fireworks named Debbie.” And of course she knew of you through some sort of research or whatever. And then obviously you guys became friends after that through APA and everything else. But I remember I was so excited. Of course I get excited easily. But it was really, really neat. And for me actually, you were the very first person in the fireworks business I ever called on.

Debbie Gord:

Really?

Dave Guccione:

Yes, I guess informally, because I wasn’t really selling anything yet, but that was my first sales call. And I went back to my old sales routes. So that’s how Debbie and I met back, mid nineties.

Debbie Gord:

That’s really cool. And I think maybe I was buying T-shirts from your wife at the time?

Dave Guccione:

I think it was before she was in business. I was doing the groundwork to figure if we had a company yet, but I was pitching stuff that I didn’t have, which is typical of me.

Chris Noland:

Very fitting these days.

Dave Guccione:

Rock T-shirt, fireworks T-shirt, I could sell it, no problem.

Debbie Gord:

Yeah. But I remember when you walked into my office and you just had that energy, like a fireworks person has.

Dave Guccione:

Well, I think I was probably a better fireworks person at that point than I was a music business person, for sure. So I was only thinking about fireworks most of the time.

Debbie Gord:

And here we are 35 years later, still selling fireworks.

Dave Guccione:

And we’re still doing it, which is amazing, which is awesome. Awesome.

Chris Noland:

I don’t know how you did it without Red Bull around. Oh, it wasn’t around then, I don’t think.

Dave Guccione:

No, not yet.

Chris Noland:

Energy drinks weren’t kind of the thing yet.

Dave Guccione:

Yeah, that was a few years later, I think. But I was younger.

Chris Noland:

That’s true. Much, much younger.

Dave Guccione:

Much younger.

Debbie Gord:

How many years later did you get in the fireworks biz?

Dave Guccione:

Actually, I started on June 3rd, 1998. I know exactly when I did it. And I remember when I walked into the CEO’s office at Hot Topic and I told him I was going to get in the fireworks business. He thought I lost my mind, number one. And he goes, “You mean those places in New Mexico where I’m driving my Harley and they have these big tents, you’re going to do that?” I said, “Well kind of, but in California they have these little 24 foot fireworks stands.” And he goes, “You’re looking to leave this incredible company where you’re…” I guess you could say I was a little powerful at the time and my position. And I said, “Yeah, I want to sell fireworks.” He thought I lost my mind. 20 plus years later, I’m still selling fireworks. So I guess I’ve still lost my mind.

Chris Noland:

Every day.

Dave Guccione:

Every day, every day.

Debbie Gord:

Well, the business isn’t for everybody that’s for sure. You got to have some thick skin to stay in this business.

Chris Noland:

How’d you get started, Debbie? When did you get started and how’d you get started?

Debbie Gord:

Boy, it was in the eighties, through my husband. My husband had some firework stands.

Dave Guccione:

Ted Gord.

Debbie Gord:

Yep, the famous Ted Gord. Teddy’s toy. And that’s how I started, he introduced me to the world of fireworks and here we are 40 years later.

Dave Guccione:

Amazing.

Debbie Gord:

I remember one of the first years when we imported our first container of fireworks. I borrowed some money from a friend.

Dave Guccione:

Oh, wow.

Debbie Gord:

Brought that container, and a competitor actually told me where to go buy the fireworks. Borrowed all this money from a friend, got my first container, sold it in one day. It was amazing.

Dave Guccione:

That’s amazing. Do you remember what that container cost back then?

Debbie Gord:

Yeah, 5,000? No, it was probably $15,000 landed.

Dave Guccione:

Right. 15 grand.

Debbie Gord:

Yeah. I have my original order. My very first order to China still on thermal paper.

Dave Guccione:

That’s awesome.

Chris Noland:

Wow.

Debbie Gord:

A hundred cases of Black box.

Dave Guccione:

That is amazing.

