Real Talk With Kerry McCoy, Founder of Arkansas Flag and Banner
Kerry McCoy created Flag and Banner, a retailer and manufacturer of flags from all over the world, after graduating from Miss Wade’s Fashion Merchandising School in 1974 with just $400. Since then, she’s started a few new business ventures. She recently began hosting a radio show, called “Up in Your Business With Kerry McCoy,” where she interviews local entrepreneurs and gives small business advice, she’s currently writing a book about her ever-evolving career, and her passion project since 1991 has been restoring the historic Dreamland Ballroom.
Tell me a little bit about the beautiful building that we’re in right now.
I fell in love with the Taborian Hall in the late ‘80s. I’d drive down the freeway, see it on my way to work, and I’d think ah, what a beautiful old building—if Arkansas Flag and Banner ever gets big enough, I’m gonna put it in a building just like that. Well, right after Desert Storm, flags were selling like crazy. I got enough money to buy this building. And so, it became my quest to get the building.
Then one day, I finally snuck my way up to the third floor—and I had no idea the Taborian Hall had this beautiful ballroom called the “Dreamland Ballroom.” When I got up here, it was like a spiritual experience. The roof was off, birds were flying all around, the sunlight was shining in. You could see the stage, you could imagine what it was, and i often told people it was almost like a spiritual experience when I saw it. From that moment on, I began to champion this building until I finally took ownership.
We broke ground the weekend of thanksgiving in 1991. It was really a labor of love on my part. I don’t think any normal person would have been so passionate about my vision, but like I said, I don’t think I chose the building; I almost think this building chose me.
There’s a documentary about the Ballroom—when does it come out?
Yes! AETN started filming in 2012, and it’s done, it comes out April 6th. It’s going to talk a little bit about 9th Street, but it’s mainly going to be about the Dreamland Ballroom and its history. A lot of people don’t realize this, but 9th Street was a thriving business district. There were African American business districts all over America that were just thriving, because African Americans couldn’t shop in white stores. So they had to have their own grocery stores, their own theaters, their own hotels, their own bakeries, their own business buildings, which is what this was. It was also a U.S. officer’s club during World Wars I and II.
Switching gears—pretty much your first job out of school was starting your own business.
Yes, when I got out of school there was a big recession. It was much like the recession we just went through. And what’s the first thing you give up during a recession? Eating out and buying clothes. I just got out of a fashion merchandising school, and I wanted to be a buyer for Neiman Marcus in Dallas. They didn’t need buyers because nobody was buying, so I got a job selling flags for Betsy Ross Flag Girls—and I was absolutely scared to death. I needed money, I needed to make rent, I couldn’t spend a week going “that job doesn’t really fit me” I was 20 years old, and they were like “Get in your car, drive around this part of Texas, and every time you see a flagpole, go in there and sell them a flag.”
So, I did, and you know, back then you could walk in and talk straight to the purchasing agent. You could walk in and say, “I sell flags, I see your flag on your flagpole is worn out, I’d like to sell you a new one,” and people would come out and talk to you. You’d shake hands with these 40-year-old men, and it was very very scary. But, like you always hear, it’s the scary stuff that builds character.
I learned to sell, door-to-door, and after working there six months I got really homesick. I moved home, and my mother said, “Why don’t you come home and sell flags here?” and I said “How do I do that?” and she said, “You just start! One day at a time, we’ll take each thing as we get to it, but I know you have to have a city permit, so go get one and we’ll start.” So, I started a selling flags. But Arkansas Flag and Banner didn’t solely support me for nine years, so I worked odd jobs— waitressing, temporary work in offices, work in my home. Then it began to slowly support me, and I think I hired my first employee, a sales person.
One of the mistakes people make is they get these great ideas, and then they go out and they manufacture their idea. I could’ve just said “I’m gonna start selling flags” and gone out and bought a whole bunch of flags and stocked my inventory. Well, that’s the cart before the horse. You make sales, then you build your inventory. A lot of people are like, “I’m going to start my business, I’m going to open up an office, I’m going to buy a lot of product, and then I’m going to start selling.” Unless you’ve got very deep pockets, this is not the way to go, because very few people are going to make a lot money the first year or two. Most entrepreneurs I know have worked more than one job while they were getting their business.
So you used to go door-to-door to sell things, then it went to catalog, then telemarketing, and then online. What advice do you have for being in an ever-changing field?
If you don’t change every 10 years, you’re a dying business. You’ve got to keep pushing forward. I get bored easily, and I like that business is moving at the speed of light. I’ve made some missteps, like everyone else. Some good advice would be, don’t be the first, but don’t be the last. The first is expensive because everybody’s learning. I have a tendency to do that a lot.
What mistakes did you make along the way?
When I was young—and this is a mistake I still make—I cannot help but be emotionally connected to the people I work with. It makes it hard to draw the line between business and personal.
