As country wraps itself in flags, company strains to make them
Houston Cronicle
Oct. 6, 2001, 8:23PM

Bloomberg Business News

OAKS, Pa. -- Red and white fabric streamed from 150-yard rolls into Jean Younkin's high-speed sewing machine, one of dozens on the factory floor stitching stripes for American flags at Annin Flagmakers

Younkin reflected on how the Sept. 11 terror attacks gave new meaning to her job at the oldest and largest U.S. flag maker. "I feel like I'm helping provide for people so that they can show their patriotism," she said. "I'm proud to work here."

The national outpouring of patriotism has prompted Americans to snap up flags for their homes, cars and businesses at a pace that has strained Annin's capacity. Younkin and her 675 co-workers at the closely held company have boosted output of 3-by-5-foot U.S. flags, the company's most popular model, from 30,000 to 100,000 a week.

"Our demand has skyrocketed," said Randy Beard, vice president of corporate sales. "We're proud to be making America's symbol, and we just want to make as many as we can. But it's very frustrating because it seems like everyone wants one at the same time."

Orders for Annin's star-spangled banners began pouring in, by phone, fax and mail, after hijacked planes struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Beard said. The demand shows no signs of letting up, he said.

Annin, based in Roseland, N.J., has stretched workdays at Oaks to 10 hours from eight and expanded production to include Saturdays. It's added entire shifts at some of its other plants.

The Coshocton, Ohio, factory is running 16 hours a day and one in South Boston, Va., operates on a 20-hour production cycle. The plant in Orange, N.J., works around the clock.

Annin's factory in Verona, N.J., has added more workers, but not enough to run a second shift, Beard said.

Annin makes 5,000 different flags, including one for each of the 50 U.S. states and for more than 200 countries. For now, the company is focusing almost all its production capacity on the Stars and Stripes.

Annin's 2,000 U.S. dealers must wait 15 weeks for delivery of the best-selling 3-by-5-foot flags, Beard said. Despite the clamor, Annin has refused to boost prices to fatten profits, said Dan Dreher, manager of the Oaks plant.

"We're in it for the long haul," Dreher said. "We're not in it to make a quick buck and get out. We're producing the same quality flag at the same price."

Dreher said the Oaks plant would rather pay overtime to experienced workers than hire new ones to meet the current frenzy.

Annin flags come in nylon, cotton and polyester, and range in size from 3-by-5 inches to 30-by-60 feet. Most of the company's production capacity is devoted to the 3-by-5-foot and 4-by-6-foot models favored by homeowners.

The last time Americans showed a similar zeal for flag-waving was in 1991 during the Gulf War when demand spiked, then dropped off immediately after U.S. ground troops defeated Iraq, Beard said. With the U.S. response to the recent terrorist attacks unclear, Annin wouldn't predict how long the company will be working overtime to fill orders.

"Last time, we had an enemy that was identifiable, and we took charge pretty quickly," Beard said. "Now, who knows? It's a whole different war."

Annin started out in the 1820s in a loft in lower Manhattan, making signal flags for sailing ships, according to the company's Web site. It was incorporated in 1847, and Annin flags have borne witness to a lot of American history ever since.

They draped the coffins of slain presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Annin flags have flown at every presidential inauguration since Zachary Taylor's in 1849.

And when U.S. astronauts planted a flag on the moon, it was one made by Annin.

The company also makes nautical and religious flags, and historical ones to commemorate famous battles.

Annin left New York in 1914 and moved to New Jersey, where it opened a plant in Verona. It later added another New Jersey production facility, in Orange, and one in Coshocton, Ohio.

In 1998, Annin bought out its leading competitor, Dettra Inc., acquiring the plants in Oaks and South Boston, Va., and a distribution center in Redwood City, Calif.

Beard says Annin has about a dozen U.S. competitors, but has retained its position as the market leader. The company doesn't release revenue or earnings figures, he said, noting only that Annin sells "in the millions" of flags annually.

Gerry Miller, 59, has worked at the Oaks plant for 13 years, for both Dettra and Annin. Using ordinary scissors, she cuts out fields of white stars embroidered on giant rolls of blue fabric. Miller says she can cut 400 fields of 50 stars each in 75 minutes.

She said the terror attacks have had a far greater impact on her and her co-workers than the Gulf War did.

"A lot of us felt safe and secure before, but now I have my doubts," she said. "It's the United States that was attacked.

These days, Miller said, Annin employees take a special pride in their work.

"We all feel patriotic," she said. "This is the way we can do our part."

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