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Charlie and the Christmas Factory

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Sometime in the 1980s, when Charlie Lenger was a young and eager entrepreneur, running a company that leases and treats indoor plants, she set up a Christmas scene at the Longboat Key Club.

The tree was artificial, for safety reasons. But the attention to detail and wonder of the scene wowed the resort owners. Someone suggested Lenger make Christmas scenes an actual business, not just a one-off thing. Then a budding interior landscaper who had started her own business, Tropex, Lenger didn't hesitate.

“Like every entrepreneur,” she says, “I say yes to everything.”

Three decades later, Lenger has one of the more unique side businesses on the Gulf Coast. Tropex, with around $3.5 million in annual sales and clients statewide, has a separate division that only sets up Christmas scenes. Clients include offices, resorts, country clubs, medical facilities, banks and condo buildings. About half the customers are in Lee and Collier counties, and the other half is split between the Tampa area and Sarasota-Bradenton.

While Tropex itself has more than 1,100 accounts, the Christmas unit has a maximum of 100 customers because of the time involved. For those clients it's Christmas-on-demand: Tropex will deliver and set up everything from lights and poinsettias to wreaths and reindeer. And of course, there's the tree. Some scenes are elaborate, others are more subdued. Clients can choose from six themes.

Lenger and her team of a dozen or so Christmas helpers spend hours on each scene; Christmas unit employees work year-round only on Christmas scenes, from sourcing materials to making trees from scratch.

The only thing Lenger doesn't have time for during the mad rush to set up each display between Thanksgiving and Christmas is rest. Lenger says she picks out 30 outfits to wear for the month the Friday after Thanksgiving and hangs the clothes on the stairs of her house. It's a get-ahead strategy that saves time. Then she gets at it, 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It's insidious,” she says. “It's like going to the mattresses.”

Here are some other highlights of the Christmas scene business:

Lenger gets some of her motivation from her mom, whom she calls a “Christmas fanatic.” Lenger loves the season, too, but the setups can be grueling. Says Lenger: “It's a lot of work, and I don't make a lot of money at it.”

The details come in the scene, and in what surrounds it. “The key to making sure it looks good is the room it's in,” Lenger says. “We don't want people to walk in and say I love the design. We want people to walk in and say 'wow.'”

Tropex Christmas unit employees work year-round on building and perfecting the themes and displays. That includes making the trees, down to the frame, green branches, lights and decor. “You can't buy them sturdy enough,” Lenger says. Some decorations, materials and trees are stored in a warehouse in Estero, while other parts are kept in Sarasota and Tampa.

'Tis the Season
One key to the Christmas business at Tropex lasting for three decades, says head designer Charlie Lenger, is each client gets to choose a new theme every year. Annual themes, Lenger says, provide clients the flexibility to say to people who don't like something that it will be different next year.

“Just like there are many furniture styles, there are many Christmas decor styles,” says Lenger. “People have lots of opinions about Christmas.”

There are six themes a year, with one or two new ones coming and old ones going, and clients can add Chanukah and Kwanza decorations. The themes for 2015 are:

Portofino: soft red, moss green, golden mustard;
Firefly: off-white, crystal and gold;
Tuscany: terra cotta, pear green and pineapple yellow;
Classic: bright red, bright green and bright gold;
Jingle Bells: white with red;
LeRivage: teal, sky blue, cooper and champagne.


The Portofino scene is one of six Christmas themes Tropex designs for clients. Scroll over or click on the image below to explore the scene.

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon


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