For most of us, Christmas is something we think about for a month or so. For Wayne Bronner, his family, and his staff, it’s a year-round event in Frankenmuth. In this episode, Wayne shares the history of Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland and the future of Bronner's.
Bronners Christmas Wonderland Website (Click Here)
Bronners of Frankenmuth Facebook Page (Click here)
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:12] Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the call of leadership podcast, where we interview people from our Michigan community who answered the call of leadership. We all hear their stories and get their advice so we can better be better leaders for ourselves, our families and our communities.
I am your host, Cliff DuVernois, and today’s guest. I’m happy to say the president and CEO of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, and that is Wayne Bronner. Wayne. Welcome to the show. How are you?
Wayne Bronner: We are fine! Happy 186 days before Christmas!
Cliff Duvernois: Definitely. And, this episode is going to be so heavily Christmas-themed.
I absolutely love it. So let’s think a little bit, trip back in time you were born and raised in Frankenmuth,
Wayne Bronner: correct.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:55] When did your father start Bronner’s?
Well, my father started at Bronner’s in 1945, really? And it wasn’t a Christmas business. He knew that from working in his father’s trade, which was masonry, that that was not what he wanted to do.
He wanted to be assigned paint or, and a window tremor. So actually the story was he was painting a sign. In Genesis and hardware store. And some people from Clare, Michigan came in and inquired of the owner of the hardware store, whether he had any Christmas decorations for sale. And he said, no, we don’t have anything like that.
Why don’t you talk to the young window trimmer? That was my dad, Wally, at the age of 18. So he painted for the village of Claire, some Christmas panels and they hung them from their lampposts and they were so well received by so many communities, people ask, where did you get those? And they started from a young sign painter down there in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
His name was Wally Bronner, and that was really the start of the Christmas business.
Wayne Bronner: [00:01:48] Excellent. And what was it about. Good. Cause I know you said that was a start, but what do you know what the, what the precipitating thought was that made him say, wow, I can make up a full business out of it.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:00] I think that it was a realization that there was just wasn’t, availability of Christmas decorations on the market.
So he did some exploration, had a survey done and there were very little Christmas decorations available and he capitalized on that. Oh, that’s wonderful
Wayne Bronner: [00:02:17] Cause I can imagine that probably for a lot of towns or villages when they’re making their Christmas plans, they’re doing it two, three, maybe even four months ahead of time.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:25] They’re planning out a long time in advance.
Wayne Bronner: [00:02:27] Yeah. So probably back then today, it seems like I’m seeing Christmas decorations in September at the stores. So. early.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:34] Yeah, that they do that they certainly do. I know this is a family business cause, your father ran it for a number of years and now you’re at the helm.
What was it that attracted you to sit there and say, I’m going to assume the mantle of the family business and run it myself.
Wayne Bronner: [00:02:49] that’s interesting. I was actually a wildlife biologist for him for about 10 years. I worked for the Michigan department of natural resources started in 1974.
And in 1983, I came up here to join the business because I assumed that it was going to be a very viable undertaking. So as a tremendous business and it’s growing steadily throughout the years.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:09] What made you decide to go into wildlife biology?
Wayne Bronner: [00:03:12] Well, I was a young boy and I was just destined to be a wildlife biologist.
So that’s what I became.
Cliff Duvernois: Excellent. And where did you study?
Wayne Bronner: I studied at Michigan State University and got my degree in wildlife biology. And I went from taking care of whitetail deer to taking care of Rudolf.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:29] Excellent. And when you started getting back into the family business? Was this something where you just said to yourself, you know what, one day I am going to take this over?
What was the transition plan like? what was your training for that? Going from biology to retail is quite a leap.
Wayne Bronner: [00:03:46] It’s quite a, quite a stretch, but, it’s a natural occurrence, and really working with my father here that was a tremendous training exercise. He was a dedicated man, a very Christian man, and he had to have a good philosophy about Bronner’s.
And in 1997, he made the transition that we took over for the family business. I became the president/CEO and my sisters became the vice presidents. And then my dad went to heaven in 2008 and we’ve been running Bronner’s ever since.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:18] Can you share with us what your father’s philosophy was?
Wayne Bronner: [00:04:21] His philosophy was every guest is a visitor and no matter, what their role in life is, everybody has tremendous value. I really saw that in particular, on international trips. He didn’t know the language in a lot of countries, but he would just have the urge to get people to smile.
