PPAI’s 2016 Woman of Achievement Award Winner, Mary Dobsch, has soared through her career while giving back to others.
This year’s Woman of Achievement Award winner, Mary Dobsch, president of supplier The Chest (UPIC: thechest) has spent her inspiring career—all 35 years—as an integral member of the promotional products industry, committed to sharing her knowledge and experience freely to help others succeed.
As a committed PPAI volunteer, her service has included two terms on the PPAI Board of Directors (2008-2012, 2013-2014), as well as participation on too many committees to mention, including the Government Relations Action Committee (GRAC). She has also served as a facilitator for PPAI classes on packaging and has given numerous PPAI and regional presentations on selling.
“In an industry of duplicate products, Mary is an innovator, not an imitator,” says Dave Degreeff, executive director of the Houston Promotional Products Association (HPPA) and the Promotional Products Association of the Southwest (PPAS), who nominated Dobsch for the award and who has known her for most of his life. “Her company has pioneered the way for distributors to separate themselves from the pack by way of creative packaging. ”
Most people can point to a defining moment in their lives that led to the type of person they eventually became. For Mary Dobsch, that moment came when she was 13 years old and lost her mother. Living on a pig farm outside of Washington, Missouri, and as the oldest girl of eight children (three brothers were older but they had to work outside on the farm), she was suddenly tasked with cooking for 10 people.
“It was the toughest part of my life by far. But my father was some kind of amazing,” Dobsch says. “I’m sure what I cooked was horrible, but he was always so wonderful and said that was the best he’d ever had. And when you’re 13 you really believe it.” That early encouragement likely led to Dobsch’s incredible resilience and perseverance, two essential qualities for any successful businessperson. “In my mind you can do anything you want to. You just do what you have to do. When my soup looked like it was solid, it didn’t really seem like that was a problem. You just keep moving,” Dobsch says.
An ambitious teenager, Dobsch was quickly ready to work outside the home and put her other skills to the test. She saw her chance when she went to the doctor for a sinus infection at age 16 and talked that doctor into giving her a job. “I was a receptionist. I typed insurance forms. I’d go after school at 3 pm and work until 5 pm. I’d try to make dinners the night before,” Dobsch explains.
Her exceptional organizational and planning skills made her a huge asset at home and at the office, but didn’t always earn her social credibility among her high school classmates. “You know how they give you a title at school? I was the busiest. Not the most popular or most likely to succeed. I was the busiest.”
After graduating from high school and then a local business school, Dobsch networked her way to a job in order entry at Hazel, an industry desk accessories company. “The lady who worked with me at the doctor’s office told me to call them, and I walked in and started working,” she says. “Hazel at that time was the coolest place to work and the best training ground for anyone in our industry. There are probably 20 or 30 people in our industry who started there. It was awesome.” At the time, Dobsch explains, Hazel was one of the most prestigious companies in the industry. “It was a franchise, and you had to apply to sell their products. They didn’t give just anyone the ability [to sell their products].”
Dobsch left Hazel in 1987 after Bill Wood (another Hazel alum) called to recruit her to his new company, Magnet, LLC. “I was the second office employee there. It was growing so fast it was unbelievable. I remember meetings where we talked about slowing down on sales because we couldn’t keep up. It was fun to be a part of it. All we knew was this industry. We had connections. We knew how the game was played. It was perfect,” she says.
At the time he started Magnet, Wood had also acquired The Chest from a friend in California and both companies were located in the same building. “Nobody did anything with The Chest. It just sat there,” says Dobsch. In the early ’90s, Wood sold it to Ken Bebermeyer, who had also worked at Hazel and then joined Magnet. Dobsch was part of the sale. “I went with The Chest and started as VP of sales. Then in 2005 I purchased the company because Ken was going to sell it and I was scared of who would buy it. I wanted it to stay in the industry.”
