Business booming for N.E. Ohio fireworks company

Rori Zoldan is vice president of B.J. Alan/Phantom Fireworks, a fireworks manufacturer and distributor.

A list of Israeli women who work in the fireworks industry probably would not take up much space.

No doubt that heading the list, however, would be sabra Rori Zoldan, the 50-year-old vice president of retail sales at B.J. Alan Fireworks Co., a Youngstown-based fireworks manufacturer and distributor.

B.J. Alan and Phantom Fireworks, the company's retail distribution arm, is one of the largest importers and wholesalers of consumer fireworks in the nation. Sales last year topped $80 million, Zoldan reports.

The CJN caught up with Zoldan in mid-May, a week after the opening of B.J. Alan's newest and largest Phantom Fireworks showroom in Beaver Township, a suburb of Youngstown. The 5,000-square-foot store resembles a grocery store, but instead of shelves filled with toothpaste and spaghetti sauce, customers browse aisles with brightly colored products with equally colorful names, like "Swarming Skeeters," "Shagadellic Mojo" and "Pyropulverizer."

Some folks are shlepping around not one, but two, grocery carts brimming with merchandise. They are also gripping the "buy one, get one free for every item in the store" coupons they received in the mail. Products range in price from $1.29 for individually packaged ground spinners to cases of bottle rockets that go for $439.

The air conditioning isn't working, but Zoldan, a striking, stylish woman with close-cropped dark hair, stays cool. In accented English, she calmly answers questions from employees and keeps an eye on her two strapping teenage sons who are helping customers.

The company's "season" begins months before the July 4 holiday, she explains. Since she's in charge of the promotional marketing for all of Phantom Fireworks retail sales, she begins designing the multi-hued flyers and catalogs in January. "And no ad leaves without my signature on it," she says.

But aren't fireworks illegal in the state of Ohio? Yes and no, Zoldan explains. Trick or novelty fireworks, like sparklers and snaps, can be sold and used anywhere in Ohio.

Consumer fireworks (also known as 1.4G), like Roman candles and bottle rockets, can only be sold by a licensed manufacturer or wholesaler. Anyone over the age of 18 can purchase these items, but they must sign a form stating that they will transport the fireworks outside Ohio within 48 hours.

"Safety is our number one goal," Zoldan insists. B.J. Alan has an in-house product testing program that ensures their merchandise meets or exceeds all Consumer Product Safety Commission requirements.

Her favorite product? "Anything quiet!" she says, laughing.

Zoldan didn't plan on pursuing a career in fireworks; she has a degree in psychology. But while working at a jewelry store on a summer break from college in her native Tel Aviv in the '70s, she met and fell in love with Bruce Zoldan, an American importer of wholesale fireworks, who happened to walk into the store one day.

They married, and Bruce brought her home to Youngstown, where he continued to grow his business as president and CEO. The couple and their two children are members of Ohev Tzedek-Shaarei Torah Congregation, a Conservative shul in Youngstown.

Today, B.J. Alan operates over 40 permanent fireworks showrooms in 12 states and leases over 1200 temporary locations nationwide during the Fourth of July season. "We're an aggressive company," Zoldan says. "We try to open at least three stores every year."

The Internet has certainly contributed to their growth. B.J. Alan was one of the first fireworks distributors to recognize the power of the Web, and it owns the coveted Web address.

The Internet "made our world smaller and closer," Zoldan says. "We can better communicate with customers and advertise" on the site. Customers cannot purchase fireworks via the Web site, but they can browse the product listings and create a fireworks "wish list." All fireworks must be purchased at one of the showrooms.

In addition to its Phantom Fireworks chains and merchandise, B.J. Alan established the Diamond Sparkler Manufacturing Co. in Youngstown in 1985, the sole remaining operating sparkler manufacturing facility in the United States.

Although fireworks appeal to "all ages," you have to be American to really appreciate them, Zoldan believes. "You can't sell them (fireworks) in Israel," she says soberly. "They would think it's a bomb."

But here in the States, fireworks "make people happy," she quickly adds. "That's what's so nice about this business."

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