Winco Flying High with Black Cat

In a July 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams predicted the Declaration of Independence would be celebrated for generations to come “with pomp and parade” and with “bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

He certainly nailed that one — especially the illuminations part.

And Winco Fireworks International is at the forefront of making those national celebrations possible.

Winco is one of the top three sellers of consumer fireworks in the U.S., an industry that reached $1.9 billion in sales in 2020, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

The company sells a variety of products nationwide but is perhaps best known as the exclusive North American distributor of Black Cat fireworks.

To think it all started as a part-time gig running a single fireworks stand in Pittsburg, Kansas.

Starting Small, Growing Big
Winco president Mike Collar said his teenage brothers decided to buy a local fireworks stand from the father of one of their girlfriends in the 1960s.

For years, they ran that stand seasonally around the 4th of July, and they began adding more stands to the enterprise over the years as they worked their way through college and into their early careers.

“It was a part-time business for a long, long time, so they both had other full-time jobs,” Collar said.

By 1979, they expanded into the Kansas City market and officially became Winco Fireworks, complete with their first warehouse to allow for expanded storage of products.

As Americans’ demand for fireworks has grown over the decades so, too, has Winco. The company now has warehouses in seven states from Utah to South Carolina. The largest is in Missouri, near the company’s headquarters in Gladstone.

Winco also continues to run more than 40 retail fireworks stores and stands under its Pyro City brand.

The Challenges
While there are fireworks sales around New Year’s Eve in some southern states, the lion’s share of demand nationally comes right around Independence Day.

Because most sales occur in such a small window of time each year, Collar said the thing that affects the season more than anything is weather. 

“If it’s dry, you can’t shoot fireworks. You’re not going to sell any fireworks,” he said.

Where the holiday lands on the calendar makes a big difference as well.

For example, if the 4th of July falls on a Wednesday instead of a weekend, almost a full year’s worth of retail sales must be compressed into a day and a half rather than spread out over several days when people take long weekends.

A related challenge for Winco is working with retailers to get orders in as far ahead of the 4th as possible. The company encourages its wholesale customers “not to be procrastinators” because, for most of them, it is just a part-time business.

“So you try to get them engaged early on so they can take the order early,” Collar said.

For its part, Winco’s extensive warehouse network allows for significant stock build-up throughout the year, so, if all goes as planned, product is ready to go out the door to retailers quickly once seasonal orders start pouring in.

Supply Chain Focus
Because nearly all fireworks are manufactured in China, Winco spends a lot of time working on supply chain issues.

“Virtually every commodity in the United States that comes from China has big problems right now because we’re consuming so many goods. China can’t keep up. The shipping companies can’t keep up. The railroads can’t keep up,” Collar said.

This forces smaller businesses to compete with the likes of Amazon and Walmart just to get shipping space on vessels.

Winco addresses the issue by keeping inventory coming year-round, but even then unexpected logjams in the supply chain pop up.

Collar credits his team of 235 employees, a number of whom have been with the company for 25 to 35 years, for taking on the obstacles and getting the job done. 

He also noted the importance of long-term outside relationships, such as the one the company has built with a leading Hong Kong exporter.

“They really taught us a better way to import, better way for tracking, better way to do the job that we need to do, because obviously they’re the experts,” Collar said. “You need to not be afraid to ask for help. And we weren’t afraid to ask for help.”

Understanding Government Regulations
In highly regulated industries, it can take a lot of time and energy to make sure your company stays in compliance.

Winco does this in a combination of ways, the first of which is experienced staff.

Collar’s wife, Theresa, has overseen the company’s import department for 37 years, navigating its growth from six shipping containers of fireworks a year to more than a thousand containers per year now.

“You kind of learn the ropes as you go,” Collar said.

The team deals with rules from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Customs and Border Protection and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Winco also deals with many state licensing requirements around the country, along with local regulations.

Another resource the company relies on to keep up with the ever-changing regulatory landscape is industry organizations such as the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Quality and Safety
“Safety is very, very important to our company,” Collar said.

To make sure the products he’s selling are properly manufactured, he has them independently “sampled,” or tested. This pre-testing gives Winco peace of mind regarding quality and helps imported shipments pass inspection with fewer issues.

Winco also encourages people to read the safety instructions on fireworks, in addition to using common sense.

Collar noted that last year’s 50% increase in sales was in part a result of so many people buying fireworks for themselves for the first time in years after large public displays were cancelled.

Those customers rediscovering fireworks at home found significant improvements in the modern products, including safety.

“Fireworks today are so much better than they were 20 years ago. The color is more vibrant. The bursts are bigger. There’s so much more variety,” he said.

A Family Business
Winco started as a family business and retains much of that connection in its DNA, as many small businesses do.

Collar said in this situation it is good to “space out family” as much as possible.

“You know, honestly, we do work very well together, but everybody does have their own job function. And the other family respects that job function,” he said.

And family business or not, Collar emphasized the importance of hard work.

“You can’t just sit back at your desk and hope it’s going to happen. You’ve got to get in the weeds, as I say, and know the different aspects of the business to give your people the right tools so they can be more successful,” he said.

The right tools at Winco have led to decades of high-flying growth and a huge array of creative products that keep Americans coming back for more every 4th of July.

The Aerial Extravaganza. Black Cat 500. Neon Peacock. Snow Cone. Zombie Blaster.

What would John and Abigail Adams make of that?

Chad Bettes is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Thinking Bigger. He earned his master’s degree from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas.