Wally Bronner had a head for business and a heart for Christmas. The founder of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland built his basement sign shop into a thriving retail business and tourist attraction employing more than 600 people in season. Yet even amid the sparkling seas of tinsel, the unflaggingly joyful caroling, and the fuming Greyhound buses, Bronner saw his business as a monument to God, not mammon. He died of cancer on April 1, at age 81.
Bronner was born into a German-speaking family in Frankenmuth, Michigan. In high school he started a sign-painting business, selling at first to local farmers. He also designed window displays, with results so fetching that merchants from larger towns began recruiting him. In 1951 Bronner and his assistant, Eddie Beyerlein, were decorating a window in Jennison Hardware in Bay City, "when two gentlemen came in and asked the clerk if he had anything to hang on light poles for Christmas," recalls Beyerlein, a Bronner employee for 48 years. "The clerk said, 'No, but I bet you the boys in the window can help.' That's how Christmas got started."
With its chapel, Christmas Lane -- a half-mile avenue festooned with 100,000 lights -- and a seven-acre show room with tens of thousands of items, Christmas Wonderland drew streams of journalists to Frankenmuth seeking seasonal features. Bronner further spread the word through billboards -- as many as 80 at one time -- which he deployed as far away as Florida. Even road-dazed drivers couldn't miss the 17-foot-high fiberglass Santas and snowmen flanking the billboards.
Atop this festive empire, Bronner remained an avuncular, small-town businessman, perpetually decked out in red jacket, green tie, and red and green shoes. He was just as forthright about his faith. Into every correspondence, including checks and invoices, Bronner tucked a religious tract; after stepping down as CEO in 1998 he gave as many as 200 presentations a year on Christianity and optimism. "We will never lose his spirit and enthusiasm and purpose of keeping Christ in Christmas," says Bronner's son, Wayne, the CEO since 1998. (Bronner stayed on as chairman.)
Nor is the family business all Bronner leaves behind. Frankenmuth, too, is testament to his marketing skills. The entrepreneur and two other merchants helped the town exploit its Bavarian roots to attract tourists, and their efforts are visible in every Alpine roof and flower box. Furthermore, Wonderland "spawned a lot of little businesses," says Richard Krafft, retired president of Star of the West, a large local milling company. "Those shops would have no reason to be here if Wally wasn't.
"Wally's success was a joyful thing for us," says Krafft. "He kept Christmas alive in this town 365 days a year."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan