September 6, 2017
By Peter Saunders
The recent celebrations of Canada’s 150th anniversary involved all types of new, short-term signs and graphics across the country, but perhaps most iconic in nature was the boost in business for the select few manufacturers approved by the federal government to create official Canada 150 flags, featuring a national competition-winning design by Ariana Cuvin, a student at Ontario’s University of Waterloo.
One of the companies chosen was The Flag Store, based in Barrie and Thornton, Ont., which quickly became overwhelmed with orders for the new flags.
“We were surprised by how the demand took off,” says Cecilia Burke, president and CEO. “It seems Canadians are becoming more patriotic and want to fly more flags from their homes and businesses.”
For the more than 50-year-old company, demand has come both from loyal, long-time customers who already trust the durability of its products and from new customers who are just finding out about them.
“That’s all thanks to the Internet,” says Cecilia. “We’re marketing our brand through social media. And many of our orders today are online, coming in from all across the country.”
A timely opportunity
The Flag Store was founded in 1966 by Gordon Burke, Cecilia’s father. In the wake of the 1965 debut of Canada’s own maple leaf flag design, he spotted a timely opportunity to capture a growing market. He moved his family to Thornton in 1967, where his business specialized in sewing flags with an appliqué technique.
“This was back when acid dyes were often used on flags, but they weren’t very ultraviolet-resistant (UV-resistant),” says Cecilia. “So, our appliqué flags, with the patterns actually sewn on, both looked nicer and lasted longer.”
“We grew up in the flag business,” says her brother Paul, who now owns Flagsource Canada, a spinoff business also based in Barrie, “and some of us have stayed in it, but branched off into separate firms.”
One of The Flag Store’s big breaks came when famous Canadian author Pierre Berton, who lived in Kleinburg, Ont., mentioned the business on CBC’s Front Page Challenge in 1970. He singled it out for praise because its Canadian flags actually looked red, rather than pink, over time.
That level of durability remains popular today. The company makes several hundred flags a year for Jamaica, for example, not only because the design of that country’s flag involves multiple layers of material, but also because the wind load experienced on Caribbean islands calls for heavier-duty flag construction than many other applications would need.
An evolution in production
In 1985, shortly after Gordon passed away, the business expanded to Barrie with a 1,394-m2 (15,000-sf) facility on Highway 400 and added screenprinting to its production department. And in 1991, the process was automated, as the company moved on from silkscreening by hand on a table to installing a Zimmer textile printing machine.
“It was the first of its kind in Canada and needed its own building with access to municipal water,” Paul explains. “It could print in eight colours and up to 2 m (80 in.) wide, which was pretty standard in screenprinting. Meanwhile, the sewing continued at our Thornton location.”
In 1999, The Flag Store began the shift to digital printing. The company added four Mimaki dye sublimation printers, each about 1 m (40 in.) wide, and used water-soluble inks.
“There was no direct dye sub inkjet printing for textiles yet,” says Paul, “and transfer-based dye sub was not ideal for two-sided flags.”
Another brother, Ed, had moved on from flags and started up The Look Company in 1998 to focus on display stands, larger-scale corporate branding projects and special event graphics. That was followed by Paul establishing Flagsource in 2007 for long-run digital print jobs.
“We’re all sister companies that use the same printing platform and can support each other,” says Paul. “I’m mainly a wholesaler now, while Cecilia still sells at retail. She might get an order for 100 teardrop flags for a corporate client, for example, and pass the job along to me.”
“Or a yacht club might order a lot of flags at once from Paul, but need them to be appliqué, so the job comes to me,” Cecilia adds.
The Look Company, meanwhile, employs a creative design team and relies on UV-curing flatbed printers to produce graphics on a wide variety of both flexible and rigid substrates.
In this way, the original business has continued to thrive, even as the three siblings have split their expertise into three different ventures.
“There’s room for us all to earn a decent living in this industry,” says Paul.
Maintaining a niche
Today, direct digital inkjet printing technologies for fabrics have led to a significant increase in the number of companies—including sign shops—capable of producing textile graphics and flags.
“In recent years, the demand has been driven by the sign industry for teardrop flags, table drapes, tent canopies and other large-format textile graphics,” says Paul, “since the hardware for printing them has become more accessible. The technology has allowed companies to enter this market that wouldn’t otherwise bother producing flags.”
Facing such competition and the growth of textile printing well beyond traditional flags and banners, one of the keys to The Flag Store’s success has been to maintain a niche focus.
“We intentionally decided not to print on vinyl, which has become commoditized,” says Cecilia. “We’re not trying to compete with that business. We know fabrics and their sewing and finishing requirements. And as both the printing and sewing sides of our business have grown, we have the advantage of being able to combine our processes for larger items.”
“It’s more than just printing,” Paul agrees. “There’s a lot involved in finishing, as well.”
Similarly, the company knows flagpoles. In 1998, the Burkes bought the Canada/U.S. division of Formenta, a Swedish manufacturer of fibreglass poles, which in many cases have replaced earlier aluminum and steel flagpoles.
“Fibreglass poles don’t rust like steel and they feature a silent shaft, unlike aluminum,” she explains. “They’re salt-resistant and offer better wind strength with their flexibility. They can even be tilted down to the ground, so you don’t need a bucket truck.”
To better service its market, The Flag Store transports its flags and poles to customers’ homes and installs them on-site, even in rock.
“We take great pride seeing them in the ground,” says Cecilia. “Canada 150 has been phenomenal for installing new flagpoles in front of people’s homes and on their garages.”
With files from The Flag Store, Flagsource Canada and The Look Company. For more information, visit www.theflagstore.ca, www.flagsourcecanada.com and www.thelookcompany.com.
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