Made in the USA: Flag maker works with Wal-Mart to produce jobs in South Carolina

July 1, 2017 GMT

KINGSTREE — At the end of Old Glory Way on the outskirts of this rural Williamsburg County town, Kashana Green slips brackets and rings over metal poles before placing a stream of red, white and blue in a plastic sleeve to be shipped to some of the biggest retailers in the nation.

As floor manager for her packaging line of U.S. flags, the Greeleyville resident makes a comfortable living for herself and her two children at the job she landed more than two years ago after a giant in the retail industry focused efforts on putting more American-made products on its shelves.

Green, 34, is one of the hundred or so workers added to Pennsylvania-based Valley Forge Flag Co.’s workforce after the flag maker landed a deal in 2015 with retail giant Wal-Mart to sell the all-American-made products in more than 1,700 stores across the Southeast, including those across the Palmetto State.

Kashana Green was hired by Valley Forge Flag Co. after the flag maker landed a contract with Wal-Mart to sell the products in its stores. She is a floor manager at the company’s Kingstree plant in Williamsburg County. Brad Nettles/Staff

“I love what I do,” Green said with a broad smile as she took a break off the production line. “Wal-Mart is a big company, and they wanted to buy these products from us in the little town of Kingstree. That’s good for us.”

Though Valley Forge makes flags for other companies, Wal-Mart’s flags are sold under the Betsy brand, a company the flag maker acquired about 10 years ago whose name evokes Betsy Ross, the woman given credit for stitching together the first U.S. flag.

For competitive reasons, Valley Forge doesn’t divulge the total number of flags it produces.

“We make tens of millions each year,” company spokesman Reggie VandenBosch said.

Eventually, all of those Stars and Stripes, including the Betsy line, flow out the company’s doors to flutter from front porches, flap from flagpoles or serve as a centerpiece for a Fourth of July picnic.

U.S. flags are sent through an assembly line at the Valley Forge Flag Co. plant in Lane near Kingstree. Brad Nettles/Staff

Packaging patriotism

The Valley Forge plant in Kingstree, so named because the colonial settlement was once called King’s Tree when the king of England reserved for his own use all of the white pines in the area, packages patriotism.

The sprawling 300,000-square-foot dying and distribution center is just part of the Pennsylvania-based company’s operations. It also has a plant about 12 miles to the south on the edge of the tiny town of Lane, where materials dyed at the Kingstree site are cut and sewn into different sizes for American flags.

Streams of red, white and blue at sewing stations and overhead conveyors brighten the boxy warehouse in the flag-making operation in Lane, a rural hamlet of 480 residents without a gas station.

Valley Forge Flag Co. employee Anita Lavine cuts U.S. flag material at the company’s Lane plant in Williamsburg County. Brad Nettles/Staff

Other company operations can be found near Moncks Corner, in Smoaks in Colleton County, in Olanta in Florence County and in Huntsville, Ala.

Altogether, the family-run, private enterprise, founded as a burlap bag business in 1882, employs more than 400 people, with another hundred or so added during the peak season of packing and rushing orders to retailers from January to May — ahead of the patriotic holidays of Memorial Day, Flag Day and Fourth of July.

“We still make flags all year-round,” said Mark Adair, company vice president of operations, as he pointed out half-empty shelves in the stockroom during a recent visit in June. “In the spring, the warehouse is stocked to the ceiling waiting to be shipped to our customers.”

Besides Wal-Mart, other national retailers carrying the company’s products include Home Depot, Costco, Target, Ace Hardware and Michael’s.

Margaree Mitchum, plant manager of Valley Forge Flag Co. in Lane in Williamsburg County. Brad Nettles/Staff

‘It just makes you feel good’

Margaree Mitchum runs the Lane cut-and-sewing facility, where strips of different-colored pieces of cloth are stitched together, hung on overhead assembly belts, fashioned with grommets and folded to be shipped to the Kingstree packaging facility.

“It just makes you feel good,” said Mitchum, one of the company’s first seven employees at the Lane facility when it opened in 2001. “When you see the flag, it stands for freedom. To be a part of that is a great thing.”

Debra Bergman and her brother are fourth-generation family members to run Valley Forge Flag Co., a Pennsylvania-based company with several operations throughout South Carolina. Brad Nettles/Staff

All parts of the flags, from the thread to the dye, are made in the U.S., according to Debra Bergman, chief financial officer and family member of the fourth-generation, flag-making company.

“To be a member of the Flag Manufacturers Association of America, all of the materials must be made in the U.S.,” Bergman said. “We are a founding member.”

Because its products are made totally in America, the company approached Wal-Mart about putting its flags in the world’s largest retailer after the Arkansas-based company announced in 2013 a commitment to buy an additional $250 billion in U.S.-made products over 10 years.

Valley Forge Flag Co. employee Betty Nesmith sews together a U.S. flag at the company’s Lane plant in Williamsburg County. Brad Nettles/Staff

Creating jobs

It was a way for the corporate giant to stave off criticism of selling products made overseas, mainly in China, by cheap labor. It was also an effort to bring some positive publicity to Wal-Mart by buying American-made products and creating jobs in the U.S.

By one measure, in Williamsburg County it has been a success. When the retailer and Valley Forge struck the deal in 2015, one of every 10 people in the county’s labor force was out of a job. With the improving economy and the company’s new contract, that rate has now been cut in half, according to state employment statistics.

After the deal, the flag-maker’s employment rolls swelled by more than 100, putting people to work in one of the state’s more rural and isolated counties where median household income stands at about $28,000, just over half the U.S. average, according to the Census Bureau. For proprietary reasons, the company declined to disclose its employee pay rates.

Valley Forge Flag Co. employee Margie Conyers inspects and folds U.S. flags at the company’s Lane plant in Williamsburg County. Brad Nettles/Staff

On target

Wal-Mart estimates after 10 years it will have created 250,000 manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and another 750,000 indirect jobs.

That effort is supported by working with companies which already did business with the retail juggernaut before 2013, working with suppliers to move manufacturing operations to the U.S. and finding new suppliers, such as Valley Forge, according to Cindi Marsiglio, Wal-Mart’s vice president of manufacturing.

She declined to say how much of the company’s $250 billion effort has been reached in four years or how many jobs have been created, but she said the company sets goals each year and is on target.

“It is really where we thought we would be,” Marsiglio said.

She added there is still much work to be done and negotiations continue with hundreds of U.S. suppliers. “Some may be 200 jobs, some may be 20,” she added.

Shronita Cooper, an employee at the Valley Forge Flag Co. plant in Kingstree, packages American flags and poles. Brad Nettles/Staff

At the end of Wal-Mart’s 10-year initiative, the company believes the products created by U.S. manufacturers will continue to be supported by customers buying American-made products, keeping the effort active after it officially winds down.

“I feel great about where we are, and I’m optimistic for where U.S. manufacturing is going, but certainly there is more work for us to do,” Marsiglio said.

Back in Kingstree, Green occasionally walks into her neighborhood Wal-Mart and shows her children the flag she helped put on the shelf.

″‘Look,’” she tells them proudly. ”‘It says, Made in Kingstree, not China.’ That makes me feel good.”