So it might be in an elevator. I might be a vendor and so forth and he would go through his gyrations here to get them to smile.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:48] Right. And when you’re doing these international travels, was there anybody that gave you kind of any odd looks when you said we’re going to have a Christmas store? That’s just open 360, some odd days every single year?
Wayne Bronner: [00:05:00] They liked to take our orders. So they knew where we were good as cash.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:05:04] because money always talks. Excellent. What do you think it is about having a Christmas store year round, like in the middle of July, when not very many people are thinking about Christmas, but yet your store still attracts a lot of people? What is, what is it that you think that, that draws people to Bronner's?
Wayne Bronner: [00:05:21] I think people have a positive association with Christmas. When you think about it, there’s really nothing negative about Christmas. It’s all about positive interactions with friends, family, relatives, and so forth.
And it brings out the best in people and they like to share it all year long.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:05:36] Yeah. Excellent. Do you have any particular memories from your family that you think about when you’re walking through Bronner’s or anything that you would like to share?
Wayne Bronner: [00:05:47] It’s a business of Christmas and all of a sudden it hits me about three days before Christmas.
There’s a personal side of Christmas also. So we think about the personal Christmases as we celebrated and our traditions. We like to go to my parents’ house and always my grandma, my mother, I should say grandma from our boy’s perspective. And we go to her house on Christmas Eve and we sang Christmas carols and just sat and kind of celebrated and enjoy each other’s company.
Cliff Duvernois: Excellent. This is something that you’ve just done year after year?
Wayne Bronner: We would then; year after year. It’s a tradition.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:20] Excellent. When. When you’re talking about having the store open and the people are coming in and visiting, has there been any, like, what are, like, what are some of the countries? Cause I know you’re, you’re known throughout the world.
What are some of the countries that, maybe have surprised you, that people have been here to Bronner’s
Wayne Bronner: [00:06:36] We have a lot of people that come to international people, people from around the globe actually. And probably one of the more surprising things is people from Muslim countries and Hindu countries. And they come here to see what Christmas is all about.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:51] And they’d come here to experience it.
Wayne Bronner: [00:06:53] Right, right. Yeah. Cause they know we celebrate Christmas and they want to see what’s involved in celebrating Christmas.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:59] On your floor, you have Christmas decorations, literally from around the globe.
What was the idea of transitioning Bronner’s from purely focusing as an American holiday versus like a global holiday? Like, if I want to go out and get an ornament from France, I can find it on your floor. So, what was the idea of transitioning that to an international store?
Wayne Bronner: [00:07:22] Well, we buy 50,000 different items and trims. That’s what you’re going to see in our floor. And we have about a change of a third of those items every year. So if we source internationally from around the globe and buy a variety of Christmas decorations and people, you never know where they’re from, but, they like to see the Christmas decorations that are capitalizing on their country.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:07:44] Has anyone ever walked up to you and said, I am from X country and I can’t believe you have this ornament from my country here.
Wayne Bronner: [00:07:51] We get that a lot. Yeah. That’s quite surprising. A lot of people don’t know that Christmas decorations are made in their country and when they find them here at Bronner’s are quite intrigued.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:01] I bet. And that probably gets you a lot of publicity out on social media and everything else when people are snapping photos. Yeah.
Wayne Bronner: [00:08:07] That’s true. Yeah. The social media has been very good to us.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:10] How many people actually come through?
Wayne Bronner: Bronner’s is very busy. we see about 2 million visitors per year as well.
We calculate him.
Cliff Duvernois: Wow, excellent. Has there been anybody for you being the president and CEO of the company and the training that you learn? Has there been anybody that has inspired you as a leader?
Wayne Bronner: [00:08:29] Yeah, probably my father, I actually, because he was the originator of Bronner’s and he had never had any idea that it was going to grow to be the world’s largest Christmas store. In fact, he was just happy to get out of the masonry business, like I mentioned earlier, so he was assigned trimmer, assigned painter, I should say, in a window trimmer.
And he. Capitalize on the Christmas business. So I, I follow his lead tremendously and he, he emphasize also that Christmas is a very sacred time. It’s about the birth of Jesus Christ and we should never forget that. And if you come into Bronner’s, it’s pretty obvious what we believe
Cliff Duvernois: [00:09:06] Is there any perhaps piece of advice that your father gave you that you still use to this day?