Besides becoming really personal with my employees and having a hard time drawing the line, an early business mistake would be believing my own BS. You need to really put it on paper and look at it, because most entrepreneurs are dreamers, and we get really excited about big ideas. Don’t stop doing that, that’s what gets you up in the morning, but I try to validate my thoughts with detailed business plan ideas.
What’s another mistake I’ve made? You know, one of my employees told me something that gave me a lot of peace…They said “life is unfinished.” This is easier said than applied because a lot of entrepreneurs can’t stop. Their mind goes all the time, and they’re always feeling like they’re not doing enough. They go to bed thinking about what the didn’t get done that day and they wake up thinking about what they need to get done. I realized that it is unfinished, everybody gets the same amount of hours in the day, and if you just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other all day long, you’re going to get somewhere.
What advice would you give to young women who want to start their own business?
My advice to entrepreneurs is to just keep doing something. You never know where it’s going to lead you. I never thought I’d be selling flags. You can’t just get this mindset that this is what I went to school for, and this is what I’m supposed to do, because that may not be the case. It may be along the path to get you there.
I almost didn’t graduate high school because I had to give a speech. I was so scared of speaking, and now I mentor people on a radio show. I thought, this is a fear I’m going to have to face. I thought, this is as far as I’m going to go in life if I don’t learn how to talk to reporters and speak in front of people. It’s amazing to see how far I’ve come, from not being able to talk to a handful of people without getting nervous to running my own radio show.
So how did you overcome your fear of public speaking?
I just kept doing it. And you could ask my husband, I could never sleep the night before, even three days before, a speech. The newspaper would call up and say, “I want to come interview you about the Desert Storm War and we just want to get a soundbite from you,” I’d just have a panic attack.
Tell me more about your radio show, “Up in Your Business With Kerry McCoy.” What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since starting it?
That I didn’t know my friends at all. I didn’t realize that I had so many entrepreneurial friends, but I do. So I called a lot of them up, and said, “Come tell your story and share your wisdom on the radio to other people.” So, when they’d come on the show, I’d say, “I’ve known you for 20-30 years, I had no idea that you were man of the year in 2015, that you were a graduate from SMU, that you were so accomplished.”
Who’s your favorite guest so far?
You’re going to get me in trouble. I can tell you my favorite topic: Business people. When I talked about succession with Barry Corkern I really liked discussing how to pass on a business. It was a subject I was really familiar with, and I felt like we were giving good information.
I enjoyed talking to Allen Engstrom, whose company is CFO Network, because he’s the Chief Financial Officer for small businesses that can’t afford their own—he talked about ratios and how to look at your income statement and balance sheet. I was in business 10 years before I knew the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet.
Who’s your dream guest?
I’d like to have Hillary Clinton on. She knows a lot about a wide variety of topics, and I really admire her. Barbara Walters, Hillary Clinton, and Gloria Steinem. The women who paved the way for me. They’re about 10 years older than me and they broke through the glass ceiling that all of us women are coming behind. You wouldn’t have seen a weather woman on TV before Barbara Walters.
Can you tell me anything about your book?
My book. I’m writing a tell-all about myself because I want people to know that life isn’t a straight path. One of the reasons I’m successful is because I’ve done a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. I cannot judge anybody, ever, because I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I was lucky enough to have a family and a loving mother and father who supported me. I think that’s why I have trouble drawing that line with my employees at Arkansas Flag and Banner; some of my employees don’t have the support I had, and they just need another chance. Somebody did that for me, so I think I should pay that forward.
So, I decided I wanted to write a book and just say it all the way it really is—all the things I’ve done right and wrong, all the insecurities that I overcame. I hope my book will tell people that there’s no right way there’s no wrong way, there’s just your way. If you always try to do the right thing and you come at it from a good place, form your heart, then even if you make mistakes, you’ll still succeed.
How do you maintain work/life balance?
There is none. It’s the 21st century. There’s no line; they meld completely together.
So you have Flag and Banner, the radio show, your book, the Dreamland Ballroom—what’s next for you?
I want a farm and an airplane. I really want an airplane. I want to co-op an airplane with somebody. I also really want a ranch because I love nature—I love being outside. I have a hard time sitting in the house.
So where would the ranch be?
On the Arkansas River. I’ve picked out a flat in downtown Little Rock, and then there’s a ranch that I’ve been eyeing that’s not very far out of town. It would be an orphanage, and I’d call it “The Krouse House,” in honor of my parents.
I just have a hard time… I just cannot quit wanting to meet people and find out and learn from them. I think that’s the favorite thing I like about my radio show. I thought the radio show was going to be a mentoring show, that I was going to share my knowledge, but the radio show has actually become a learning experience for me. I’m learning so much by listening to my guests. It’s like continuing my education, and I had no idea I was going to get that benefit.