UK: ZEPHYR BRAVES CHILL WINDS. - By supplying flags to countries around the world, Zephyr has kept its own colours flying high while other firms' banners have slipped to half-mast.

by Charles Darwent.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

By supplying flags to countries around the world, Zephyr has kept its own colours flying high while other firms' banners have slipped to half-mast.

A light sweat still breaks out on Christopher Skey's brow at the memory of it all: Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh beaming welcomingly from the top of Britannia's gangplank; President and Mrs Reagan setting sclerotic foot on the bottom of it; the world's television cameras zooming in on the American flag as it snapped smartly up the Royal Yacht's mizzen; the malicious tittering of onlookers as the star-spangled banner unfurled in all its striped glory, upside down. Her Majesty, a stickler for such things, was not, it seems, amused. Nor was Skey, whose firm Zephyr Racing Pennants, Britain's biggest flag manufacturer had made the inverted flag in question.

Something chic for Skey in the New Year's Honours List? Not this time, perhaps.

'And it wasn't even our fault,' wails Skey, appalled at the arbitrariness of fortune's wheel.

'The halyards on the Royal Yacht have got special fittings, and it was some Navy bod at Portsmouth who'd put them on the wrong way round.' 'It was not,' concedes David Thomas, Zephyr's sales director, 'an entirely happy moment.' There have been other troubles. 'We did have a bit of a problem with a certain nameless emir,' muses Skey. 'No one could tell us which of the two versions of his national flag was the right one, so we sent them both. I told our agent, "Run one up, and if he looks grumpy run it down again, quickly."' 'Then there was the time we gave Bermuda its independence,' Thomas adds, wincing slightly. 'Oh God,' moans Skey. 'We were asked to make the governor's pennant - Bermuda's a crown colony - and by mistake we used the arms of a governor-general, which you only have if you're independent.' Skey picked up the telephone the day after the gubernatorial inauguration to hear an acidic Foreign Office voice saying, 'I thought perhaps I should ring to congratulate you. You've just liberated Bermuda.' So who would be a flag-maker? Well, David Thomas and Christopher Skey and Skey's cousin, Bryan - the triumvirate (respectively sales, finance and production) that owns Zephyr. And despite Zephyr having been founded by Skey pere, now deceased, and Thomas having begun his own career at another flag-making firm, the trio's preferences cannot simply be put down to habit. For all its pitfalls of regal outrage and wounded national amour propre, flag-making can be a happy business, and a paying one. When the elder Skey set up shop in his garage in Watford in 1955 making racing pennants for yachts, he can scarcely have envisaged the metamorphosis his firm would undergo over the ensuing four decades: the move to a factory in Thrapston, Northants; the acquisition of another nearby, and of a sales outfit at Tring; a product line that would come to include the flags of everywhere from Abu Dhabi to Zimbabwe; a turnover, last year, somewhere in excess of £2 million.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this story, however, is that it should have happened at all. Tricky questions of protocol apart, Skey makes no pretence that running up flags is a particularly taxing business. True, some are more difficult than others. 'The Union Jack's a bugger,' notes Thomas, unpatriotically. 'Thirty-nine bits to be stitched together the right way'. But the vast majority of modern flags are now printed rather than appliqued, which makes things both cheaper in terms of labour and easier in terms of production. Once your initial image has been created the rest is fairly straightforward screen-printing. Nor has capital expense been of an order to exclude potential emulators from the market. For all Zephyr's state-of-the-art printing hardware, total plant investment in the last five years has hardly exceeded £500,000. If this raises the question of why no one else should have sought to pinch Zephyr's lucrative pitch, then the answer is that they have. The Dutch - Europe's largest manufacturers of flags - in particular have attacked the British home market. 'Far be it from me to suggest that they've been dumping at cheap prices to undercut us,' observes Thomas, darkly,'but they have.' (No prizes for guessing the nationality of the battered flag flying on Zephyr's gale-testing flagpole.) The perfidious Hollanders also have recourse to the sort of highly expensive and rampantly productive Swedish machines the mere mention of which produces a far-away look in Christopher Skey's flag-maker's eye. 'It would be great to get hold of one,' says Skey, wistfully, 'but they are £1.5 million.' These machines happily chug off print runs of 50,000 or so. Skey's home-made presses, by contrast, are stretched to produce 3,500 flags a week.

