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Flag Maker Flies High with Help from SBA Loans and Counselling

Dory Wilgus

If you have seen military ceremonies and parades, you have seen their products. So what are they? Uniforms? Rifles? If you guessed flags made by U.S. Flag and Signal, you are correct.

And, like McDonalds, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Xerox, IBM, U.S. Flag and Signal has a leader who started on the ground floor and worked their way up to run the company.  

U.S. Flag and Signal is an expert in making high-quality flags that meet the U.S. Army Heraldry’s strict material and quality control standards. In 1990, the owner passed away and the family did not want to continue running the operation, so they made a deal with Dory Wilgus and her partner Ed Capps to take over the business. Wilgus handles operations while Capps manages the finances.

When Wilgus started with the company, she was a new wife to her high school sweetheart, who had joined the Navy and was stationed in Norfolk.  She knew how to sew and was hired by U.S. Flag and Signal in 1975. She worked her way from sewing machine operator, to monogramming, to running the production line, to ultimately owning the company.

“You don’t get the opportunity to buy the company you work for very often,” said Wilgus. “The family recognized we were the perfect fit to keep this company going. I was a stakeholder and had the passion to continue running this business.”

The 1990’s and into the early 2000’s were prosperous years for U.S. Flag and Signal. By 2004, Wilgus and Capps realized their Virginia Beach location could no longer hold them. They needed to move the operation to a location that would be more suitable for possible growth. After scouting around the Hampton Roads region, the City of Portsmouth lured them to build a facility near Port Center Drive. The move would be costly, and they needed capital for a new facility. With their banker, and help from the U.S. Small Business Administration, they were able to qualify for SBA’s 504 Loan Program, which guarantees loans to help companies acquire land and construct buildings. Infused with new capital, they purchased three acres of land for their new headquarters and manufacturing facility. In 2005 they were fully operational in the new building, which includes everything needed to run the operation and potentially grow.

“We loved being in Virginia Beach and wanted to stay. However, Portsmouth had everything we wanted and the City was wonderful in helping us find a site that fit our business needs,” said Wilgus. “We had assistance from the City and our bank, but without SBA’s loan guarantee program, we would not be in our current building. The support they gave us throughout the process was phenomenal.”

In the last few years, orders from their primary customers declined significantly. They needed to look for additional opportunities. This is when SBA economic development specialist Chris Zobel met Wilgus. Zobel pitched exporting as a way to create additional sales.

“Dory nearly threw me out of her office when I brought the idea up,” said Zobel. “At the time I didn’t realize that she’d had a very bad experience with exporting. She has a great product and I really wanted to help show her exporting can expand her customer base.”

However, the seed was planted. Wilgus reconsidered exporting because she realized it was a way to regain the lost revenue from the reduction of government spending. She contacted Zobel to see what education programs were available. Without his persistence, it would have been a lost opportunity to expand into markets she had never before touched. 

Wilgus was referred to an international trade specialist from the Virginia Small Business Development Center and SBA resource partner, so she could attend the Passports to Global Markets Program. The program helps companies accelerate entry and expansion into global markets.  Each program has three mandatory dates for attendance, provides individual counseling, and culminates with a presentation of the business owner’s market entry strategy in front of a panel of experts and peers. Upon graduation, Wilgus felt she was more equipped and informed to start exporting.  She is now sending products around the world.

With a new market entry strategy in hand, Wilgus adjusted her business practices. Changing her target customers has put her company in a position to grow thanks to exporting.

“I did not realize the support and expertise that SBA can provide. It wasn’t until I was approached did I understand what SBA’s capabilities were,” said Wilgus. “As small business owners we don’t have the time to research how to correctly export. They have training events to help businesses grow that are free or very little cost. They back small business owners because we are the backbone of our deep economy.”

The next time you visit a military installation and see a flag of any type, it may just be a product of U.S. Flag and Signal. Just as a military flag symbolizes triumph and accomplishment, U.S. Flag and Signal has faced challenges and has risen triumphantly.

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U.S. Flag and Signal