Role Model: Vanessa Van de Putte
Keeping the Family Flag Flying
Vanessa Va de Putte caught the vexillology bug at a young age, but don’t worry – it runs in the family. As President and CEO of Dixie Flag & Banner Co., she’s the fourth generation of Van de Puttes to work at the family business.
Dixie Flag was founded by her grandfather, who borrowed $10,000 from his mother, Vanessa’s great-grandmother, to start the business. She was also one of the first seamstresses. Vanessa’s father, Pete Van de Putte, still serves as chairman of the board. The fifth-generation, Vanessa’s infant son, Hugo, already makes office appearances. “He has more stuff in my office than I do,” she laughs.
Having family around is what drew her to Dixie Flag. “What I love the most about Dixie Flag is that it really is a family business. I’m not talking about the Van de Putte family, but it is the business of families. Over the 62 years we’ve been in business, there have been so many family units that have worked here. Debbie, our bookkeeper, her daughter worked here when she was in college. One of our salespeople, both of her sons worked here. Our general manager, Rudy, started working with us when he was still in high school. His aunt was one of our seamstresses and now he’s been with us for almost 20 years. His little brother is our production manager. We treat each other like family. It’s not only our family but our collective families.”
The people behind Dixie Flag, and the customers they work with, are what motivate Van de Putte. And what made COVID-19 such a challenge. “What I was terrified of as a small business owner and leader wasn’t losing money or not making our goals. It was how 33 families were going to support themselves if we closed down.”
Rather than close down, Dixie Flag jumped into producing face masks, a vital need in short supply for healthcare workers. Working with University Health System, Dixie created a washable, reusable mask that could be used in the absence of N-95 masks. “We had to adapt and be flexible,” she explains, especially since as much as 50 percent of their regular business is from festivals, events, and fairs, none of which could be held.
Making sure the team at Dixie Flag is taken care of drives Van de Putte’s day. “Coming in and seeing what I can do to make their lives a little easier, provide the guidance and the support they need to serve our customers. That looks different every day, especially now.”
That also means that she takes work home. “I know many people would get mad because the work/life balance is so important but work really is personal for us. When you have a small family business and you look at everyone you work with as family, there is no line between the two.
“I don’t feel that my time at the office takes away from my time as a mom or my time as a mom takes away from my time at the office.” After all, it’s how her role models raised her.
“My parents are two incredible people. They’re both very accomplished in their own careers. My mom was very successful in what she did. And my dad was very successful in what he did. My mother (former State Senator Leticia Van de Putte) is the queen of multitasking. She had six kids in nine years. She ran a small business. She was a pharmacist and an amazing public servant for 25 years. She did it all: balanced family and business and public service. It was amazing to watch because she isn’t retired yet.
“My dad was always a good role model less on a professional basis and more on a personal level. He taught me to put people first and to put relationships first. That’s what’s important, remembering the people aspect.” Family also inspired Van de Putte’s personal philosophy. “We did a lot of camping growing up. And one of the things my father taught us is always to leave the campsite better than how you found it. I use the number one rule of camping as my personal philosophy and try to apply it globally. I try to leave every place, organization, and relationship better than it was. I aim to contribute meaningfully to the growth and wellbeing of those around me and in turn, allow myself to learn and grow with each new experience and relationship.”
Reflecting on what advice she’d give other young women, Van de Putte offers, “Allow yourself to grow, adapt, learn, develop, but stay true to who you are. Sincerity is incredibly important. Don’t try to be anybody else. Be yourself.”
She also offers the same advice to others that her father gave her. “Do what you’re passionate about. Follow that passion. If you’re doing what you love, you can’t go wrong. Follow your passion and do what’s important to you.”
Her free time is spent with baby Hugo, her husband Hugo Sulaica, and laundry. “Why is there so much laundry? Washing, folding, and never putting away laundry,” she laughs.
But she’s ready to get back to festivals, fairs and events, a pastime she enjoys. “You learn so much about culture and people by going to special events. I’m so looking forward to the post-pandemic world when everything’s opened back up and we can start celebrating together and getting together.”
But no matter what’s ahead, Van de Putte is happy where she is. “I really like where I am right now. In 10 years, I hope to be a better version. My personal philosophy is to leave every place and every relationship better than it was. I’d like to spend the 10 years doing that and grow Dixie and grow our staff. Not just by adding people, but helping develop them and make Dixie a better place.”
BY DAWN ROBINETTE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY AL RENDON