Flag Staff

Steve Boutin, owner of the Flag Shop of Vermont, is embroidered with the entrepreneurial spirit

by Portland Helmich

Steve Boutin, owner of The Flag Shop of Vermont in Essex Junction, says, "The fun part about a business is starting one. When it's running like a clock, it starts to get redundant. I keep adding services to keep myself interested." His store started selling flags exclusively but has expanded its services to include direct color digital badges for photo IDs and silk screening.

Some are born with the desire to follow a particular vocational path; for others, such desires spring from indelible expe-riences that forever shape their world views. Steve Boutin falls into the latter category. At 19, he was an E-5 construction engineer in the Vietnam War. Today, the Vermont native is the proud owner of The Flag Shop of Vermont with his wife and 26-year-old son.

The only time Boutin, who was stationed in a tent on the Mekong River in South Vietnam in the early 1970s, saw the American flag was when he went back to base. "You didn't know what the heck you were doing over there," he recalls. "Whenever you saw the flag, though, it reminded you of home."

While Boutin's tour in Vietnam didn't spark a concomitant desire to open a flag shop, it did plant a seed - one that took root years later.

Upon returning to Vermont in 1972, Boutin was in need of any kind of work. The Vermont Heating & Ventilating Co. had a four-year apprenticeship program that trained Vietnam veterans to be sheet metal workers, and Boutin enrolled. Obtaining his journeyman's license took longer than expected because Boutin decided to take over his father's business as an independent distributor of H.P. Hood products. He ran the milk products business for a couple of years. "That was a real backbreaker," he remembers. "I got up at 3 a.m. every day it got really old."

Eventually Boutin returned to Vermont Heating & Ventilating, later becoming the company's shipping supervisor. Over a period of 15 years, he also did sheet metal work at New England Air Systems and the former Arnold Edwards Corp.

When his wife, Nancy, started a country gift store called The Peddler's Wagon in the Essex Towne Marketplace in the early '80s, Boutin lent the business his talents in his spare time, building wooden hutches, shelves, and quilt racks. His wife suspects he transferred his sheet metal knowledge to woodworking. "He was really talented at it," she says.

Independent and self-directed, Boutin became "antsy" over time and so began looking to start a business of his own. "If you're an entrepreneur," he notes, "it's in your blood. You can't work for somebody for very long. You've got to change." After years of creating wooden furniture and trinkets for his wife's store, Boutin knew he wanted a business that didn't require him to make the inventory himself.

Within five weeks of the terrorist attacks, The Flag Shop of Vermont did three years' worth of business. "With Sept. 11, nobody had enough. Manufacturers' stock went down to zero." Steve Boutin believes the widespread surge of patriotism is more than a passing fad.

The idea of opening a flag shop in Vermont came about when Boutin was visiting New Hampshire. "I came across a flag shop there," he says, "and I thought, 'There's nobody doing this in Vermont.' I always knew you could buy a flag at a hardware store, but nobody was concentrating just on flags.

Nancy wasn't surprised by his desire; nor, however, was she enthusiastic about it. "Steve had always loved the flag," she says. "He never felt this area had a place where you could get a nice flag that wasn't imported, but I didn't think it was a good idea. I was running The Peddler's Wagon, and we were kind of humming along."

What slowed momentum at The Peddler's Wagon was the beginning of the Gulf War, which created a depression in gift ware. In response, Boutin and his wife decided to divide The Peddler's Wagon in half, selling country gifts on one side and flags on the other. "We said whichever side did better after six months would be the business we'd concentrate on," remembers Boutin, "and after six months we were selling more flags."

That was 11 years ago. Today, The Flag Shop of Vermont is still located at the Essex Towne Marketplace (the store is opening in Maple Tree Place in WillistononMarch 1), but the Boutins now sell more than just American, international, and decorative flags. They create custom flags and banners, design interior and exterior commercial signs, sell and install flagpoles and offer engraving services.

Diversification has clearly kept Boutin motivated. "The fun part about a business is starting one," he says. "When it's running like a clock, it starts to get redundant. I keep adding services to keep myself interested."

Additional services not only keep Boutin interested, they also keep him competitive. His direct color digital badge machine makes photo IDs, and his newest purchase is silk screening equipment, with which he intends to produce political campaign signs. "We've been doing it all by hand on vinyl," explains the entrepreneur, "but we'll be able to bring the prices down with this because it's faster."

Though the 51-year-old doesn't have many local competitors, he says he always operates as if there's another flag shop next door. Fifteen percent of his business comes from the Internet, where he competes with 25,000 other Web sites. "Once you let your guard down and think, 'I don't have any competition,' then you're in trouble," says Boutin. "I'm real competitive as far as pricing goes."

Steve's wife, Nancy, is the shop's office and retail manager. During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Nancy let Steve sell flags from one side of her country gifts store, The Peddler's Wagon, in the Essex Towne Marketplace. They agreed to concentrate on whichever business made the most money at the end of six months.

