Meet PPB’s 2011 Rising Stars

(Click on an image to jump to individual profiles.)

The promotional products industry has seen significant change in the past year, with much of the momentum driven by the industry’s innovators. In this issue of PPB magazine, we tip our hats to the individuals challenging the way we work, the way we sell and the way we communicate. They come from a variety of backgrounds: manufacturing, marketing and even fashion. And they have a variety of interests: golf, hockey, baseball and Zumba®. Some grew up in the industry while others stumbled into the world of promotional products by accident. One Rising Star was even a child model. The common thread among all of these outstanding professionals is their leadership, insight and drive for excellence. Congratulations to the Rising Stars of 2011.

CJ Schmidt
Vice President of Sales
HIT Promotional Products
Age: 28

CJ Schmidt’s rise to vice president of sales for Largo, Florida-based distributor HIT Promotional Products (UPIC: HITP0001) is all in the family. Schmidt’s father, Bill, is the owner of HIT, and he and his brother, Bill Schmidt, Jr., are executive leaders, but Schmidt doesn’t take this family connection for granted.

He has worked within the business since he was kid; in the sample room at age 10, and in the warehouse, in printing and in customer service while attending college at the University of Florida. He learned the promotional products industry from the ground up, but still it wasn’t what he thought he wanted to do.

Schmidt had his heart set on becoming a sports agent. But during his last summer in college, he worked in sales at HIT, and he got a full sense of the business. Upon graduation, he officially joined the team and began working his way up in sales. And it’s been an impressive ride. He now leads a team of 30-plus salespeople and 18 outside-sales representatives. HIT eclipsed $100 million in total sales this year, a goal the company has had for the last five years.

“Since CJ’s arrival at HIT five years ago, the company has doubled in sales,” says Sydra Newell, vice president of sales for supplier SnugZ USA (UPIC: SNUGZUSA), who nominated Schmidt for the Rising Stars recognition. “They have increased their product offerings, increased their sales force, reduced their pricing, reduced their lead times and improved their imprint capabilities,” she says. “CJ is one of the driving forces for how this company has evolved.”

“My dad’s been my mentor through this whole process, so I owe a ton to him,” says Schmidt. “I would have never been in the position I am today without him. He’s enabled me to grow into the businessman that I’ve become today.”

And while he is young, he comes to the industry with much more insight and experience than most. As Newell says, “He has the spirit of the young man that he is, but also has the experience and expertise of a wise older person.”

Because of this, he has a unique perspective to the business. “I think the internet is causing changes to how business is being done,” says Schmidt. “It works in our favor because we’re able to facilitate channels to both develop the relationships with the internet-based companies and continue the traditional buying model.”

What’s next for Schmidt? He wants to continue to help the company grow, achieve more sales records and, of course, continue to attend as many Florida Gator games as possible.

Jim Walrod
National Account Team Leader
The Image Group
Age: 28

When Jim Walrod was surrounded by sponsors and logos while a golfer during his collegiate career, little did he dream of having a successful business career in this arena, too.

Between his junior and senior years of college, Walrod interned at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, an LPGA golf tournament. Toledo, Ohio-based distributor The Image Group (UPIC: IMAGEGRP), a tournament sponsor, saw him and thought he was a go-getter and soon offered him a job.

“Jim came to The Image Group immediately after college and has made a significant impact on our approach to new business development,” says Jon Levine, president of The Image Group. “He pushes our organization to be different from our industry model and to be the most important partner our clients have when dealing with their brand.”

For Walrod, this means making the client look good. “You have to be able to make sure the clients get the product they want, at the price they ordered it, in time for the event, and you have to make it happen,” says Walrod, who’s been with The Image Group for six years. “It’s like the analogy of the duck on the pond—it’s calm on top, but underneath you’re paddling like hell.”

Instead of participating in things such as business card exchanges, Walrod takes a unique approach to business by getting involved in the Toledo community. He helps the community that he loves and gets in front of companies at the same time.

At 28, he has already been president of Epic, a 1,200-member young leaders program in northwest Ohio, and on the board for the United Way, Leadership Toledo, Greater Toledo Chamber of Commerce, Regional Growth Partnership and the 2011 U.S. Senior Open.

“I wanted to help stop the theory that Toledo was losing all of its young professionals to other, more progressive communities,” says Walrod. “I worked with others to start Epic Toledo, which promotes the fact that there is a thriving community of young professionals in Toledo; we call it the ‘brain gain.’”