The Chest is unique in the industry in that the company makes everything per order, so no two orders are the same, says Dobsch. And, all the products are made in the U.S. “We control our own destiny. If it doesn’t get done it’s because we failed, not because someone let us down,” she says. Today the company has 40 full-time employees with more part-time employees hired in the fall for the holiday season.
One Of The Guys
Though there weren’t that many women in the industry in the 1970s and 1980s she didn’t ever feel like an outsider. “Everybody tells me I’m wrong [about not feeling like an outsider], but at Hazel, it was never like there was a difference.
I never thought I couldn’t do it because I was a woman. That was never an issue. People tell me it was my personality,” she says. That and, perhaps, the fact that she has three older brothers.
Dobsch adds, “When I go to WLC [PPAI Women’s Leadership Conference], my thought process is, ‘These people think they’re being held back because they’re women’ but they’re not being held back—I mean, maybe you work harder. Maybe I had to do that but I don’t know that it was ever a conscious thought. I don’t know that I’ve ever hit a roadblock where someone told me I couldn’t do something.”
Maybe it’s because she can do anything. “The old adage ‘If you want something done give it to a busy person’ fits Mary to a T,” says Ken Bebermeyer, vice president of The Chest. “Here in our hometown of Washington, Missouri, she has been president of the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce, [but] as busy as she is there is never a time that she isn’t there when someone needs help. I am [not only] proud of what she has accomplished in our industry but proud to count her as my friend.”
In his speech introducing her at the 2016 WLC Welcome Dinner and Awards presentation, Bebermeyer said, “Having worked with Mary for most of 39 years, I have seen her, time after time, change someone’s question from ‘Can we do it?’ to ‘How will we do it?’”
Over the years, many people inspired Dobsch with their confidence in her. “Ernie Hazel set an unbelievable example. Bill Wood gave me opportunities—I always wondered, ‘Does he just not want to do it or does he really think I can handle it?’ I remember my first show; he sent me up to the SAAGNY [Specialty Advertising Association of Greater New
York] show when it was up in the Catskills. He said, ‘You go on up and I’ll be up there tomorrow.’ The guy never showed up! He let me do my job and he never doubted me.”
The list of mentors goes on. “Ken Bebermeyer, Sue Tobias [senior vice president of sales at Fields Manufacturing]—she set an example of professionalism. When I got this award she sent me a card. It should be the other way around because she is inspirational,” Dobsch says. “We traveled together. I always found when there was a trade show, I’d always want to spend time with [Sue] because it was always time well spent. She was professional. She always took the high road.”
Family And Friendships
Reflecting on what she’s most proud of accomplishing in her life, she immediately points to her family—her husband, Bob, and two children, Jacob and Laura. “[Bob and I] got married at 21 and we’ve been married for 38 years. As he says, since I travel so much, he’s only married 50 percent of the time so it works great!” she laughs. Jacob works at The Chest as West Coast sales manager and Laura works outside the industry selling medical equipment. Recently, Laura’s daughter, Grace, was added to the family.
But Dobsch is also proud of what she’s accomplished in the industry. “The Chest has a great reputation and I’m very proud of that. But I think what’s even more important is the friendships. You don’t just work in this industry.
It becomes your family/friend network. And that’s something I think is just priceless,” she says.
“Where else do you travel with your competition and talk about best practices and what you should be doing, and those people are your friends? I don’t think you find anywhere else that can happen,” she adds.
Dobsch encourages everyone in the industry to consider volunteering because “it’s the most rewarding thing you can ever do. When you’re volunteering you’re hanging around with the best people in the world and you get so much more back.”
DeGreeff sums up some of the main reasons why Dobsch was chosen as this year’s PPAI Woman of Achievement. “I believe on reflection that Mary’s greatest gift is to be able to show empathy, fairness, kindness to everyone, no matter if they are friends, family, customers or colleagues … Mary Dobsch is definitely qualified for the Woman of the Year Award, but she could also win as Person of the Year.”
Julie Richie is associate editor for PPB.
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