(Corrects headline to add question mark, clarifies U.S.
government departments in paragraph 2)
BRUSSELS, Feb 6 (Reuters) - When President Barack Obama was
sworn in for his second term on Jan. 21, it's a decent bet that
one of the flags fluttering behind him on the U.S. Capitol was
made in Belgium.
The Waelkens flag company, based in the small town of
Oostrozebeke in Flanders, supplies around 2,000 flags a year to
the United States, with clients including the Pentagon and other
U.S. government departments as well as the United Nations.
But it's not just the far side of the Atlantic where the
company is gaining ground - it also makes flags for NATO,
national militaries, the European Union and just about every
country in the world, from China to Nigeria.
"We have a lot of know-how about how we have to make flags
and a big tradition of embroidery," said Benedikt Waelkens, who
runs the company with his brother, David. "There aren't a lot of
people in the world who can and are making handmade flags."
Benedikt said clients keep coming back because of the
company's unique flag-making knowledge and its faithfulness to
tradition. National and institutional flags have extremely
precise guidelines about how they must be made - down to the
number of stitches per centimetre and specific fabric shades.
What began in 1928 as a family business making embroidered
garments for priests is now, four generations later, an
international enterprise with a growing reputation.
Nearly half of Waelkens' flags are embroidered - some even
by hand - setting the company apart from competitors who produce
printed flags. David believes embroidery carries more symbolism
and likens it to art, since a handmade flag can take four or
five days to complete.
Benedikt said a large, handmade U.S. flag costs about 400
euros ($540). Waelkens has four-year contracts with the EU, NATO
and the United Nations - each of which have scores of buildings
and hundreds of ceremonial rooms that fly flags.
Benedikt explains the business in terms of hierarchy: the
highest-profile EU or UN officials have the nicest flags in
their offices - made of silk, embroidered and with fringe. But
below the top, there are hundreds if not thousands of other
civil servants who also have banners, albeit of lesser quality.
During the financial crisis in 2007, Waelkens moved its
screen printing business to Romania, but the brothers say they
want to keep most of the company in Belgium for tradition's
Benedikt wouldn't give details on the privately held
company's income but said 2012 was its best year. He attributes
the success in part to consolidation in the industry as well as
to the company's vertically integrated model - it makes, sells
and markets its flags and even produces the flagpoles.
But perhaps the key to the business is its personal, family
touch - some of the brothers' current employees also worked for
their father and with their grandfather.
"Human capital of the company is the most important thing,"
said Benedickt. "Happiness of your people, you cannot buy that."
(Reporting By Teddy Nykiel; editing by Luke Baker and Matthew