Wayne Bronner: [00:09:14] He did. The advice is to 'treat everybody the same and treat everybody well.' So people come from a wide, wide variety of distances, and no matter whether somebody comes from the local town of Tuscola, or if they come from far away, Saudi Arabia or China and so forth, treat them all the same.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:09:34] And have you ever sat back and just marveled at the fact that you’ve got 2 million people that are coming through the door? Like how in the world did this ever happened?
Wayne Bronner: [00:09:45] It’s really amazing. When you think about it, Frankenmuth only has a population of 5,000 people. So to attract 2 million visitors per year, that’s really quite unique.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:09:54] Yeah, it definitely is. With regards to, with regards to your, with your job, has there ever been a time where somebody has, walked up to you and, and has said, you know, wow, what you’re doing here has, has really impacted my family or really brought back a special memory. Has anybody shared anything like that with you?
Wayne Bronner: [00:10:14] we hear that all the time.
So a lot of times when we’re particularly busy, I’d like to spend a lot of time out there on the floor. And my father will tell the stories. He knew the grandparents and I knew the parents and knew the grandchildren so forth. So he’s known them for a long, long time and people find it a tradition to come up to Bronner’s and come to Frankenmuth to experience it.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:10:37] Is there any particular, one story that stands out to you?
I can’t think of one, but we’ve heard it repeatedly that it Bronner’s has really has an impact on, on people.
Sure. Excellent. Yeah. Cause I know that there’s a lot of families and, and I was actually part of that, this last year with my fiance, they have a, every single year they’ve gotten a tradition.
They pile up everybody in the family and they come over here and the, well, the young ones aren’t all young anymore, but you know, sitting on Santa’s lap and getting her picture taken and, and everything else. What do you, what do you think it is about the, the Bronner’s that people actually make traditions around coming here?
Wayne Bronner: [00:11:12] I think what they like to see as small town atmosphere, actually, I would describe myself as being part of Ozzie and Harriet culture and the younger people they say who were Ozzy and Harriet. So they don’t know, but it really it’s a small town environment and the town is doing very well and people like to experience it.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:11:31] And speaking of a small town, is there any particular reason why your father decided to build the store here in Frankenmuth?
Wayne Bronner: [00:11:38] He was a Frankenmuth native, and it was the logical place to build a store.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:11:42] he has a very short commute to work every day.
Wayne Bronner: [00:11:44] of course the success of Zehnders and Bavarian Inn two of the largest restaurants in the world, actually, and then Bronner’s being the world’s largest Christmas store.
So we're known as the big three of Frankenmuth.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:11:56] So I do want to make sure that we talk about this, that with regards to COVID-19 and everything being shut down and closed, you’ve just recently reopened
Wayne Bronner: [00:12:08] We opened on June 10th
Cliff Duvernois: [00:12:09] does have June 10th with regards to, you know, people coming out. And, obviously I think if anybody needs Christmas spirit, now, it’s just about everybody on the planet after being trapped in a home for months. What are some of the, what are some of the policies and procedures that you have in place that people can come and enjoy your store? Be able to kind of like experience that little bit of Christmas, but yet be able to keep their family safe.
Wayne Bronner: [00:12:31] Yeah, that’s a good question. So Frankenmuth is a good outing and it’s a very safe place we pride ourselves on safety and all of the governor’s ms. Stipulations on a governor’s orders are followed.
And we followed the CDC guidelines in effect, and we follow also the Saginaw County department of health and my OSHA. So all of those are in fact, an effect, and visitors wear a mask. So we highly encourage them to wear masks and you’re going to see a lot of plexiglass. We’re very good customers of plexiglass.
So the plexiglass shooting protects. People from leading and, and I, and our high traffic areas. And we have hand sanitizers throughout the store. And in addition, we have these buttons here that urge people to keep a six-foot distance here. So we have a wide variety of protections
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:20] Excellent. And what are you doing to help spread the word that Bronner’s is back open again?
Wayne Bronner: [00:13:27] Well through social media primarily. Yeah. Yes. Yeah. Man. People come to visit Frankenmuth and they like a good outing. They’ve been cooped up for a long time and they want to get out. It’s a good time of year to do it.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:39] when the COVID-19 was first coming around. And you guys made the decision to actually close down. Bronner’s probably before the governor issued the stay-at-home order,
Wayne Bronner: [00:13:47] we were closed about a week before hand. Yes.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:50] What was it like to make that decision? I mean, you’re, you know, a lot of, like you said, a lot of people come here. A lot of people, you know, this is, you know, someplace to them to recapture memories. What was it like to actually say, sorry, we have to close our doors?
