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Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001
 
2001 Small Business profiles

Patriotic decals a boon for Everett vinyl firm

By Tricia Duryee
Seattle Times business reporter

1. Clean surface to be decorated; leave damp. 2. Apply decal. Many citizens followed those instructions since Sept. 11 to affix American flag decals to their car, office or home windows.

Behind that urge to be patriotic, though, is a business story that stretched from Minneapolis to Denver to a little-known company in the Puget Sound area.

Achilles USA, a subsidiary of Japan-based Achilles Corp., has been manufacturing vinyl and plastics for almost 30 years in Everett. Immediately after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, it saw demand for its clear, static-cling vinyl skyrocket because so many Americans were trading in fuzzy dice for the American flag.

"There have been a couple of promotions in the past (that increased business), but never before have I seen this kind of volume," said Len Kooistra, who's been working at the plant for 22 years, first in the manufacturing line and now as a sales representative.

The plastic, similar to the kind oil-change shops stick on your windshield as reminders for the next change, was like a Beanie Baby at the height of collectors' frenzy.

Achilles shipped out 300,000 to 500,000 pounds of plastic in September and October. A truck can carry 40,000 pounds at a time. That's almost 13 trucks a month, or 10 to 15 percent more than usual for the $60 million-a-year business, Kooistra said.

This time of year, Achilles usually has orders for the static-cling vinyl used by McDonald's or Wal-Mart for Christmas window decorations but, after the terrorist attacks, the plastic went to make American flags. The sales were a nice change of pace for Achilles, and a striking contrast to the drop-off in business other companies suffered after the attacks.

Achilles wasn't the only one who profited from the spurt in orders. To understand how the extra business came its way, you have to start at the top of a chain of supplier-customer relationships that generate sales for vinyl.

Sara Walters, senior marketing manager with The Paper Magic Group in Minneapolis, said she got phone calls from retailers the day after the attacks ordering American flags.

Normally, Paper Magic, which markets decal product lines, goes to customers to make the sale. This time, the relationship was reversed. "That was an unusual situation when we had three of the major retailers come to us," she said.

Paper Magic sells the flag decals, some with patriotic slogans such as "Let freedom ring," through its educational division. But it didn't have enough to meet demand.

So it contacted its printer.

Enter Chris Dillon, president of Meyers Display in Minneapolis. Since Sept. 11, Dillon said, he has printed 2.4 million individual sheets of American flags for consumer sales, representing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

"To be honest, I didn't have the normal kind of feeling that we get when we make big orders," he said. "This felt different because of the tragedy, but we felt the good thing to do was to make room in the press schedule for it."

Before Meyers' high-tech machines zapped the ink on the plastic, however, Dillon looked to Doug Meyer, president of Plastiprint in Denver, for the raw materials.

"I sold the inventory; I sold scraps that had been around for years. I couldn't keep up with the demand," said Meyer, who estimates he took in about $1 million in revenue in the weeks after Sept. 11.

And that's where Achilles entered the picture. Plastiprint buys directly from the Everett company, unraveling the massive roll of plastic and preparing it for printing by mounting a cardboard or paper backing to the vinyl.

"The same thing happened for the Gulf War, but this was so much more dramatic and volatile. So many people wanted it," Meyer said.

Before the flag order, business had been tough for Plastiprint. "A lot of business has gone up from the standpoint of American flags," Meyer said, "but the other business ... is all gone. No one is advertising."

Achilles' Kooistra said the business was nice for his company, too, especially as it competes with discount manufacturers overseas. In recent years, the Everett plant which had always operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week shifted to a five-day work week despite efforts to expand into specialty items, including back-lit movie-screen material.

Soon everyone who wants one will have the flag decal, and the boom will be over. Then, Achilles will return to producing a normal mix of products. Its usual big seller: the plastic overlays on 3-ring notebooks.

Tricia Duryee can be reached at 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com.

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