Walrod continues to use golf in his professional career.

“Golf very much has a disciplined etiquette that translates well into the business world. Being on the course for four hours with someone, you can really learn a lot about them. I can ask questions and listen to a client,” says Walrod.

What’s the next course for this rising star? He wants to continue to support the community and make Toledo a place that his daughter will grow up to be proud to call home. Plus, as Walrod says, “I hope to someday be thought of not as a rising star, but as a star of the industry.”

Matt Kaspari
President
Kaspo, Inc.
Age: 28

Problem solvers love challenges, so maybe that’s why it’s no surprise that Matt Kaspari, president of Denver-based Kaspo Incorporated (UPIC: Kaspo705), chose to get a master’s degree in applied mathematics.

“Mathematics was the hardest thing that I saw, and so I wanted to take that on because, to me, it was like the ultimate challenge. Math is problem-solving, and the way people face problems is a true show of character,” says Kaspari.

Perhaps it’s the same drive for challenges that led Kaspari to become the president of his own distributorship at the ripe age of 20. As a young boy, Kaspari was always looking at challenges and creating opportunities. From selling bubble gum in school to a mouse-breeding business, Kaspari’s entrepreneurial drive started at a young age.

By the time he was 15, Kaspari was working in the warehouse of his uncle’s distributorship. A quick learner, Kaspari soon moved to sales and discovered he was in an industry that can help and empower people.

“I started to realize the power of promotional items in that you can use them strategically in such a way to build a person or business,” explains Kaspari. “I felt that if you could use promotional items to help a company grow, it would empower them, and I thought that was a perfect thing to fit right in my life.”

His instinct has paid off. Kaspari and his team of employees doubled their sales last year, and they plan to double this year’s numbers as well.

Did he miss anything by starting at the top? Kaspari says no. Instead of climbing the corporate ladder, he’d rather be the ladder.

“I could clean the windows of a skyscraper, or I could build a doghouse,” says Kaspari. “I would much rather build the doghouse because then it would be my doghouse, and I could put the window where I wanted it!”

Another reason for his success is Kaspari’s focus on value, not price. As part of this approach, Kaspari considers his staff to be what he calls “brand loyalists,” charged with building brand loyalty for clients. He has even put the title on his business card.

As one employee, Cameron Monaco, who nominated him for the honor, describes him, “Matt is a philanthropic individual with great principles, high integrity, honesty and compassion. He also seems to discover a way in his day to volunteer and give back to his community.”

Volunteerism has become an important component in Kaspari’s life. He assisted the Denver mayor’s office in developing a math program to help assign volunteers to the citywide Bike Sharing Program. He currently serves on the boards of Environmental Learning for Kids and the Arthritis Foundation, and he mentors an eighth-grade boy through a seven-year commitment with the Challenge Foundation.

“My rules are simple. I lead by example, I have fun, I’m optimistic and I’m energetic,” says Kaspari. “Those are all important qualities to bring to the office and to our clients. People can tell when you’re excited about what you do, when you love what you do.”

Kari Moravec
Senior Account Manager
Gold Bond, Inc.
Age: 29

It’s like drinking a Red Bull. This is how Kari Moravec describes the energy she feels when she meets with customers and learns how she can help their businesses grow. As senior account manager for Hixson, Tennessee-based supplier Gold Bond, Inc. (UPIC: GOLD0008), she works with 62 customers in a five-state region.

Although Moravec grew up around the promotional products industry (her uncle, Dale Moravec, is a 30-year industry veteran), Moravec studied interior design and marketing, but promotional products were a natural fit. She started her industry career as a supplier at Quikey Manufacturing Co., Inc., followed by four years with Sweda Co., LLC before moving to Gold Bond.

“Mike Burns at Quikey hired me and fired me in the same day. He told me, ‘I’m going to get you in the industry, you’re going to love it, and you’re going to go places,’ and I asked a colleague, ‘Did he just talk me in and out of this job all in one meeting?’ And the colleague replied, ‘Yes, he did!’”

Starting on the supplier side, Moravec gives credit for much of her success to her mentors along the way, as well as “good customers who allowed me to know their customers and become a true value. Strong partnerships have allowed me to become a key supplier and partner,” she says.