Wayne Bronner: It was quite unique. So that was the first time in over our 75-year history that we’ve actually had to close.
So that was a sad occasion. And we’ve been closed now for the better part of three months,
Cause you’re only closed a few days of the year. If I
Wayne Bronner: [00:14:16] 300 open you’re open 361 days a year.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:14:19] And then you were closed for almost three months. Yeah.
Wayne Bronner: [00:14:21] Right. We were closed for three months.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:14:24] Yup. And then during that time, what was the attitude amongst your staff? Cause I know a lot of people, I mean, it impacts people’s ability to go out and shop, but it also impacts people’s jobs as well. So what was your reaction from the staff when, when you had to stand up and say, look, this is, this is the right thing for us to do.
Wayne Bronner: [00:14:40] They understood they, and they were logical. We had the governor’s order records and it was mandated that we close and we would want to close anyhow because of the pandemic.
So it was a situation where people got unemployment and they capitalized on that. And it was a very unfortunate situation. We have a lot of dedicated people here, the average January of our CFR supervisors and our managers is over 20 years. So got a lot of, a lot of experience
Cliff Duvernois: [00:15:12] that is impressive. What is the, what is the culture like here that makes people want to stay for so long?
Wayne Bronner: [00:15:18] they, they tell us that it’s a great place to work, so we’ve never worked elsewhere. And it’s, it’s really encouraging to see that in our staff.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:15:27] I guess you got a point there cause it’s kind of hard to walk away from Christmas.
Wayne Bronner: [00:15:30] Christmas all year long is bereaved positive.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:15:33] Yes. Yes, it is the. Within Frankenmuth and especially with, with Bronner’s and the reopening of your store, how closely have you been working with the city to, you know, help get the message out that’s out there to make sure that you’re complying with all the regulations? What is, what is that relationship like?
Wayne Bronner: [00:15:53] The, chamber of commerce actually has done a tremendous job. They have a unified effort here, a unified force for representing Frankenmuth and we’ve partaken of that. almost literally. And you’ll kinda see a lot of Frankenmuth-oriented stickers on the floor and throughout their, throughout their establishment.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:16:12] When I actually came in today for the interview, there’s a sign that’s hanging on your door out here at the South entrance, probably on all of your entrances, but that sign that’s hanging out there.
I’ve actually seen that on almost every single restaurant. That I’ve walked into in Frankenmuth. So yeah. When you say that there’s, there’s a real concerted effort going on there certainly is.
Wayne Bronner: [00:16:30] Yeah. We want to represent Frankenmuth as one entity.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:16:33] Hey, everyone, cliff here don’t go anywhere just yet. Coming up. Wayne is going to share with us as future plan for Bronner’s, how they brought Bronner’s into the internet age and where in the world they get all these lovely Christmas decorations. But first, let’s take a moment and thank our sponsors.
Excellent. Okay. What is your plan for, for Bronner’s going into the future?
Wayne Bronner: [00:18:02] to keep things going and keep things on a steady track? So we’ve been successful, been blessed for many, many years, and we want to continue to be blessed for many years, going into the future.
So we really don’t have anything serious, any, any change in dynamics and so forth. We have expanded, we have an internet presence and a catalog presence. A lot of people aren’t aware of that. We’re going to peak out about 750 people on the payroll every year. And about 200 of those who work on the fulfillment end of things.
And they’re shipping out orders and so forth all across the United States and around the world.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:18:36] Wow. And you’re right. Cause I didn’t even think about the fact that you guys have an online catalog.
Wayne Bronner: [00:18:40] Yes, we do. We, actually print about 3 million catalogs per year. In addition to an online presence.
we mailed them to likely prospects. Let’s say it’s, Well Sacramento, California, and it’s, right after labor day. And the last thing on their mind is Christmas.
Kids are back in school and they’re playing soccer and so forth. All of a sudden the catalog comes through the mailbox. Hmm. That’d be good for uncle Jim. And this was perfect. Fran Biddy and so forth. So they place their orders accordingly.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:19:06] Well, that still cracks me up thinking about Chrysalis in the middle of the summer. Well, that’s cool. That’s great. Then, with regards to this being a, literally like a multigenerational business. Is there any of your kids that are thinking about one day, they’re going to, they’re going to take over working here.
