I love that there’s a different challenge every day and I’m the guy who solves it.
Mike Vaille learned how to work early in life. He remembers waking up at 4am as a kid, long before dawn, to help his Dad run the milk route.
His parents had a remodeling business in Shawnee, KS and his father, Harold, made milk deliveries to bring in a little extra money for the family. Harold had wanted to serve his country in the military, but a medical condition prevented it. Instead, he expressed his patriotism by installing a flagpole in front of their house and flying the American flag every day. Friends of the family appreciated how much Harold was drawn to flags as symbols of pride and community — and one of them joked they should make a business out of it. Harold and Lois took the leap, setting up shop in the garage and launching FlagSource Unlimited. That was 27 years ago.
They sold American and international flags, they created custom flags for towns and community groups, and they installed and maintained the flagpoles throughout Johnson County. Over the years, people would stop Mike and tell him how much they appreciated what his Dad did. How helpful and honest he was. Mike admired his parents and the way they worked together in what was literally a Mom and Pop business. He enjoyed it all from afar – until he got a call four years ago.
Harold had Parkinson’s. He was deteriorating quickly from the disease. He needed help getting out of bed, sitting in a chair, getting dressed. Lois was battling health issues of her own and couldn’t do it herself. And the businesses needed attention badly, too. So, Mike moved in to be at his father’s side again. It was important to both of his parents that FlagSource Unlimited stay in business – for the family’s financial needs and, just as importantly, their sense of pride. Mike dug in. He re-familiarized himself with FlagSource and its clients. He got out in the field, digging holes and pouring concrete to install flagpoles. In the evenings, and in between, he helped care for his father. Lois managed to continue running the books as she always had.
And so because of Mike and Lois, when Harold Vaille passed away, the business he started has been kept alive. Mike has grown to enjoy the work – the day-to-day challenges, the independence of working from home, developing new business online. He likes making custom logo flags for local clients like Johnson County Tractor Club and the city of Shawnee. And he likes working with his mom, sharing this time together and preserving the patriotism and service that Harold Vaille modeled for so long.
Photos by Christina Clusiau
Mike arranges flag-inspired ties in the store's display case. “We need to get people to show more pride and patriotism in their communities.”
Mike and Lois have a business lunch over homemade chili.
Lois holds a photograph of her late husband, Harold Vaille, who was known for his patriotic flair.
Mike pulls in to the home office after his service call.
Flagsource Unlimited operates out of the home of Mike's mother, Lois Vaille.
The business is 25% service on flagpoles and 75% flag sales. In addition to American flags, Flagsource sells custom flags made for cities, school districts, businesses and family crests.
Mike’s parents founded the business 27 years ago. When they both fell ill in 2010, he moved in to take care of them -- and to take care of the business, which he now runs with his mother.
“Things have slowed down over the past two or three years. My challenge is to get a new eCommerce website up and running so we can hopefully bring that business back.”
“‘631-Flag," he says. "That’s how you reach us.”
Mike never lets a flag touch the ground.
The school in his hometown of Shawnee, Kansas.
Mike Vaille en route to a service call to repair a rope on an elementary school flagpole.
Q & A
Mike chatted with us while checking his retail inventory.
What’s it like to work with your Mom? And to work from home?
Mom and I work well together. We really do. She does the office desk work. She does the invoicing and bills, and I handle the orders. There is a convenience of working out of the house. Most of the time is spent on business, but there is freedom to go and do personal stuff when needed, which I like. But, I treat it like a regular business, 9am-5pm, and of course I’ll always do what it takes to get it done.
What’s your secret sauce? How do you keep customers and clients coming back?
It’s basic. Quick response and friendly, personalized service are our strengths. We are truly thankful for our customers – and we let them know it every way we can.
Everybody knows everybody and we try to help each other out.
Do you feel part of a community of small businesses?
Absolutely. We’re members of Shawnee Chamber of Commerce and we attend coffee meetings every week, which gives us a chance to talk with other small business owners – a really good give and take. A lot of our clients are small businesses — and the city, the fire department and the police department are all customers, too. Everybody knows everybody and we try to help each other out.
What’s it like to run a small business?
You get freedom. You aren’t always tied to the business, but you have to tend to the business. I enjoy it. I love that it’s a different challenge every day and I’m the guy who solves it.
What do flags represent to you?
Well, I’m proud of the U.S. because people do fly their flags and I think its a good way of showing that you’re backing your country. It shows our freedom. There’s a lot of countries out there that you’re not able to just do things like that. And I’m proud. Like our tagline says, “Proud to be an American.”