As part of her success, Moravec follows her motto: There are no written rules. “It is important to remember that if we remain static, opportunity will pass us by,” she says. “As suppliers, we must constantly change what value means to our customers and, in turn, to their customers. I am constantly questioning stagnant industry practices and encouraging change.”

Moravec says her strong work ethic and drive to go beyond the customer’s expectations comes from her parents. It’s an attitude she brings to her other pursuits, as well. Moravec gives many volunteer hours to the promotional products industry. She’s been involved with PPAI on a national level, and she also served as the youngest president of the Michigan Promotional Professionals Association (MiPPA). She’s also been involved with the Ohio Promotional Products Association (OPPA) and was named OPPA’s Supplier Representative of the Year.

“When one evaluates the promotional products landscape, there are only so many who are ready to lead this industry into the future,” says Moravec’s nominator Bryan Vaughn, MAS, national sales manager for Winona, Minnesota-based LarLu Display-Tec (UPIC: LarLu). “Kari is at the forefront of these individuals. She has already accomplished a great deal, and I am confident the best is yet to come. She will continue to be loved by her customers, appreciated by her bosses and recognized by the industry. Her star is certainly rising.”

Jamie Cohen, CAS
Director, Outside Sales
Sonic Promos
Age: 31

Maybe it’s his red hair. Or, perhaps his overabundance of creativity. Or, the fact that he was once a child model. No matter the reason, Jamie Cohen, CAS, has the energy and insight to deliver what it takes to make his clients succeed.

After a brief stint in sports marketing, at 24 Cohen started his own business—Creative Papers Plus—on his dad’s suggestion, targeting promotional items for corporate clients.

“I worked out of the basement for three years, building a client base through previous contacts, networking and just being a good person,” says Cohen. “I joined forces with Sonic Promos four years ago with growth being the common goal of both firms. Our goal then was to eclipse the $1 million mark, and we are now surpassing $2 million.”

Why the success? Cohen says, “It’s amazing how often I say this. If you can be a nice, competent person, it’s crazy how far you can go.”
Cohen recalls one of his favorite campaigns, for Kaboom, a nonprofit that builds playgrounds with funding from The Home Depot. Home Depot pledged to build 1,000 playgrounds in 1,000 days and, when the last one was complete, it wanted to do a party at all 3,500 stores. Cohen had to send “party boxes” to all the stores. He also had to find trusted suppliers that could come through for them in a tight spot. “That was the first time I learned to only use trusted industry suppliers.”

Today, Cohen is a proponent of having great vendor relationships, and he has a list of 20 to 30 vendors that he primarily uses. Plus, he focuses on the latest trends and techniques.

“Jamie has his eye on the future at all times. The new trend, fashion-forward decoration technique—he is constantly bringing these things to the attention of our staff and clients, adding value to the services we provide,” says Seth Weiner, MAS, president of Sonic Promos, a 2010 PPB Rising Star who nominated Cohen for this year’s honors.

Cohen’s intuition has paid off. In the past 18 months, he has earned the industry’s Certified Advertising Specialist designation (CAS), created a program that was nominated for a Pyramid Award and received a Peake Award for Excellence from Chesapeake Promotional Products Association (CPPA).

“He has been instrumental in measuring and assessing our company’s long-term technological, logistical and personnel needs in ways that stand to maximize our capabilities,” says Weiner. “Through his tireless work evaluating our client and vendor statistical histories, Jamie has helped team members focus on the relationships that yield big-impact results.”

Cohen accomplishes all of this while making work-life balance a top priority. He is able to spend time with his wife and two daughters every day, and he still fits in a round of golf—his favorite pastime.

Cohen laughs, “In five years, if I’m not playing on the PGA Tour—which, we’ll see what happens—I’ll be doing exactly what I’m doing now. I enjoy what I do, and I’m happy.”

Amanda Clay, MAS
Vice President of Sales
Walker-Clay, Inc.
Age: 31
Chances are if you know Amanda Clay, MAS, you’ve heard about Zumba—the Latin-influenced aerobic fitness craze. Clay, vice president of sales for Hanson, Massachusetts-based distributor Walker-Clay, Inc. (UPIC: WALKCLAY), started taking Zumba classes a year ago, and now, just months later, she is a Zumba instructor. It’s just one example of the 100-percent focus Clay puts into everything she does.

A third-generation family member at Walker-Clay, she has worked in the family business since age 13, when she first helped assemble calendars.