Debbie Gord:

And do you remember the item, air travel, the original air travel with the paper fuse?

Dave Guccione:

Yes.

Debbie Gord:

I remember when we had to go to the green fuse and I kept a case of that.

Dave Guccione:

Of the paper fuse?

Debbie Gord:

Yes.

Dave Guccione:

That’s cool.

Debbie Gord:

I can’t find it.

Dave Guccione:

If you bring it to the pyro swap meet and you’ll probably get good offers for it.

Chris Noland:

Yeah, you’d sell them all.

Debbie Gord:

I remember the paper fuses.

Dave Guccione:

Oh yeah. Firecrackers had paper fuses back in the day too, so yeah, crazy.

Debbie Gord:

Yeah. You go back years ago, you remember back in the days when we didn’t even have to placard our trucks. We were on the dangerous placards. Then we went to the United Nations, went to the 1.4 G everybody had to have CDLs and hazmat licensing. And going through the steps through the years, see a lot of changes in our industry, more regulations.

Dave Guccione:

I think really more, it seemed a lot of it showed up around the early 1990’s. 1980’s seemed like still wild, wild west. And then all the wild, wild west people had a whole decade during the nineties to kind of get out of the wild, wild west. Because by the time 2000’s came around, pretty much you had to be compliant. It seemed like it still.

Debbie Gord:

Right. Exactly. And we’re still… Yeah. It just gets tougher.

Dave Guccione:

So Ted got you in the fireworks business. I always like asking that question to people like, “How’d you get in?” Because usually it’s either a family member or a friend, rarely I’ve never met anybody that said I went to college, got a business degree and called the fireworks company. I do not know anybody who’s ever done that, with the exception of a family member of somebody in the fireworks business. Other than that, I call them made people, us made people who aren’t a family member. It’s either been, you had a friend or you knew somebody that got you in. And like you mentioned earlier before, either you have the appetite for this business or you’re running as fast as you can away from it. There’s no middle ground.

Debbie Gord:

Exactly, yeah. I’m sure you guys have met the people too, that think that running a Tacoma fireworks stand or a warehouse is pretty easy, but once they get out there, they’re going, “That’s it, I’ll do it one year and I’m done.”

Dave Guccione:

It’s the oldest rumor out there, the guy, “I made a hundred thousand dollars at my tent last year.” But people don’t realize that tent’s been there for 25 years with the same people operating it, and they have built that clientele up. And the reality is it could rain, the weather can knock you out. You could have political issues locally that gets you knocked out. And the bottom line is, you’re camping. That’s really what operating outside of a store environment is, you’re camping. And all of a sudden that lure of money that you heard about through the rumor mill becomes real work. And most people aren’t willing to do the real work.

Debbie Gord:

Right. They don’t realize-

Dave Guccione:

It’s a challenge.

Debbie Gord:

The challenges that can happen, exactly. Just like this year. Look at half the country was hot again, and I’ve been through two droughts in my career and it’s not fun.

Chris Noland:

No, droughts are not fun.

Dave Guccione:

Debbie, how do you plan for a season like that? You know that the information that we get is, we feel we have pretty good information because we’re on the front line. I would say the company that we work for, Winco Fireworks and Black Cat provide probably some of the best information in the industry, but still, this whole thing is a high wire act. And we don’t know stuff until the very end, I think a lot of consumers and a lot of people that might be listening to this podcast just don’t realize that how last minute this industry is, even though we plan for a year, we’re doing stuff that, “Oh, I could’ve been doing that in January.” Well, we really didn’t have an answer until this past weekend or whatever if we could even do that. And that’s the thing, that’s the buzz I get from being in this business. But that’s the real uncertainty about the business too, which doesn’t make it for everybody.

