Flag dealer flies high as Betsy Ross winner
CYD KING ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Kerry McCoy has draped herself in success as the founder and owner of Arkansas Flag and Banner. Her 40 years in the flag-distribution and repair business recently earned her the highest honor in the industry, the Betsy Ross Award, from the Chicago-based National Independent Flag Dealers Association.
When asked what it was like to be lauded by her peers, McCoy said: “Frankly, I should have gotten it a long time ago.”
“I have been on the cutting edge of this stinkin’ industry for the last 20 years,” she said, laughing.
McCoy, who will turn 60 this year, talks candidly about her personal life and business struggles.
Annual revenue at Arkansas Flag and Banner — more commonly known by its Web domain name, flagandbanner.com — has been stagnant around $3 million for the past five years, Mc-Coy said. What the industry needs is another patriotic event, she said.
In the 1970s, flag sales were driven by the nation’s bicentennial; in the 1980s, they were affected by the release of Bruce Springsteen’s iconic tune “Born in the U.S.A.”; in the 1990s, Operation Desert Storm prompted American flag sales; and in the 2000s, flag receipts were bolstered by the tragedy surrounding the 9/11 terrorist at- tacks.
“About once a decade — and I’m waiting on this decade — something happens, and patriotism surges,” Mc-Coy said.
The Internet was a gamechanger for flag distributors after 9/11, she said. Flagandbanner.com makes and sells flags and banners, mostly custom corporate banners such as the ones seen at the Clinton Presidential Center, Main Street and the River Market. Most American flags are made by a well-established, multigenerational company, Roseland, N.J.-based Annin Flagmakers.
Flagandbanner.com does, however, repair flags, such as the giant ones flying high over car dealerships and at large office buildings. Those cost about $5,000 each and last about only three months, McCoy said.
“We keep cutting the ends off and cutting the ends off and repairing them, repairing them and repairing them … until they turn pink and purple or get caught in a really bad storm and ripped beyond repair,” she said.
McCoy has a degree in fashion merchandising and enjoys sewing. She started the company at age 20 with door-to-door sales of flags, then added the sewing department, all in a North Little Rock location.
McCoy’s initial investment was $400. She had other jobs, such as being a cocktail waitress for nine years, until the company made enough to pay the bills. She moved the company to a historical building at 800 W. Ninth St. in Little Rock in the early 1990s and now has about two dozen employees.
Creating a presence on the Internet in 1995 did not go as smoothly as she had hoped.
“Nobody knew what they were doing,” she said. “We just kept throwing money at it, and everything was wrong. Consumers weren’t prepared to do it yet. It was like a hole where all my money went.”
The company suffered another setback around 2012, when flagandbanner.com upgraded its old technology and Web presence.
“I did it completely wrong,” she said.
She blames the company she hired to do the work. She said she lost 18 years of search engine optimization, which meant flagandbanner. com lost its top spot on Internet search engines.
Sales dropped $600,000 that year, she said. McCoy was paying more out to try to fix the problem, and the move nearly bankrupted the company.
“My expenses went through the roof. My expenses went through the floor,” she added.
It took two full years to recover financially.
The group that gave Mc-Coy the Betsy Ross Award was formed by her and a handful of other flag dealers about 20 years ago as a collective voice with Annin and two other major U.S. flag manufacturers — Detra Flag Co. and Valley Forge Flags.
Membership numbers ebb and rise, but it now has about 70 members, said President Kim Griebling of Custom Flag Co. Inc. of Westminster, Colo. The Betsy Ross Award is considered the most valuable player in the industry, she said.
“She is very dedicated to our industry and is very helpful to our other flag dealers, which is what our association is all about,” Griebling said. “It’s about being a source to each other.”
McCoy has four adult children, none of whom are expected to follow her in the business. Her oldest daughter went to work at the company, and it was a mistake, she said.
“She worked here all her life, and we ruined her,” the mother said. “There was never that division between parent and employer.”
Now momma McCoy and her husband have made an edict: None of the kids can work at flagandbanner.com until they’re 30 — regardless of the circumstances.
“You have to let somebody else teach your kids how to be a good employee,” McCoy said.
“You can’t do that.”