“I got tired of it and saw a pen catalog, so I decided to try selling pens over the phone,” Clay says. She soon became the resident expert on BIC pens. Except for a brief stint selling ad space, she has been officially in the industry for almost 10 years.

One of Clay’s visible strengths (besides her Zumba moves) is her ability to network inside and outside of the industry, according to her peers.

“Amanda has such a love for this industry,” says Jackie DeFusco with BIC, who nominated Clay. “She knows everyone and is such a pleasure to work with from a supplier/distributor perspective. She is a fair, aggressive salesperson, who conducts her daily business with the utmost professionalism and upbeat fresh ideas and personality.”

Her personality has made her many friends in the industry. “She has done a tremendous job in sales and building relationships with suppliers,” says William Clay, her dad and owner of Walker-Clay. “It takes forever to walk up the entrance at The PPAI Expo because so many people want to stop her to say ‘Hi.’”

Clay says one key to her success is that she talks openly with others about her clients and doesn’t feel the need to be secretive to protect her client base. She notes that suppliers seem to get along great and talk with each other, while the distributors tend to be more protective.

She also admits that she doesn’t like to wait for things to happen but prefers to make them happen. This impatience can be a positive because it causes her to get back to clients and suppliers quickly.

“Buyers are savvy today,” says Clay. “It used to be that nobody knew how to find products, but now the internet makes it easy to find things. These days you need to set yourself apart, as being a little bit different, not just product-selling, and help clients find the best choice for their needs, not just the best price.”

Clay is also committed to volunteering her time and talents for the industry, serving on the board of directors for the New England Promotional Products Association (NEPPA) and on the PPAI Awards and Recognition Action Group. When she’s not volunteering for the promotional products field, she’s on the field, literally, coaching youth soccer at the U12 and U16 levels.

Kathleen Milbier
Preferred Accounts Executive
AddVenture Products
Age: 32

You might not know Kathleen Milbier, but chances are you know Compressed Kathleen. She’s been seen around the world, including Asia, Europe and Africa. She appears at customer offices, at industry events and even on television.

Compressed Kathleen is the brainchild of Milbier, who is the preferred accounts executive for San Diego, California-based supplier AddVenture Products (UPIC: COMPREST), and it’s just one example of the creativity and personal approach she brings to her accounts.

“Compressed Kathleen came from me wanting to come up with a creative way to get in front of my clients when my travel budget was cut due to the economy. I needed to brand myself on a dime,” says Milbier.

She got the idea from a children’s book character and created a compressed t-shirt likeness. She sent the compressed t-shirt to her top-25 distributor reps as a thank-you, along with a brief message: “Here’s me. It was a great year. I hope I can hang out with you.” What originally began as a gift evolved into a whole social media campaign where Milbier asked her friends, fans and followers to post pictures of Compressed Kathleen wherever they were around the world.

“Kathleen was the first person in our industry to market herself this way,” says Brad White, a former co-worker at AddVenture Products who is now with Austin, Texas-based Boundless Network. “There are many copycats out there now, which is proof of her great idea and successful campaign.”

Milbier began her career in athletic apparel in Boston, moved to the West Coast with a licensed t-shirt company, then landed at AddVenture Products because she wanted to get back into marketing and advertising while using apparel. She’s been with the company almost five years.

She credits her success to AddVenture CEO Alan Davis, who leads by example. “He allows the team to come up with unique campaigns and to sell in unique ways. The premise of the company is based on creativity and coming up with different ways to sell the product,” says Milbier.

“I’m still doing my traditional selling techniques, but I’m also using this brand and social media to really broaden who I am as a person, what AddVenture is as a company and what our products are as a whole,” she says. “I’m trying to create a conversation piece that differentiates people. It just shows that a personal brand is important, too.”

She currently manages 35 distributor accounts, and three of her clients are also on this year’s Rising Stars list: Jamie Cohen, CAS, Sonic Promos; Jim Walrod, The Image Group; and Mark Graham, RIGHTSLEEVE.com.

“Seeing that three of those people are on this Rising Stars list does make it exciting because that means that we are partnering, thinking outside the box and coming up with new concepts and new ways of doing business,” she says.

Adam Thornton
General Manager
Match-Up Promotions
Age: 33

Adam Thornton didn’t expect to be a successful leader in the promotional products industry, but what he’s accomplished in a short time has certainly turned heads. As general manager of Longwood, Florida-based Match-Up Promotions (UPIC: MATCHUP), he’s led what was once a financially struggling company to six consecutive years of profitability.