Wayne Bronner: [00:19:23] Yeah. We actually have the third generation involved. That’s my son Dietrich. He’s 40 years old right now and has been working with us for probably 10 years.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:19:32] Excellent. And this is trulya multigenerational business, right? Oh, that is so cool. When you’re working with Dietrich on the floor, what are some of the things that you share with him about the philosophy of running a successful business?
Wayne Bronner: [00:19:47] Well, the answer is that visitors spend a lot of money to come here.
They’re coming by and large from the suburbs of Detroit. So they’ve given us a whole day of their time and many miles to drive to get here. And they walk through our door to choose from 50,000 different things, not one of which they need, but a lot of which they want. So we have to constantly keep that in mind.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:13] Right. Excellent. And with your, with your inventory, cause I know you said before about maybe approximately about a third of your inventory
correct? We change every year,
Wayne Bronner: [00:20:22] you change every year.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:23] What is it that drives your decision about what types, of Christmas memorabilia to have in the store?
Wayne Bronner: [00:20:29] Take a look at what’s on the market.
What’s hot and so forth and change accordingly.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:34] Oh, my excellent. are there any places that you, that you particularly look at? Like if, if you know you’re going out there and doing your research, is there a particular store, or do you have people that pay attention to social media?
Wayne Bronner: [00:20:45] Yeah. We travel around the globe.
So it’s, it’s a matter of perception and so forth, taking all the thoughts and all the reactions as over worth and putting them all together and making our buying decisions accordingly.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:20:57] And that has got to be the funniest job in the world, traveling the world to see how people are thinking about spending Christmas and what they’re, what they’re doing, what they’re buying.
Wayne Bronner: [00:21:05] That’s true. He asked, well, where are you go to European show? It’s called Christmas world is in Frankfurt, Germany, and people come from around the world to exhibit their wares there. So we do a lot of shopping in Frankfurt, Germany and we go to Asia as well. And, domestically, we go to Atlanta. That’s a huge, huge, market.
There’s a lot of, a lot of merchandise available for sale and we pick up our Christmas decorations there.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:31] Excellent. So between Atlanta, Frankfurt, and Asia, which is interesting. Well, I know that Asia is like the heart of manufacturing, but as far as like Christmas stuff goes, that’s actually interesting that Asia has a big trade show.
Wayne Bronner: [00:21:46] now we’re large enough. Actually, we go to the individual suppliers. So rather than buying through middlemen and so forth, we buy direct.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:55] Oh, I understand how
Wayne Bronner: [00:21:56] you’re going right to the factories. So there’s no just-in-time delivery for Christmas items, we have to order by the container.
But if you want a Christmas license so forth, they’re all made in Asia.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:06] Nice. Okay. The. The festival that’s in Frankfurt. How big is that?
Wayne Bronner: [00:22:12] That’s probably one of 12 buildings. The length of that, the complex is probably three-quarters of a mile. So it’s a very big, big show.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:22] How long does it take you to go through all that?
Wayne Bronner: [00:22:24] Now we have about three days and we have many different buyers and so forth that we take along for the trip.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:30] Holy sweet Moses. And then from there, that’s how you make your decision about what you’re going to stock on the shelves.
Wayne Bronner: [00:22:35] correct. We do a lot of buying over there. Yes.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:38] Excellent. Then, wow. And you said about a third of your staff is dedicated just to fulfillment and warehouse
Wayne Bronner: [00:22:45] about 200 people he asks.
Yeah, we ship. There’s days that UPS will pick up four to 5,000 packages.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:52] Sweet Moses. And is that all done here on the property or do you have a separate
Wayne Bronner: [00:22:57] That’s all done right here, right here. And we have a call center. We have 36 operators and so forth. They’re just aggressive and they were kind of take your call.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:23:05] Wow. That really is impressive. If, people want to follow what it is that you’re doing, or, you know, learn more about Bronner’s or whatever it is, what would be the best way for them to do that
Wayne Bronner: [00:23:18] Probably you’ll go on our website. You’re going to pick up a good flavor of browner. Bronner’s is all about there are many different facets on there, so you can get a good experience of, what Bronner’s involves.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:23:28] Excellent. And for our audience, we will have those links in the show notes down below Wayne. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Wayne Bronner: [00:23:35] It’s been my pleasure.