Jacob J. Dell became “enamored” with fireworks as a youngster when his father and uncles would conduct Fourth of July shows as part of the local volunteer fire department in Fruitdale, South Dakota.
Dell, 41, later turned that passion for pyrotechnics into a business — Magic in the Sky, a San Antonio fireworks display company that puts on shows at Six Flags Fiesta Texas, a local marine theme park he’s not permitted to name, and elsewhere.
It wasn’t Dell’s first career choice, though. He originally opted for a more tranquil profession — accounting.
Dell attended Texas Lutheran University in Seguin after his father was transferred to Gonzales by his employer. While there, Dell got a job at Six Flags setting up fireworks displays.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance in May 2002 and was set to go to work for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen.
The month after his graduation, however, a jury convicted Arthur Andersen of obstruction of justice for destroying evidence related to the collapse of Houston energy company Enron Corp. The accounting firm ceased operations later that summer.
So Dell attended business school at the University of Notre Dame instead.
He eventually returned to Texas with an MBA in hand and went to work as an accountant for Valero Energy Corp., where his duties included providing statistical modeling of oil futures prices.
Putting on fireworks shows was a side gig for Dell while he worked at Valero, but when an opportunity arose to make it his full-time occupation, he took it.
Jacob J. Dell, owner of San Antonio pyrotechnics company Magic in the Sky, had planned on making a career in accounting but later made putting on fireworks displays his occupation.
Ronald Cortes /Contributor
Dell recently discussed his career transition to pyrotechnics, the ins-and-outs of the business and COVID-19’s toll on the fireworks show industry. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Tell me how you started your pyrotechnics company.
A: I went to college at TLU over in Seguin. But as part of that process, I had the opportunity to start working at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio. That started the relationship with the park. The other thing that happened was the Safe Explosives Act was passed as a consequence of the activities that took place on 9/11. That made the fireworks industry a lot more regulated. And so a lot of companies chose to exit the business. That created opportunities.
I had always enjoyed fireworks and was doing the Fourth of July program for a local theme park as a part-time activity. The opportunity became available as the theme parks decided they did not want to do these programs internally anymore, but wanted to subcontract them out. It just created a great opportunity.
So in 2007, I formed my own fireworks company. We specialized in theme park shows. Our first contract was with Fiesta Texas. As that developed, we just became more sophisticated and grew the business. Eventually we purchased a fireworks manufacturing plant in Belgrade, Minnesota, so that we were able to manufacture product as well, rather than simply import it.
Q: Do you work exclusively with theme parks?
A: No. We do a wide variety of activities. But we do kind of specialize in nightly theme park shows. We participate, obviously, here in San Antonio with Six Flags. We do Busch Gardens in Tampa. An Orlando theme park. We also do what you would call more of your municipal, country-club style shows. San Antonio New Year’s, as an example. Various cities in different states.
Are all of your fireworks from your Minnesota plant?
A: We used to get 100 percent of our product from China. But as we developed manufacturing capabilities, that ratio has changed to about a 70-30 split (with the larger portion from China). Actually, I would say more 60-10-30. We import (10 percent) from Portugal, Japan, Germany, other countries as well now. So we have a little more diversified supply chain. There’s also a couple of U.S. manufacturers that we purchase small quantities of material from for indoor fireworks. It’s been fantastic, obviously, to have our own manufacturing facility.
A: I don’t know if you hear about supply chain disruptions or issues related to COVID in importing from China, but it’s been a very difficult couple of years receiving products from China. Obviously, for manufacturing them ourselves in the United States, the vertical integration provides opportunity for us where we’re not as concerned about not being able to get imported material.
Q: How big is your plant in Minnesota?
A: We scaled down to six employees during COVID. Quite frankly, 2020 was probably the worst year we’ve ever had in fireworks. Fireworks were canceled basically everywhere. Typically, the plant would operate with 25 people. We just had to scale back.
Q: Were you nervous about leaving Valero to launch your own business, or were you confident your venture would be a success?