Interestingly, he is one of few employees at Match-Up to come from outside the promotional products industry. In 2000, prior to Match-Up, he worked on John McCain’s 2000 presidential nomination team, and later marketed motor sports programs and consumer promotions for a consumer electronics firm before joining Match-Up to help the financially struggling company.

“He took over the general manager role in 2004 and helped Match-Up grow from a $3 million distributorship to over $10 million in 2010,” says Match-Up’s production manager, Heidi Ciaramella, who nominated Thornton as a Rising Star. “It’s because he is active in all aspects of the operation, from client services, sales, vendor management, marketing, operations and even helping in the warehouse if needed. He continues to be forward-thinking in all aspects of management.”

A key part of this success is the focus on supplier relationships, says Thornton. “We want to partner with the manufacturers that have the same philosophy and care for the clients as we do. We have a number of wonderful suppliers that are as much a part of our success as anything we’ve done here. Now 87 percent of our spend is with our 40 top suppliers.”

Another key factor in the company’s success is the niche that Match-Up has developed in sports apparel, providing programs to top-level teams such as the Orlando Magic and Florida Marlins. It also has a corporate division, for which Thornton himself spearheaded the signing of a Fortune 100 account.

Interestingly, Thornton’s influences have come mostly from outside the industry, including his father, who was a corporate executive with IBM for 25 years. He’s also turned to other people from Match-Up’s parent company who have been successful in other types of businesses.

Maybe it’s this unique, outside perspective that gave Thornton the idea to take a non-traditional approach to hiring and sales structure. He implemented a unique, three-tiered sales structure so that when a successful salesperson is combined with Match-Up’s customer service, it becomes a profitable situation for all. Plus, he allows his team to make decisions quickly without going through layers of bureaucracy. It’s an equation that’s working for Thornton and his team.

Why the passion for promotional products for an individual who came from outside the industry?

“It’s fun to see our products out there,” says Thornton. “For instance, seeing 20,000-plus Tampa Bay Lightening shirts on ESPN and being part of the magic of the playoff games is exciting.”

Michelle Kajan
Account Executive
Jack Nadel International
Age: 33

Married, brand-new mom and member of Jack Nadel International’s Golden Tiger sales level—life is good for account executive Michelle Kajan.

Starting off as an assistant, she was quickly promoted to sales representative after just six months, and now, six years later, is one of the top producers for Culver City, California-based distributor Jack Nadel International (UPIC: NADELINC).

“Not having a background in the promotional products industry, it was like starting my career over when I joined Jack Nadel,” says Kajan. “I really had to open up and just humble myself a little bit. I had to ask my peers at JNI for help and utilize my suppliers.”

During her early days at Jack Nadel, Kajan learned about products and suppliers, about imprinting and the processes involved, and took factory tours to gain an understanding of what goes into the products from the inside out. Today she works with all types of clientele, but specializes in the entertainment and fashion industries.

“The way I approach my clients is to think of myself as a personal shopper,” says Kajan. “From a project standpoint, you must be organized, understand the client’s needs and roll with what they are throwing at you, and do it with a smile.”

Kajan put her creativity to work with a successful campaign for Gatorade. The beverage company was launching a new product while at the same time recognizing Michael Jordan for being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. It wanted to use courtside coolers, filled with seven limited-edition bottles of Gatorade. Kajan’s job was to create a kit to showcase these bottles and an additional 12 to 15 promotional items.

“I had less than one month to turn around these custom kits, which were being given to 300-plus ‘A-listers,’ including President Obama,” says Kajan. “The top 100 kits had autographed bottles and included a Sony Reader upgraded with a voice chip of Michael Jordan. Every detail was branded on this piece, and fulfillment was literally done with white gloves.”

Her approach has paid off. This year, Kajan received JNI’s first-level Golden Tiger sales award for reaching more than $500,000 in sales. She traces the roots of her sales success to when she saw peers surpassing her and wondered what she wasn’t doing. She reached out for help, and CEO Craig Nadel sent her to shadow a successful senior salesperson. “I realized that I was working harder instead of smarter.” She made a few changes and, within a month, saw the results.

In spite of her success, Kajan has also found time to support Step Up, a nonprofit organization that raises money for under-privileged teen programs. Now she looks forward to being a role model for her own child.

