SKOWHEGAN, Maine — In 31 years of selling wreaths and other holiday balsam fir products, Ambrose “Tom” McCarthy Jr. has seen a lot of ups and downs.
The first “down” came in 1979 when he fell from the roof of a two-story building, but it marked the beginning of Central Maine Wreath. McCarthy, who also owns a contracting firm called McCarthy Enterprises, had already been selling Christmas trees and a friend suggested he start making wreaths.
“I couldn’t work,” he said. “I was busted up pretty bad, and I saw this as another way to develop business.”
The enterprise grew. Soon, tons of balsam fir tips were arriving by the truckload and leaving as fragrant Christmas decorations for homes and businesses down the eastern seaboard. In the early 1990s, when McCarthy held wholesale contracts with Avon and Fingerhut, it wasn’t uncommon for Central Maine Wreath to churn out 150,000 items.
“I’ve never been scared of failure,” said McCarthy. “I always figured, if it worked, it worked.”
In September 2001, the World Trade Center crumbled in flames and everything changed. The economy went into a recession and McCarthy lost Avon and Fingerhut. He was heavily invested at the time and says he still has wreath decorations left over from those losses.
He developed a strong base of customers in Louisiana — until Hurricane Katrina blew through in 2005, taking wreath orders with it. Though Central Maine Wreath still sells in Louisiana and beyond through its website, www.centralmainewreath.com, orders are a fraction of what they once were. The wholesale business has continued to decline, now making up about 50 percent of sales when McCarthy said it should be 70 percent. Like a lot of other industries, the business of selling wreaths was happening on a larger and larger scale by mail-order giants such as L.L. Bean and QVC.
“L.L. Bean can afford its big promotions, and in 20 minutes on air, QVC can sell 45,000 wreaths,” said McCarthy.
But this isn’t a story about a business failure. Smaller is the way McCarthy wants it and he said Central Maine Wreath is doing just fine. Customers were arriving regularly as he sat at a table Tuesday in his retail shop with eight orders spread out before him.
“This is the fun part of it, people coming in here and taking things home,” said McCarthy, 67, between instructing employees to gift-wrap a single Blue Royal Wreath for one customer and load a roadside purveyor’s truck with two dozen. “When you mail something out it’s just not the same.”
And besides, he said, the business prides itself on the quality and freshness of its products.
Another thing that keeps the business going is a core of employees who have come back every holiday season for 10 years or more.
“I just like being here,” said Matt Martin of Skowhegan, a floor boss who has been with the company for 10 years. “I left a job that pays $1 more an hour to come work here. People around here are in good spirits.”
It’s easy to maintain a festive attitude when, basically, that’s what you’re selling, McCarthy said. And the rewards are many — ranging from seeing his products prominently displayed throughout Central Maine to a certain look in a customer’s eye. In 1991, McCarthy sent 500 wreaths to troops in the Persian Gulf. One of them arrived on Christmas Eve for a soldier as he was setting up his living quarters. The aromatic wreath spent that Christmas on display in the Iraqi desert.
“The following year, here he was standing in the lobby, all the way from Virginia,” said McCarthy. “He wanted to meet whoever gave him that wreath and say thank you. For me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Central Maine Wreath, at 228 North Ave./Route 150 in Skowhegan, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day until Christmas.