A: Any entrepreneurial venture has risk. You have concerns about whether you’ll succeed or not. One of the things I did to hedge that bet is to become an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I’m still a faculty member there where I teach business statistics, process improvement, project management, etc. And so that’s a nice, kind of cyclical activity because most of the fireworks occur during the summertime when the university is typically not in session. In the fall and spring, I teach at the university when fireworks are typically not occurring. So it’s kind of a dual seasonality that works out quite nicely.
Q: On that note, how difficult is it to run a business that is so seasonal in nature?
A: It is very challenging. In many respects, it’s an all-or-nothing type of a bet most years. We derive, at least in the old days, probably 95 percent of our revenue in two days. So you really hope for a great Fourth of July. And if things go badly — which, as an example, in 2010 there were a lot of burn bans implemented across the South Texas area, which canceled a lot of fireworks shows. Last year, another great example, the pandemic canceled almost all the fireworks shows around Texas. It leads to a pretty bad year, obviously.
In a typical year, on the Fourth of July, how many different shows is Magic in the Sky conducting?
A: We currently operate in Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Texas, South Dakota. I would say we’re putting on about 48 programs over the Fourth of July.
Q: How do you staff for a couple of days a year?
A: We have a full-time staff of about 10. And then we’re kind of relying upon kind of more of a hobbyist group of folks. For example, in Kerrville, the show that’s done there is done by a local eye surgeon. It’s kind of a hobby of his to do fireworks. So he’s an eye doctor by day and once a year he shoots the Fourth of July program in his hometown for us.
How does someone get trained to shoot off fireworks?
A: For fireworks in the state of Texas, at least, you have to have a license issued by the Texas Department of Insurance. In order to receive that license, you have to participate in five displays under a licensed person/company. So, for example, if you wanted to become licensed you’d have to come out to Six Flags or any other location we’re doing fireworks and actually participate in five shows. Loading and kind of on-the-job training. And then there’s also a 50-question multiple choice exam administered by the state of Texas. If you get through all that, then you have to go through a federal background check, submit a set of fingerprints to the FBI.
How long does a typical fireworks show last?
A: Somewhere in the order of 12 to 20 minutes. In the old days, it used to be 35 to 45 minutes. But folks’ attention spans — we call it media apathy or screen apathy, you just can’t hold people’s attention for that long anymore.
Do you have to practice to sync the fireworks with music or is it all computerized?
It is computerized. We use a system called FireOne (a digital fireworks firing system to choreograph and execute pyrotechnic displays).
How much does a typical fireworks show cost?
A: There’s a huge range. Some folks are spending $10,000 on a show, some people are spending up to $100,000 for a show. It’s a pretty wide ranges. Fireworks are quite a bit of an expense. A lot of people don’t think about that, but there’s a lot of regulation and permitting that has to occur before the display can even take place.
Even when you’re doing it for, say, the city of San Antonio?
A: Absolutely. The city, which is always humorous to me, definitely charges for permits and licensing fees.
Q: That’s interesting, because you’re just charging it back to them, right?
A: That’s exactly correct. It doesn’t make sense to me, either.
How many members are part of a crew working a display?
A: A typical show will have four to six people setting it up.
Q: How long does it take to set up for a 20-minute show?
A: All day. Pretty much any display you see will be starting in the early in the morning. The loading and set up will take place until twilight. It’s a long set-up time. Fireworks are one of those things where it is a day-of event, typically. So super large displays like the San Antonio 300 display we did in 2017, we got special licensing to have the fireworks out for more than 24 hours. But generally speaking, the regulations are the display materials can’t be on-site for more than 24 hours. Everything has to be done day of. It has to be attended to at all times.
Have you ever had a mishap during a show?
A: We’ve been very fortunate. We spend a lot of time on safety. I actually sit on the National Fire Prevention Association council, or technical committee, that makes up the standards for how to conduct a fireworks display. Safety is the number one thought on our minds at all times. It is volatile material. It just takes a split second for something to go from an entertaining event to something that’s not. We’re very cognizant of that. Anything can happen, obviously. We spend a lot of time and resources making sure that the program functions as intended. The safety of display fireworks has improved greatly, particularly with the electronic ignition. When I started in the business, everything was hand-lit.
Now, we do not hand light anything. Everything is fired electronically. So our personnel are at a reasonable distance from the display site, which has improved safety quite a bit.