“The promotional products industry has just been so phenomenal, especially the doors it’s opened up for me,” says Kajan.

Dave Willis
President
Visions/Awardcraft
Age: 34

As president of Celina, Ohio-based Visions/Awardcraft (UPIC: VISIONS), a manufacturer of high-end recognition awards, Dave Willis is constantly looking for ways to be more efficient. It’s why he was hand-picked when Visions Awards and Awardcraft merged in 2001.

Prior to joining Visions/Awardcraft, Willis was on the management fast track at Federal Mogul, a $6 billion manufacturer of automotive, heavy truck and specialized machinery. Willis enjoyed the management aspect and noted that he wanted to be able to communicate with engineers on productivity issues, no matter how technical. That’s why he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering (and later, an MBA) while working at Federal. At one point, Willis managed three different product lines and $40 million in revenue as Federal Mogul made its name as a leader in lean manufacturing.

“They thought they were as efficient as they could get,” says Willis. “I was able to double productivity in three departments in three years.”

Whether it’s a seal, a sparkplug or an award, Willis knows what it takes to be efficient, and at the time when Visions and Awardcraft were merging, they needed someone to help them figure out how to merge production.

“Visions/Awardcraft came for a tour of lean manufacturing at the Federal plant and needed some help with integration and process management. They saw how we could stamp out 10,000 sparkplugs at a time, but they struggled in creating an efficient way to manufacture one-of-a-kind awards. The next day, I took a tour of Visions and wrote on a whiteboard how I would design their production. After I drew it on the board, they called me two days later and offered me a job,” says Willis.

He started out as vice president of manufacturing, completely changing production worldwide, including plants in Ohio, the Philippines and China. From there, he was promoted to operations and general manager, and then in 2007 to president.

“I have never seen someone this young have the ability to run a global company,” says Les Dorfman at Visions/Awardcraft, who nominated Willis. “He is the total package, with sales, production and a vision for the organization, as well as an inspirational leader.”

The challenge that whet Willis’ appetite at Visions/Awardcraft was the fact that the company’s awards are truly custom, one-of-a-kind. Plus, when designing a system for awards, it had to be flexible enough to produce in stainless, resin or pewter, using the same number of people at the same speed. Much of the work is done by hand; there is little machinery on the production floor.

“What we do here is so radically different than other awards suppliers, and so much different than most suppliers in the industry,” says Willis. “In 2004, lead time was two-and-a-half weeks for a custom product, and now we can do it in two-and-a-half hours.”

So when everything has been whittled down to the most efficient design, what’s next?

“You’re never lean,” says Willis. “It’s a process, not a destination. You never say we’re done, but instead think of the next improvement that will give us the biggest bang for our buck.”

This is why Willis and his leadership team identify 100 to 200 initiatives each year that could improve the customer experience.

When Willis is not re-engineering, he enjoys time with his wife and 18-month-old son. Coming from a baseball family (his dad and brother played the sport), he’s already looking at ways for his toddler to hold the bat better.

Sean Ono
Partner
Eagle Promotions
Age: 36

Chances are if you’ve ever bought a souvenir from a Las Vegas headliner show, it was provided by Eagle Promotions. Led by Sean Ono and his business partner, Mario Stadtlander, Eagle Promotions (UPIC: EAGLP018) is a successful multi-million-dollar distributorship based in Las Vegas, Nevada.

When Sean Ono began working for his father’s lumber business while attending college, he certainly didn’t picture himself running a multi-million-dollar promotional business, with three major divisions, just 16 years later.

At age 20, Ono had the opportunity to work with a 26-year-old partner based in Las Vegas, and he bought out the partner two years later. Then, after another six years, he merged with current business partner Mario Stadtlander.

“Originally, it was strictly a promotional business selling t-shirts, mugs, uniforms, polos and other items,” says Ono. “Then, Mario and I decided to get into the retail business. Traditionally a firm does only one or the other, but not both. We really didn’t know the challenges of launching into retail. The good thing about being young is that you don’t know any better, and you have lots of energy and fortitude just to push through. We were lucky to bring in seasoned pros to help start the retail division.”

They also took a major leap, and a year of time, in securing licensing rights for The Beatles and Elvis.