Competitive, yes; cheap, no. High-quality flags are the only kind Boutin says he sells. The average price of a 3-by-5-foot American flag at the Boutins' shop is $25, and the largest red-white-and-blues can run as high as $1,000. Experience has taught Boutin, however, that cheap merchandise doesn't sell. "That's not what people want," he says. "If they're going to spend their money, they want something that's going to hold up."

Commercial customers make up approximately 60 percent of the family's business. The Flag Shop of Vermont designs custom flags for such companies as IDX and the Chittenden Bank. As Vermont has no flag manufacturers of its own, the Boutins have custom flags sewn by Humphrey's in Pennsylvania. Over half of their stock flags American, United Nations (they stock all of them) and advertising come from Annin & Company in New Jersey, the oldest and biggest flag manufacturer in the world. For the last five years, the family has had a contract to supply flags for the state of Vermont.

When it comes to Old Glory, Boutin's integrity shines forth. "I would never sell a U.S. flag made in another country," he declares. "If I'm going to sell a U.S. flag, it's got to be made by U.S. hands with U.S. threads."

Although sign sales at the Essex Junction store had begun to supersede flag sales in recent years, the events of Sept. 11 obviously turned American flag sales around. Within five weeks of the terrorist attacks, The Flag Shop of Vermont did three years' worth of business. Even though the Boutins are considered premium dealers (they buy flags all year long, not just before holidays), they still can't fill all of their orders because their flag manufacturers can't keep up with the enormous demand.

"One of the challenges of the business," says Boutin, "is trying to outguess what to buy for inventory. Another is making sure you have enough of it. With Sept. 11, nobody had enough. Manufacturers' stock went down to zero."

In Boutin's eyes, the widespread surge of patriotism is more than a passing fad. "I don't think people are going to forget about patriotism for a while," he speculates. "People used to let their flags get ripped and soiled, but now they're going to make sure they're nice and crisp."

Apparently, the pride Boutin takes in Old Glory is no different from the pride he takes in his work. Bob Young has witnessed Boutin's professional dedication firsthand. Chief of the Malletts Bay Fire Department, Young has had Boutin install flagpoles in front of his fire station. "Steve was putting in two flagpoles," Young recalls, "and he was very fussy about it. He made sure that they were straight, that they were the same height, and that they were installed properly so they'd last a long time."

Like many committed business owners, Boutin knows that customer service is what keeps any business thriving. "If somebody calls with a problem," he says, "we do our best to take care of it."

"Steve's come out in the middle of a snowstorm," says Jack DuBrul, owner of The Automaster on Shelburne Road, "to repair broken flag lines. He's very service conscious."

In DuBrul's mind, another advantage of doing business with The Flag Shop of Vermont is that either Boutin or his wife answers the phone. "There's no screening when I call," notes DuBrul. "Nobody's saying to me, 'Can I tell him what it's about?'"

Running a small family business makes providing personal attention easier for Boutin, who focuses on buying the shop's inventory and on designing banners and flags. In addition to Nancy, a former nurse who functions as the office and retail manager, and the couple's son, Steven, who concentrates on the sign shop, The Flag Shop of Vermont has one part-time employee. The younger Boutin appreciates the benefits of family ownership. "The good part is that we're all going for the same thing," he says.

Boutin's son also values what his father has taught him about working with the public. "He's always trying to convey that if you treat somebody unfairly now," Steven points out, "down the road it could bite you. That's why it's important to treat people fairly."

"One of the challenges of the business is trying to outguess what to buy for inventory," Steve Boutin, owner of The Flag Shop of Vermont

Nancy prizes her husband's creativity. "He's always thinking up new products and services," she says, "and he always hits it on the head." What motivates Boutin, according to his spouse of 27 years, is his need to work for himself. "That drives all of us, actually," she adds.

In addition to the pride that comes with self-employment, Boutin enjoys learning about the flags he sells and the customers who buy them. "When I first started," he chuckles, "I didn't know the difference between Italy's flag and Japan's. Now I can identify just about all of the flags in the United Nations. It's fun to learn about different countries. Somebody will come in and want a flag from Bosnia, and you hear stories."

Other than moving to a new location in Williston to increase visibility, Boutin's plans for the future are to retire in another decade and allow his son to take over the business he was inspired to build. "I'm going to do it for 10 more years," he says, "and after that I'm going to take my motorcycle and just go."

According to Nancy, while her husband's candy red 2000 Goldwing may pack on more miles in time, the notion of his retirement is absurd. "I could only wish," she proclaims with indisputable certainty. "Steve's a workaholic. They'll have to carry him out of here."

Sitting in his office, Boutin glances at his watch. "We've got a truckload of flagpoles to deliver today," he says. The time has clearly come for the flag aficionado to return to work. These days especially, there are more flagpoles to install and even more flags to sell. The stars and stripes that comforted Boutin halfway around the world three decades ago still seem to be inspiring him today.

Originally published in December 2001 Business People-Vermont