Blackburn Manufacturing Co. produces and fabricates small plastic flags attached to either wire or plastic staffs. The flags are used by construction, survey, public works, utilities, landscaping, soil conservation, farming, forestry, gardening and landscaping companies to identify underground water, gas, electric and cable conduits or pipes. The flags are also used to post signage and delineate construction areas.
Blackburn Manufacturing Co. is a family owned firm. It was started in 1953 by E. A. “Bud” Blackburn in the basement of a small family homestead near Royal, Nebraska. Bud’s cousin worked in the surveying industry and used old lathe stakes as markers. He came to Bud and asked him if he could attach a piece of cloth or paper to a wire or wooden stick.
An engineer by trade, Bud eventually built a machine that would glue a vinyl flag to a wire staff. However, it took longer than expected because Bud already had a full time job: running the family farm located near Royal, NE. After years of tinkering, Bud finally completed his first automated flag machine. He and his two sons, Jim aged 7 and Bob aged 11, ran the one machine around the clock to fill the company’s first million flag order. From there, the rest is history.
The first production records for the company date from 1955. In that year, the company manufactured 1,681,000 flags. The firm soon outgrew the Blackburn basement and was moved to a small utility building located on the Blackburn farm. In two short years, the shed became too small. Convenient access to shipping lines and carriers was also becoming a problem.
In 1957, the firm moved from Royal to its present location of Neligh, NE, a distance of fourteen miles. At that time, two people were employed by Blackburn in one small building located on Highway 275. By 1960, annual production had increased to 6,075,700 flags and Bud’s sister Carmen joined the company as bookkeeper and secretary. In 1961, annual production reached 10,125,800 flags and another building was constructed on the property. This newest building was used primarily for assembling and tooling additional flag machines. In 1962, the company increased its flag machines and wire cutters to four. It seemed Blackburn Manufacturing was in business to stay.
By 1964, annual production grew to 15,488,400 flags. Two more wire cutters were purchased bringing the total to six. By 1971, production increased to 20,800,700 flags. More employees were hired and a third building was added. In 1973, Jim Blackburn, son of the founder, returned from the navy and joined the company to assist his father with some of the managerial duties. Production in 1973 rose to 25,933,400 flags.
One of the first competitive challenges confronting Jim was the introduction of small marking flags printed with custom logos and messages. In meeting this challenge, Jim formed a printing company as a subsidiary of Blackburn Manufacturing. To run the subsidiary, he brought in Mr. Bill Lawson who had experience silk screening plastic flags. After a very prosperous relationship, Mr. Lawson retired in 2001 after more than 25 years with the company. In 1975, the company produced 1,750,000 printed flags. By 1980, that number had grown fivefold to 8,711,600 printed flags. One employee printed all those flags. In 1985, an additional employee was hired and 17,483,200 printed flags were produced.
Production grew each year. By 1976, the main wire flag manufacturing facility was built and production was up to 38,442,600 flags. In 1980, Bud retired and Jim took over as President/CEO of the company. An additional production facility was erected on the site and annual sales grew to 80,190,200 flags. In 1989, a new production plant was built in Cambria, California. Jim’s older brother, Bob Blackburn, was placed in charge of the company’s west coast production facility. In December of 1989, the original building in Neligh, NE was converted into office space and Jim’s brother-in-law, Don Gartner, joined the company as sales and marketing manager. In September 1990, another building was erected and dedicated to the production of plastic staffs and rigid signs.
In recognition of his many accomplishments, the Nebraska Small Business Administration named Jim Blackburn the Business Person of the Year in 1992. Jim has been very active in the community throughout his long and distinguished career. He was a member of the Neligh volunteer fire department and was Fire Chief for three years. He also served as a director on the Neligh Chamber of Commerce board, chairman of the Antelope County Airport Authority, member of the Neligh Industrial Development board and Board of Governors at Northeast Community College. He is a past President of the Golden Prairie Pheasants Forever Chapter and is currently on the Antelope Memorial Hospital Advisory Board.
In 1994, Jim’s daughter, Jennifer, joined the company. After serving in virtually every department within the company, she was promoted to President in 2004. Her current responsibilities include human resources and all day-to-day operations. As CEO, Jim retains responsibility for corporate strategy, long-term planning and company direction. Like her father, Jennifer is also very active within the community. She serves as a volunteer EMT for Antelope Memorial Hospital, treasurer for the local Golden Prairie Pheasants Forever Chapter and member of the Neligh Firemen’s Auxiliary. She is past President of the Neligh Chamber of Commerce and has served 6 years on the Antelope Country Club board.
In 1994, Blackburn Manufacturing continued to expand its production line and support staff. At the end of 1998, and after 45 years in business, the company had produced and sold two billion four hundred twelve million flags (2,412,909,000).
By 2002, annual sales increased to 190,628,450 flags and there were 49 employees in the Neligh plant. In 2003, the company celebrated 50 years of continued growth.
In 2004, the company added a BMC marking sign product line, which consists of coated paper cards available in 3 different sizes. These signs meet posting requirements in the lawn and garden industry. A polyethylene flag was also added in 2004. Compared to vinyl, a polyethylene flag is a little more rigid and more suitable in colder climates. Blackburn Manufacturing also offers additional marking and safety products including flagging tape, barricade tape, Stake Chaser Whiskers, safety vests, traffic cones and more to better service their customers.
Currently, all flag machines are still made in-house according to Bud Blackburn’s original blueprints with only slight modifications made over the years. “The same simplistic principal is still there, technology has just enabled us to make things a little easier and faster today”, says CEO Jim Blackburn. The company currently has 50 employees in Neligh and 5 in Paso Robles, CA and exports flags to Canada, South America, Belgium, Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Puerto Rico, Australia, Italy and Mexico and other countries.