PHOENIX - When Joseph Cicero began climbing high-rise buildings to wash windows in 1983, it was a day job to supplement his dreams of being a rock star.
The owner of American Flag & Pole Co., a small business near downtown Phoenix, actually knew nothing about flags and flagpoles when he was asked to fix a flag atop a building he was cleaning.
The owner was coming to town, and the flag was becoming unstrung. And employees were scrambling to fix it.
"Someone said, ‘What about him?'" he said.
Cicero hired a helicopter to hover over the flagpole while he rappelled down and restrung the flag.
Then, like many entrepreneurs before him, Cicero saw a niche.
He launched American Flag and Pole Co. in 1985. By 1988, the company was also manufacturing flags at its facility rather than buying from wholesalers.
"I kinda put all the different skill sets together and just attacked this flagpole industry," Cicero said. "Through the years, it evolved: manufacturing flags, manufacturing poles, putting them up, taking them down, climbing them, servicing them."
Today, the company has 14 employees manufacturing American and state flags and steel flagpoles.
American flags range from 2 feet by 3 feet to 40 feet by 80 feet. The nine state flags range from 2 feet by 3 feet to 20 feet by 38 feet.
All flags are sewn on commercial grade nylon with reinforced corners, a the design developed after Cicero and his employees noticed the life of flags getting shorter and shorter. The flags are appliqued instead of screen-printed, so it limits the complexity of the design the company's five seamstresses can produce.
"These girls can go through miles of stripes. We go through a lot," Cicero said.
Steel delivered from the docks in Long Beach, Calif., becomes poles that can reach 150 feet, a size costing almost $23,000.
Despite his long-term success in a niche market, Cicero doesn't consider himself an entrepreneur.
"I feel blessed. I was at the right place at the right time and I worked hard, created a good product," he said. "We never wanted to cut any corners. Even when I was in the window-cleaning business, I wanted to do everything right."
It's that attitude that has kept 10 employees working alongside him for 30 years, including Fran Truesdell, the company's accountant for two decades.
"It's a good atmosphere. We all know our jobs and we do it," Truesdell said. "There's no, ‘It's not my job' here. It's about teamwork."
Terry Lopez is going on 12 years as contracts manager, handling permits and contracts and coordinating installations and blue-staking, or marking underground facilities such as electric, gas and water that could be damaged during digging.
"It's a simple flow here, even down to (taking care of) the dog," she said. "Everyone's dedicated. Maybe it's a matter of respect."
More than 30 years later, Cicero is still out there climbing. In mid-February, he was up a pole in Gilbert for a homebuilder "for the love of it."
"I liked the challenge of the climb, and I knew it was something no one else wanted to do," he said.