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Business Monday: Banner years on a $400 investment

Arkansas Gazette
by Tom Kazas
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Knowing how to get a foot in the door helped Kerry Thompson-McCoy start up Arkansas Flag and Banner. That was in 1974.

By 1987, the 33-year-old North Little Rock native and mother of two had parlayed a $400 investment into a business that sold $250,000 worth of goods in eight states last year. She projected 1988 sales to top $300,000. Half those sales are flags, which are low-priced items, she said. The other half are banners. Museums, such as the Kimball Art Museum in Dallas, or churches, such as the Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, regularly call on Arkansas Flag to produce the huge fabric banners to drape across the entrance of exhibits or festivals. “This is a woman’s business,” Thompson-McCoy said in a recent interview. “I don’t think a man would have had the patience to stick it out. It’s not the kind that’s going to make you rich – I’ll never make $100,000 a year – but I like it and I’m comfortable.”

Arkansas Flag is housed in an 1880s Victorian cottage at 1619 Main st. in North Little Rock. Besides Thompson-McCoy, there is one full-time employee and four part-time workers. All are women. And, with soft rock music in the background, the atmosphere in the six-room house is upbeat and relaxed. Besides art museums and churches, the customers for the banners and flags are banks, food chains, hospitals, truck lines and hundreds of small businesses. Many are repeat buyers.

“Flags are made of fabric and they only last about six months outside,” Thompson-McCoy said. “So every six months we send out a reorder form.” Thompson-McCoy learned how to make patterns and sketch fashions – as well as basic accounting and financing – at Miss Wade’s Fashion Merchandising School in Dallas. She took a sales position at a Dallas department store, but quit when a promise of a promotion to buyer didn’t materialize. She was hired as a saleswoman for Betsy Ross Flag Girls of Dallas. That taught her how to make cold calls on customers and something about the history, manufacture and marketing of flags, she said. During a trip to Little Rock to attend a wedding, she looked in the Yellow Pages to see if there were any flag companies in town. There were none.

Interested, she called the secretary of state’s office and asked where flags for the state are bought. Not in Arkansas, she learned. That settled it. Back in Dallas, she gave her notice at Betsy Ross and visited the office bookkeeper, who, she said, showed her “everything she could about the business.” then Thompson-McCoy headed back to the Land of Opportunity.

Her father a North Little Rock collection agent, gave her a desk in a corner of his office and use of his secretary to answer phone calls. With $400 in her pocket, Thompson-McCoy bought business cards and order forms and started calling potential customers. For some years, she said, she didn’t take the business too seriously. She supplemented her income by waiting on tables. But in 1984, she said she decided to get serious. Frustrated in her first attempts to borrow money, she finally found a banker who looked over the business and agreed to a $20,000 loan. Money in hand, Thompson-McCoy bought two vehicles, put in a WATS telephone line, took out Yellow Pages ads in the seven states surrounding Arkansas and added three employees.

The risk paid off. That year, Arkansas Flag sales more than doubled. The next year, they almost doubled again, and sales have been climbing since. Even though her business continues to grow, Thompson-McCoy said she sis still a conservative businesswoman at heart and is reluctant to buy equipment she doesn’t deem essential.

“Those computer salesmen keep calling me,” she said with a laugh. “But I’m not ready yet. When the girls get to where they are so busy they don’t have time to keep records, we’ll get a computer. But we don’t want to spend money unnecessarily. We have a real efficient system here. Yes, sir, we are Miss Organized.”

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