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Cardinal Conversations

O Tannenbaum

Artificial tree maker Thomas Harman, MBA '05.

Courtesy Thomas Harman

ALL SPRUCED UP: Harman poses with a Balsam Hill tree.

By Sam Scott

When it comes to Christmas trees, faux fir is definitely in fashion. Sales of artificial trees are expected to hit a record $1.07 billion this year, up more than 6 percent over 2011.

That’s good news for Thomas Harman, founder and CEO of Balsam Hill, whose high-end, ultra-realistic trees—made from molds of the real thing—have been credited for helping fuel the boom.  Sunset magazine dubbed Harman’s creations “a quantum leap forward in realism.”

We caught up with Harman, MBA ’05, to find out what’s behind the push to plastic.

You previously worked as an industrial wire manufacturer. How did you become an artificial tree maven?

At my first Christmas with my in-laws, I was shocked to see their truly sad, anemic artificial tree from the 1970s. They’d used it for decades, originally because [their son] had an allergic reaction to the mold spores that had circulated through their house one year when they purchased a real tree. Eventually it occurred to me that if we have [computer-generated imagery] and fake just-about-anything, we certainly should be able to have artificial Christmas trees that look real.

When you launched in 2006, what did your fellow entrepreneurs think about the prospects of selling fake trees on the Internet?

I suspect the skeptics far outweighed the believers in my first few months, and I'll probably never know how many people were laughing at me. We are extremely blessed that our revenues should top $30 million this year, so no one is laughing now.

Besides allergies, what motivates your customers?

I think the primary reasons consumers buy artificial trees are safety and convenience. The UL, a safety testing organization, recommends that farm-grown trees not be kept indoors with lights for more than four weeks. That’s just not enough time, as most consumers like to put up their tree Thanksgiving weekend and take it down after the New Year.

The convenience is huge, too—artificial trees are pre-lit, don’t drop needles and don’t need to be watered. My favorite customer letters and emails are the ones that say, ‘My daughter was home from college and it took her 11 days to realize we had an artificial tree!’

Courtesy Thomas Harman
FIR REAL: Harman personally designs Balsam Hill's trees.

I’m contacting you the week after Thanksgiving, which is probably like calling a tax accountant on April 1.

This isn’t a bad analogy, though I’d say it is more like trying to converse with a quarterback in the third quarter of the Rose Bowl. All the accountants I know take time off after April 15, and our season stretches out quite a bit after the peak Thanksgiving weekend.

What’s interesting about our business is that we sell trees every single day of the year. Someday, I’m going to find out who is buying trees in March and why. In the meantime, we’re happy to sell them.

You design the trees personally. What inspires you?

I am constantly looking at conifers as I travel around the world. I never know where I’ll next find a unique or beautiful tree. A few years ago I was skiing in northern Idaho when a stand of tall, skinny trees in a clearing caught my eye. Protected by the rest of the forest, these svelte trees were perfectly straight, unlike typically windblown or gnarled alpine trees I often see at high elevations. I snapped some photos. Two years later, as slim trees became more popular, I found those photos and designed our Cathedral Fir based on those very trees. It’s difficult to have a slim tree that looks like one in nature, but I had found the perfect prototypes.

There are conflicting thoughts and studies about what is better for the environment—a fake tree or a real one. As a former geosciences, economics and environmental studies major, what are your thoughts on the environmental impact of real versus fake trees?

I’m extremely passionate about this issue, as it is incredibly misunderstood. The most comprehensive life-cycle analysis study on this topic, which included factory data from artificial tree production and farm data on tree cultivation, found that the average farm-grown and artificial trees have very little impact on the environment relative to standard activities of daily living. One or the other can be marginally better based on a variety of factors, two of which are: How your farm-grown tree is disposed of; and how far one drives each year to procure a farm-grown tree. Ironically, driving [more than 16 miles for a fresh] tree probably sinks any chance of a farm-grown tree being better than an artificial one [in terms of CO2 emissions]. Of course, how many years one uses an artificial tree also has a huge impact.

At the end of the day, I think consumers should buy whichever type of tree they prefer. Interestingly, now more than ten percent of households that have a farm-grown tree also have an artificial tree, so it seems like having both is the latest trend.

Does having a business built around Christmas help or hinder your ability to enjoy the holiday season?

Oh my, there are so many ways I could answer this question. I miss having time to watch football. I wish our team didn’t have to be ‘all hands on deck’ over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. However, it’s a great rush to have such an important weekend and the entire company is always stoked and running on an incredible adrenaline high this time of year. It is an incredible experience and one that really brings us together as a team. I will say that it does make me more thankful for the time I have on Thanksgiving Day with family—it’s a lot easier to appreciate the blessing of celebrating a holiday with family and friends when it is a respite in the midst of an incredibly busy time of year. (Just don't tell my family that I was using my iPhone to check our site status and monitor our sales during Thanksgiving dinner.)

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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