As the owner of Mr. B Fireworks and a licensed pyrotechnician, Tom Bargas colors the black velvet of a Texas night sky.
“I’ve never thought of myself as being an artist, but I suppose I am,” Bargas said. “I paint the sky with fireworks.”
The Fayette County native owns 44 Mr. B Fireworks stands in a 100-mile radius of Schulenburg and along the Gulf Coast. The retail fireworks business, by law, is open June 24 – July 4 for Independence Day, Dec. 20 – Jan. 1 for New Year’s Eve and, in some counties, six days around Memorial Day. In addition, he plans and performs about 50 fireworks displays each year for municipalities, businesses and private clients.
His team consists of one full-time employee, Brian Anders, who is the office manager, and nine part-time licensed pyrotechnicians. To earn their licenses, the pyrotechnicians have to train under another licensed professional and conduct at least five shows under supervision.
“If they’re training under me, I often require more than five shows,” Bargas said. “There’s no room for error when it comes to keeping spectators and personnel safe.”
Display fireworks are dangerous. While this seems obvious, it is a fact that many consumers gloss over. The active ingredient is gun powder, making display fireworks hazardous enough to be regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The ATF has two categories of consumer explosives: Class B—display fireworks, which are classified as “low explosives,” have no upper limit on the amount of gunpowder they contain; must meet strict guidelines for storage and inventory; and be handled by a licensed pyrotechnician; and Class A—dynamite.
Consumer fireworks are labeled Class C and regulated by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. They can’t contain more than 500 grams of gunpowder per item.
“Consumers shouldn’t be afraid of fireworks, but they deserve to be treated with a healthy respect,” Bargas said.
Bargas traveled to China where fireworks are made. Manufacturing takes place in the forest about 30 miles from the nearest town. Although fireworks are an ancient, highly refined art form, the manufacturing process relies on crude risk management measures. The workers are primarily women, and each worker is responsible for one component of a firework. When a worker has completed her specified task, she carries the firework to the next worker who completes the next task until the process is complete.
“Each worker is housed in a separate hut with about 100 feet between them, so if an accident occurs hopefully only one life will be lost,” Bargas said. “It’s a not-so subtle reminder for me not to daydream at work.”
At Home in the Fireworks Business
The headquarters for Mr. B Fireworks is on the Bargas family home place, where the original deed goes back to the Burrill Perry League established in the 1830s.
“I’ve got a lot of history here,” Bargas said.
He is the youngest of his siblings. As the only unmarried one at the time of his father’s death, Bargas came back to the farm and cared for his mother in their family home, which he then inherited along with some surrounding acreage.
The relatively isolated area is an ideal location for warehousing fireworks, but that is just a happy coincidence. Bargas returned to the area with a business degree from the University of Houston and extensive globe-trotting experience in international sales with a Houston-based oil and gas company but no firm employment plan. He had recently been downsized because of the oil bust of the late 80s.
Because he needed to work nearby, Bargas took a job as assistant manager of Wal-Mart in Sealy.
“I hated mass merchandising, but after Dad died frankly I was kind of lost,” he said.
He found his way at the Schulenburg Festival. An acquaintance told Bargas he was starting a fireworks company and wanted him to come to work with him. The job brought a good salary and company car. For a year it was the perfect job.
“I gave 110 percent because I loved the work,” Bargas said.
Then the business owner made a remark that changed Bargas’ career trajectory again.
“He said, ‘Tom, I hope you’re enjoying this because it’s as close as you’ll ever get to owning your own business,’” Bargas said. “It broke my heart but gave me a fire in my belly.”
Two weeks later Bargas resigned with plans to start his own company. When he announced his plans to leave, the men he supervised went with him, despite taking significant pay cuts. Today, 31 years later, one of those men still works with the company.
“He’s become my best friend and pretty much gets the royal treatment around here,” Bargas said.
When Bargas worked at the previous company, he didn’t purchase inventory for the stands but was responsible for the tricky real estate deals of leasing and purchasing stand sites. He had established 30 stands before setting out on his own.
“My knowledge served me well,” Bargas said.
In 1987, their first year of business, Bargas and his business partner Don Bohac established seven Mr. B stands. Several years later Bargas bought Bohac’s shares of the company. Bohac returned to the business in 1995 as a full-time employee and stayed until his retirement in 2016.
Bargas’ former employer eventually went out of business.
In 1993, Bargas, who had begun “piddling around with consumer shows” was in the right place at the right time. His former neighbor was the city manager of Hempstead, and he asked Tom to put on the town’s Fourth of July fireworks display.
“I never had really done a show before I got my license,” Bargas said. “I had to hand fire the entire show. I only charged the city $1,000, but I got my foot in the door.”
His foot is still in the door in Hempstead—and in many other places. On July 1 – 4, Bargas and his team do six shows a day.
“My business has been built on word-of-mouth referrals and repeat business,” Bargas said, noting that 80 percent of his customers come to him this way. “While this is a business, I have to admit I get a thrill when the show goes off flawlessly, and I hear the spectators cheering, hollering and clapping. I throw my arms up and say ‘Yessssssssssss!!’”
The Fireworks Business on Display
Each fireworks display is customized based on the clients’ wants and budget.
“Before I give an estimate, I prefer to sit down with potential customers and discuss their expectations,” Bargas said.
Recently, he was asked to bid a job by a wedding planner who he’d worked with before. For the previous wedding, the family spent $2,500 for fireworks, so the wedding planner wanted to use that figure in her budget. Bargas asked to speak to the bride and her parents before settling on an amount.
“When they described what they wanted to present to their guests, I knew they would’ve been disappointed with $2,500 display,” Bargas said. “For their celebration the lasting impression was their primary concern. They didn’t want a single break in the action. They ended up ordering an eight-minute, Class B, finale-quality show.”
A display fireworks show costs between $1,000 and $3,000 per minute, depending on the effects the customer wants. The lowest budget show Bargas offers is $750. For $750, a customer gets three to four minutes of electronically fired consumer fireworks.
“Custom fireworks shows carry a significant price because they involve a significant amount of work,” Bargas said.
Each show must be individually licensed, meaning the pyrotechnician has to draw a site plane with the firing area shown in relation to parked cars, permanent structures and any hazardous materials and get approval. The pyrotechnician must also design the show determining what shells will be fired at what angles and from what positions to achieve the desired effect.
“I learn by reading and doing,” Bargas said. “With each shell the Chinese provide a description of the firework’s display pattern and colors. Over time, I’ve learned what each one does and which ones to combine and overlap for particularly stunning displays.”
Once the display is planned, the pyrotechnician draws up the firing plan that tells the technician when and in what order to press the buttons on the electronic igniter system. It also lists what firework is attached to each igniter.
Of course, for the electric igniter to do its job, each igniter lead must be connected to a shell with “quick match,” a tape that burns at 200 feet per second and ignites the fuses in a controlled ball of fire. On an average job, it takes about four hours to connect the quick match to every shell, and it takes another four hours on-site to position the shells and attach them to the igniter.
“It takes time to get it right,” Bargas said. “This isn’t something you want to leave to chance.”
Insurance companies agree. Mr. B Fireworks’ insurance bill is about $40,000 each year.
For Bargas the investment of time, expertise and patience is more than risk management, it’s a matter of pride.
“I believe in delivering quality by giving customers a show that exceeds their expectations and gives them more than their money’s worth,” Bargas said. “My name is on it. I’m Mr. B.”
______________________________________________________________________________by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Dustin Exner