Stephen Vitale has learned to build the foundation for Pyrotecnico’s future growth

Pyrotecnico, the fireworks display company, got its start in 1889 when Stephen Vitale’s great-grandfather immigrated to New Castle from Italy. Vitale, representing the fourth generation to lead the business, started at the bottom in his early teens, loading and unloading trucks, cutting grass, painting buildings, helping out on the manufacturing end (when the company still made fireworks) and going out on shows.

When he joined the company full time in 1988, Vitale’s vision was to turn Pyrotecnico into a full-service production company with multiple offerings. So, in 2010, the company got into the special effects business with the acquisition of Entertainment Technology Group. Pyrotecnico now had pyrotechnics, lasers and other effects to punctuate the excitement of major events.

“It was always my vision to do it because, being a fan of music over the years, you’d go to a concert and you’d see pyrotechnics, and you’re like, ‘Well, we could do that,’” says Vitale, the company’s president and CEO.

As Pyrotecnico brought its newfound special effects business into the company fold, it found early success running effects for the Philadelphia Eagles, and soon grew that line beyond professional and collegiate sports. But internally, bringing on the special effects business wasn’t all a celebration. Vitale says it was incredibly disruptive.

“It went from zero to a nice-sized operation in a matter of years, and I believe our firework business, they played second fiddle to it,” he says. “You only have so many resources — time, people, money, equipment. So, it was disruptive.”

While the fireworks business grew, the special effects business grew exponentially. The company’s workforce grew to 10 times the size it had been just about a decade ago, reaching 105 employees in 2019. But being a growth-oriented organization, Vitale says, is not for everyone.

“We lost some good, long-term people that just didn’t believe that it was a good strategy to be in both fireworks and special effects,” Vitale says. “And (they) felt that disruption and just chose to opt out.”

Dividing to conquer

Vitale says that, over the years, he’s made the mistake of leading the company by hitting the gas pedal on growth before having the right resources in place. To work on that, he joined the executive coaching organization Vistage and has been a member more than a decade. Having a peer group of CEOs who are in different industries but who share the same problems and challenges of running and growing an organization has helped him get in front of the predictable obstacles that hinder growth.

With the introduction of the new business line came growth as well as challenges. An early question for the century-plus-old business was whether to treat special effects and fireworks as two separate companies or as one. The decision was made to blend them.

“It was a mistake,” Vitale says.

Blending the two operations didn’t work because the special effects business is very centralized in the way it’s managed and sold, while the fireworks business is decentralized. So, the approach to managing them had to be different.

Vitale eventually split the once-combined businesses so that fireworks and special effects are distinct entities operating as Pyrotecnico and Pyrotecnico Special Effects. That required assembling a leadership team with strong experience that could help take the company to the next level.

“We really focused on putting the right team together that could implement great process, systems and procedures, and standards that can get us to the next level of the organization,” he says.

Vitale says that move brought a sense of relief.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, these people, they’ve done it before,’” he says. “They’re really going to help us get better as an organization.’ And for us, our clients put a lot of faith in us to do good work. So, executing at a high level is incredibly important to us.”

With a leadership team in place, Vitale was able to focus on executing the company’s vision and leading growth, thinking organizationally to ensure that the right team is in place to continue down the road.

Devastating, demoralizing

Continued growth was the expectation until COVID-19 brought live, in-person entertainment to a halt. Pyrotecnico lost 70 percent of its business during 2020.

“It was devastating,” Vitale says. “But we saw it as an opportunity of a lifetime, as well, to get better, to be more relevant, to grab market share where we could.”

Doing that was in part about staying in front of clients. He says COVID made it a lot easier to talk to people. Not only did Pyrotecnico need to stay relevant, a lot of its clients needed to stay relevant, and that broke down a lot of communication barriers that would typically exist with busy clients and prospects.

Internally, Vitale didn’t have to tell his people how bad it was. They knew because hundreds of shows were being canceled on a weekly basis.

“It was incredibly demoralizing,” Vitale says. “They needed me to be the leader, to say, ‘We’re going to get through this. We’re going to be a better organization, and it will end at some point.’ So, we focused on a good, compelling future, as difficult as is it was. I think that set us apart. Our leadership team never believed it was the end, which it could have been.”

Pyrotecnico had to lay off a significant portion of its workforce. Vitale says he lost millions of dollars as a result of keeping a core team in place, but it was critically important because he knew they would be needed once live events could return.

“It was a dark period for me,” Vitale says. “I love growing our workforce and creating opportunities for our people. That’s what really drives me. It was a great leadership team who kept on pounding it into me, saying ‘These are moves that we have to make.’ I kicked and screamed along the way.

“I don’t regret any decisions that we made to keep our workforce. Unfortunately, we had some really good people leave and leave the industry because they just didn’t have the certainty that they needed to move on.”

Being a builder

Through 2020, Vitale says he had to learn to pivot, to be flexible and nimble. That was, in part, because external changes were coming quickly. He says going into a week, the company could have 20 shows booked, and by Friday, it had six.

“Folks were having a very difficult time making decisions for many different reasons,” he says. “So, we had to learn to make quicker decisions. I think that was critically important.”

So far, 2021 looks and feels a lot better. The company has about 85 percent of its workforce back and is seeing revenue levels return at much the same percentage.

This year, it worked the Grammys; with Illenium, a DJ who recently played Allegiant Stadium; the Tampa Bay Lightning during their post-season run; and Lollapalooza, among other high-profile events.

Vitale says the company believes 2022 is going to be a much bigger year, expecting more demand for live shows, with artists feeling more comfortable playing bigger venues in the coming year.

Meanwhile, as his workforce and his business get back on their growth trajectory, Vitale is looking forward to creating opportunities for people personally, professionally and financially.

“It’s what excites me,” Vitale says. “I always thought I wanted to be a builder or an architect. But really what I enjoy is building a company. Growth is what I enjoy doing, and seeing our people grow with the company is incredibly satisfying for me. We believe that building leaders within our organization is going to build future leaders in our community. That’s a good way to give back.

“Communities like New Castle need future leaders. That’s how we believe we can compound not only the growth of our business, but really, the growth of our community.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • Lay the foundation for growth.
  • Find opportunity in disruption.
  • Lean on peers to avoid common obstacles.