Today, Eagle Promotions is a one-stop shop, with three major divisions: promotional products, retail and kid’s retail. Its licensed products are sold through Cirque de Soleil, Universal Studios, Hard Rock Hotel, Disney, airports and almost every hotel and show in Las Vegas, including Bette Midler and Celine Dion.

With three successful divisions, their strategy has worked. Even with the down economy, Eagle Promotions has grown by 35 percent, says Ono.

“Brands allow us to work with some great companies,” says Ono. “It’s fun to see our product out there on TV or on people. It is a particular thrill to be in another country and see someone wearing our shirts. We really try to surround ourselves with ‘A’ players, and when you’ve got good people who care working for you, it really shows to the customer.”

Ono also gives credit to his business partner, and vice versa, who says they have complementary backgrounds. He focuses on sales and finance and runs the company day-to-day, while Stadtlander focuses on sales and marketing. Plus, they have chosen to be financially frugal and reinvest their profits back into the company.

He credits his parents for teaching him fiscal responsibility and not to buy anything that you can’t pay cash for. This philosophy has served him well in business.

Ono also spends time serving on the board for an organization called Opportunity Village, which helps disabled adults. The organization is a big part of the Las Vegas community, providing education, training and jobs to 3,000 people a year.

Mark Graham
President
RIGHTSLEEVE Marketing Inc.
Age: 36

Standing room only. This is the attendance of a typical promotional products industry presentation by Mark Graham, president of Toronto, Ontario-based RIGHTSLEEVE Marketing, Inc. (UPIC: RIGHT795). Graham has become the voice on how technology and, specifically, social media can make a difference in customer relationships.

“I love this industry, but what I love more is building business,” says Graham. “I wanted to build a brand that someone was proud to wear on a t-shirt on the weekends.”

Graham says that he was always entrepreneurial, but when he graduated from college he thought he had to get a “real job” and didn’t think entrepreneurism counted as a real job. He worked in investment banking but felt like a fish out of water. Within six months, he quit to follow his entrepreneurial spirit.

Like everything he does, Graham was purposeful in how he approached starting his business. He was looking for an industry that required low capital to enter, was marketing-oriented and had large opportunities. He wanted to use design, marketing and technology to differentiate his business. He interviewed marketing directors, looked at other promotional companies and found his fit selling trend-setting, logoed apparel to schools, corporations and camps.

“When I looked at this space, it was a traditional model, and there was really no technology sophistication at all,” says Graham.

He also wanted to model his business after what he considered to be organizations that were avant garde, so he closely modeled his business after top-level ad agencies, from the cool office setting to the branding of the business.

After two years selling apparel, Graham began to get requests from clients wanting hard goods as well, so he discovered the need for an industry number and the world of promotional products. RIGHTSLEEVE quickly evolved into a full-service promotional agency.

Technology has been at the heart of RIGHTSLEEVE’s rapid growth, and it’s Graham’s vision and technology strategy that has led the company. Graham first developed an e-commerce website, then a full-fledged enterprise resource platform that also included back-end operations, CRM and order management.

“Based on what I had learned, I wanted to invest heavily in the parts of the business where other distributors didn’t have the understanding or resources. It differentiated us in the marketplace, and now we are a 100-percent paperless company that operates in the cloud,” says Graham.

As a technology junkie, when social media began to hit the scene six years ago, Graham jumped right in.

“The thought of creating a conversation with customers instead of at customers was a great marketing opportunity,” says Graham. “Social media tied in with our technology strategy, and also afforded a point of differentiation because we knew it would set us light years ahead of our competition.”

First, RIGHTSLEEVE launched a blog. Then it was on Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitter, and it continues to use all of these platforms today. Now Graham shares what he’s learned along his technology journey as a speaker.

“The first time I spoke was at The PPAI Expo, and there were 200 people in the room. I got positive responses, and afterward, the flood gates opened. No one had spoken about social media in the industry before. I’ve probably done 25 to 30 presentations since then, and the people that I have met have been phenomenal.”

He also continues to do what he loves—design, branding and technology. At the helm is his “right sleeve” person—his managing director and wife, Catherine. He also enjoys volunteering for the industry and for nonprofit organizations in his community, and he continues to provide a fun and creative atmosphere for his employees. His office was recently featured in The Globe and Mail newspaper for its fresh workspace design.

Cassandra Johnson has spent more than 20 years as a writer and marketing communications consultant. She is a frequent contributor to PPB, Promotional Consultant and Promotional Consultant Today.

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