Debbie Gord:

It is. And it’s very devastating. This year being so hot in the area that I sell in, we were looking at I’m selling in my tent and a customer comes up and they go, “You know, you’re looking at getting banned here by five o’clock tonight.” And I go, “What?” Because I’m so busy in the tents selling and taking care of business. I’m not on top of the local news. And he showed me on his phone and so there’s two hour span that I had before I knew if I was being banned or not, my tent’s loaded. I’ve got a trailer unloaded into this one tent alone, not counting all the rest. And I’m thinking, I do not want to pack this stuff up. I do not want to pack this up. My cardboard’s broke down, my employees… It was really scary this year,

Dave Guccione:

There’s just so much out of your control.

Debbie Gord:

And it wasn’t so much the money this year. It was the fact that I’d have to pack all this up.

Dave Guccione:

Time is money. Time is definitely money, but there’s the whole uncertainty of it. And there’s a financial commitment. At the end of the day, there is money involved in all this. And it’s difficult when you feel like you’re going to fail on that level.

Debbie Gord:

Yeah. And a lot of people, they get in the business and they don’t have the money to back it up. No matter what, your supplier needs to get paid.

Dave Guccione:

Shutdowns are no fun.

Debbie Gord:

No, they’re not.

Dave Guccione:

Been there, done that. It’s a business of discipline, for sure. There’s no doubt about it. It takes a lot of different kinds of disciplines sometimes. And of course I try to practice what I preach by barely error deliver on it is, emotion costs you money, and this business can get you emotional. Especially during the season when you’ve only been sleeping four hours a night and all that. And you’re having to deal with some challenges that roll your way. It’s a crazy business, for sure.

Debbie Gord:

Yeah. I was lucky to stay open this year though. That council voted four to three to let us stay open. So right on the skin of our teeth there we got to stay open. And you know what, I still believe that the consumer is more responsible than what our politicians give him credit for.

Dave Guccione:

Yeah.

Debbie Gord:

I really do. Being through the droughts that I have, I’ve seen, they might not buy the artillery shell or the multi-shot that shoots up in the air. They’re buying your fountains and little ground spinners and they’re being responsible.

Chris Noland:

It’s dangerous when it’s dry, so they watch out what they do.

Dave Guccione:

So, I think people want to celebrate, and there’s different levels. There’s your patriotic side, then you’ve got your pyros and they’re the ones I get more concerned with because I think sometimes they might not use the best judgment. I’m not saying that about everybody here. I’m going to get a bunch of emails, people are going to start hating on me. But some people get so excited with the fact that they can light some fuses and they don’t necessarily think their situation through and where mom and pop family and whatnot, They’re looking at their surroundings a little bit more. But anyway, no, it’s very difficult when your retail doors are open, you can’t pick and choose what customers are going to come buy your fireworks. And so we can only hope that people will make the right decision and use common sense.

Debbie Gord:

Right, Exactly.

Chris Noland:

Cool.

Dave Guccione:

Cool. Well, Debbie, thanks for coming by.

Debbie Gord:

Yeah. Thanks for having me you guys.

Chris Noland:

Did you have a choice? I don’t think you had a choice, we made you.

Dave Guccione:

I really kind of boss hog this interview here, so Chris…

Chris Noland:

It’s good. No, it’s okay.

Dave Guccione:

You can turn my microphone off next time, Chris,

Chris Noland:

We got to beat battle a lot of things. Cut this down to time.

Dave Guccione:

We’re good. Well, Debbie, thank you so much.

Chris Noland:

Yeah, it was great having you.

Dave Guccione:

And we will talk to you soon, okay.

Debbie Gord:

Okay. Thank you.

Chris Noland:

All right. Well that’s about it. We’re good. Make sure you follow us on social media. Check out blackcatthreads.com if you need some Black cat gear.

Dave Guccione:

And Chris and I will be back with you again next time with Get Loud with Black Cat Fireworks.

Dave Guccione:

Well, that wraps up another Get Loud with Black CaT Fireworks podcast. On behalf of your host, Chris Noland and Dave Gooch, Guccione, go out and lights some fireworks. We will talk to you real soon.