That Zephyr's trio and its 80 or so employees have not joined their three million compatriots down at the job centre is due, in part, to Skey's perception of what his firm does as 'a service thing'. Withdrawal from the ERM and the consequent cost of products priced in guilders has helped recently, but the main reason for Zephyr's house flag not slipping permanently to corporate half-mast has been the company's consistent willingness to give customers what they want, when they want it. That unfortunate incidence with President Reagan apart, Her Majesty's face has more often been saved by timely intervention on Zephyr's part. Quick to spot flag-waving opportunities - Thomas's familiarity with the news is impressive - Zephyr turned Jubilee Year into its own annus mirabilis. More recently, it was Zephyr that managed to supply flags and flagpoles to Northampton's Derngate Theatre after their lack had been noticed the day before the Queen came to open it.

This willingness to please has been notably useful in garnering exports: up 20% this year and accounting for roughly one third of Zephyr's sales. The firm's prize market is the Middle East. It requires special broad-mindedness says Thomas, a quality to which, apparently, his Dutch competitors do not naturally tend. 'I once had a call from a customer in Oman who wanted me to air-freight out a quantity of aluminium flagpoles and no flags,' Thomas says. 'When I asked why, he said he wanted them as masts for his racing dhows. I thought about it for a second, then said yes. A Dutch flag-maker would have said no. That's where we score over them.' Omanis, keen flag-wavers, now have 10,000 Zephyr flagpoles lining their motorways as a result, and order 7,000 new Zephyr flags every National Day to fly from them. Their Sultan has 150 of his own, sewn in gold thread on silk (Zephyr has a skilled sewing staff) and hung on gold-plated flagpoles. The only request that Thomas and Skey can recall turning down was for flammable flags during the Gulf War. 'We thought at first they meant non-flammable,' says Skey, 'but they didn't. They wanted to burn them. It was,' he adds, with pride, 'one of ours that got burned in front of the Iraqi Embassy.' It is not only in the Middle East that Zephyr's sales wiles have borne fruit. The firm exports flags to - tiens! - the notoriously nationalistic French. This by dint of selling them, unbranded, through a French agency.

Australia is also a bonzer customer, following a flash of Archimedean inspiration on Thomas's part while in the bathtub. 'Flag-making had always suffered badly from seasonality,' says Zephyr's sales director. 'Strong in summer, awful in winter. It suddenly occurred to me that the seasons in Australia were reversed, so I got the first plane out.' Should Keating's electoral victory result in the genesis of the Republic of Australia, Zephyr will doubtless step into the breach. Whether this anti-monarchism will further postpone Skey's CBE is a moot point.

Skey has more pressing worries on his plate though. 'This recession is different from the last one,' he believes. 'Then, people tried to spend their way out. Now, they're all cutting back to the bone.' This has been a blow to Zephyr's newer product: corporate flags, that species of logo'd banner typically found fluttering over garage forecourts and now responsible for 60% of Zephyr's sales. Although turnover will probably remain above £2 million this year, profits may be pared from an already slim £85,000 down to an even slimmer £50,000.

Nevertheless, ruthless marketing on Thomas's part did recently win the firm an extremely welcome contract to flag the entire European launch of the Ford Mondeo. Given that this might have been achieved just as easily - arguably more so - by buying flags in rather than making them, Thomas's feelings towards Zephyr's manufacturing role tends to the lukewarm: 'My motto is, Don't make 'em, sell 'em,' asserts Zephyr's sales director. This draws a faintly dirty look from Skey, who favours instead getting better economies of scale through merger with one of the other two major UK flag-makers. In the meantime, both have to cope with a more immediate problem: the Union Jack on the Zephyr flagpole keeps being stolen by local youths. Whether this is a cause for optimism or despair depends on how you look at it.

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