One of the more amusing news stories of the 2010 Winter Games came when a group of Aussie athletes decided to defy the International Olympic Committee and hang a “Boxing Kangaroo” flag from their temporary home at the Olympic Village.
It triggered massive media coverage, spawning a wave of interest in this flag. And who better to meet the demand than the Flag Shop, which has been a Vancouver institution since 1975?
“When that happened in the Olympics, we were able to—within 48 hours—make some Boxing Kangaroo flags,” recalled the president, Susan Braverman, in a recent interview with the Georgia Straight inside the Powell Street store. That’s because her operation is not only a retail outlet, but includes a great deal of manufacturing capacity as well.
The flag’s popularity even spurred a City of Vancouver sewer-department employee to create a “Boxing Beaver” flag, prompting another wave of media interest. This persuaded Braverman to get her team to put some of these up for sale not long after the coverage began.
“He couldn’t make money on it because it was designed on the City of Vancouver’s time, so we made a contribution to the sewer department’s charity when they do a donation at Christmas,” she said.
From inside the store, it’s easy to conclude that the Flag Shop is all about flags. But that would be missing how this company has evolved in recent years. In fact, Braverman prefers to identify herself as the president of Textile Image, and not the Flag Shop, because her company produces everything from logo-festooned bags to tablecloths used at corporate trade shows.
It also invented the street-banner industry in Vancouver. Clients include the CIBC Run for the Cure, the Museum of Vancouver, Langara College, Bard on the Beach, the Vancouver aquarium, UBC, and VanDusen Botanical Garden.
Next Tuesday (November 27), Braverman’s company will be featured on a CBC business show called The Big Decision. One of the hosts, marketing expert Arlene Dickinson, and her team spent two weeks filming the episode.
“I don’t need financing to expand,” Braverman said. “But I didn’t realize that being on The Big Decision, I needed to ask for money. I don’t want her money. I wanted her contacts. I wanted her marketing experience.”
Textile Image generates $2.9 million in annual revenues, not counting the sales of Flag Shop franchises, according to Braverman. She mentioned that a consultant told her that it’s possible to achieve $10 million in annual revenue if the company expands into the U.S. market.
The Vancouver businesswoman added that she has no idea how The Big Decision will depict her business, but she’s not feeling very optimistic.
“I’m pretty sure, given what I’ve seen from the other shows—and from what I’ve heard and seen from the damage control that the others are doing—that we’re probably not going to be looked upon favourably,” she conceded.
Braverman’s mother, Doreen Braverman, founded the Flag Shop in 1975 after taking over an old local company called Vancouver Regalia. Doreen told the Straight by phone that she thought she would sell promotional products. After learning that the former owner’s wife sold flags, she decided to investigate the area, only to discover that nobody in Canada was in this business.
“I opened a little retail store on Broadway…and put my flags in the window,” she recalled. “We hired a high-school kid to sew the flags.”
The election of the Parti Québécois government in Quebec in 1976 spurred a wave of patriotism, which boosted her business. She bought a building on West 4th Avenue, managed to survive the brutal recession of the early 1980s, and then received a positive jolt from Expo 86 when the company was contracted to supply flags to all the pavilions.
She said that Susan, the youngest of her four children, started working in the store when she was around five or six years old.
“She liked to be out with the customers,” her mother recalled. “Later, she did all sorts of things, mostly retail and sales.”
By the late 1990s, Braverman was playing a major role in the business with her mother before deciding to go to university to become a teacher. She taught French immersion and returned to the Flag Shop in 2006. By that point, the industry had undergone a phenomenal transformation, with flags from China undercutting North American manufacturers.
Braverman eventually took over the store from her mother, who decided to create a separate company that owned the building. Meanwhile, Braverman attended numerous trade shows to learn more about digital printing and other aspects of the business, before deciding to embark on major changes. She leased space on Powell Street to accommodate new technology, including an enormous printer that couldn’t fit into the old location.
“Screen printing on nylon is only left in Canada and the United States,” she said. “The rest of the world is on polyester.”
She also discovered a sturdy, Japanese-made mesh, which enables her company to print different messages on each side of a banner. It’s more durable because the wind blows through it.
“It’s not cheap compared to regular vinyl,” Braverman noted, before adding that it has become popular with municipalities, vineyards, and other clients.
Banners used to come in one shape: rectangles. Now, they are also made to resemble teardrops and feathers.
“You need to know what’s going on,” Braverman emphasized. “If you don’t, the competition will pass you.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.