A prominent feature of the Fort Dodge commercial world since 1895, Martin's Flag Co., 1210 First Ave. N., has a new owner.
Brett Biggins is now the sole owner. He said he plans to build on the company's nearly 12 decades of business success.
Biggins paid high tribute to brothers Kirk and Scott Van Gundy, the most recent previous owners.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Brett Biggins, the new owner of Martin’s Flag Co., poses with a display of small state flags. The flags in the ceiling are various Iowa county flags.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Brett Biggins, the new owner of Martin’s Flag Co., prepares a package for shipping to client.
"Scott and Kirk did a great job. Their father did a great job. They laid that foundation for the history of the company," he said. "I don't want that heritage to be lost. I want to keep the heritage going. ... Martin's has a very strong reputation not just in Fort Dodge and in Iowa but outside the state because it has been around so long."
The Van Gundys are no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of the company, but Biggins said they will provide his team with ongoing advice as needed.
"They are acting as consultants," he said. "If we have questions, we still call them. They are still available."
The history of Martin's Flag Co.
According to the official company history, founder H.J. Martin was inspired to establish the business after witnessing a spectacular fireworks display on Independence Day in 1894. The manufacturing facility Martin created was located southeast of what today is the intersection of U.S. Highway 169 and U.S. Highway 20.
In the early days, Martin's company specialized in public exhibition fireworks. Over the decades, the product mix changed somewhat, but fireworks remained the focus. Flags were added to the sales inventory. Prior to World War II, however, they were a relatively minor sideline.
World War II brought about the end of the fireworks component of Martin's business in large part due to the unavailability for civilian manufacturing of a key ingredient - gunpowder. Selling flags shifted from being a secondary business line to become the company's principal commercial activity. In 1942, a renaming took place.
Martin's Fireworks Co. was reborn as Martin's Flag Co.
The fireworks aspect of the business was never restarted, the manufacturing plant was sold and the repurposed enterprise shifted operations to 904-906 First Ave. S. in downtown Fort Dodge - the Warden Building.
Since the 1940s, Martin's Flag Co. has marketed a wide array of flags and related merchandise. By 1949, however, the Martin family's involvement was nearing an end. The widow of the founder was seeking a buyer. A new era was about to commence.
Claude Van Gundy, an already successful local businessman, bought the company.
His sons, James Van Gundy and Robert Van Gundy learned the business quickly. It wasn't long before their father was out of the picture.
The company prospered and a further move took place in 1953 to the former Sunbeam Dairy building, 1210 First Ave. N. That has remained its home.
By the 1970s, the next generation of Van Gundys was ready to join the family business.
James Van Gundy's sons - Kirk and Scott - were reaching adulthood. Kirk became part of the Martin's Flag Co. team in 1975. Kirk's brother Scott joined his father, brother and uncle at Martin's in 1976.
In 1979, James Van Gundy bought out his brother's interest in the company. His sons subsequently purchased the enterprise from him.
The range of products handled by Martin's Flag Co. is extensive. Flags, of course, are the central focus. Assorted United States flags in a multitude of sizes and in fabrics and configurations to suit every imaginable need are at the heart of the enterprise. But that's just the beginning of the story. There are U.S. historical flags, state flags, international flags, military flags, religious/church flags, special event/purpose flags, and sports and college flags and banners. Should the extensive selection in the company's catalog not meet a customer's requirements, Martin's Flag Co. can arrange for the creation of just about any custom flag or banner that might be desired.
In addition to flags, Martin's sells flagpoles and holders, an array of flag accessories and grave markers.
Biggins said the company markets and ships products. It does not manufacture them.
"Our core business is in Iowa and the Midwest," he said. "We do business in all 50 states."
Some customers make their purchases at Martin's headquarters on the corner of First Avenue North and North 12th Street, but most of the transactions are by the telephone or online.
Biggins said the sales are now about 25 percent online and 75 percent telephone orders. He said strengthening the Internet component is a priority.
"In this day and age it is important to get online ... and develop more of a marketing base," he said. "We just signed a contract with a company to overhaul that whole thing."
Martin's Flag Co. has a longtime commitment to sell American-made products. Biggins said he is determined to keep that emphasis strong.
"Everything we have for flags is still made in the USA," he said. "We think it is very important to have a made-in-the-USA label on all of our flags. We do so because it is patriotic and we want to continue that. ... I think we can be competitive with American-made products."
Meet the new owner
Biggins was born and raised in Fort Dodge. He graduated from St. Edmond High School in 1997 and the University of Northern Iowa in 2002. His bachelor's degree is in marketing. After college, Biggins worked for Maytag Appliances as a district representative, initially in Little Rock, Ark. He was promoted and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Biggins then took a job with Polaris in Des Moines and was with that company for about eight years.
Biggins married Laura Vandagriff, a 1999 graduate of Fort Dodge Senior High, in 2009. They have a daughter, Kendall, who was born in December 2013.
The acquisition of Martin's Flag Co. is in sync with Biggins' long-term career goals.
"I've wanted to own a business for a while," he said. "It had to be the right opportunity. ... All the ingredients had to be there. I wouldn't have stepped into this if I didn't think it was something I would be committed to in the long-term, could build off of given the success they've had already."
While he's new to the Martin's world, Biggins said he is already enthusiastic about his new venture.
"I come from a retail commercial background, dealing with independent retailers, that kind of thing," he said. "So, it was a natural fit for me, dealing with people on a day-to-day basis. In retail, if you don't like dealing with people, you are probably in the wrong business."
Biggins said he is especially pleased that Kristy Hilbert, who was part of the Van Gundy team, has remained with the company as the office manager. He said she has been a tremendous resource during the ownership transition.
Biggins said he likes being back in Fort Dodge and is bullish about this town's economic future.
"You can see Fifth Avenue South, how that is growing," he said. "You can see the broad picture of what's going to happen downtown. The big picture of where Fort Dodge is going is very positive. It's part of the reason why you want to do business here."