How Tia Walker, MAS, strives to exceed her clients’ expectations
When her first career as an apparel manufacturer’s sales rep at the Dallas Apparel Mart came to an end in 2000 due to industry consolidation, Tia Walker applied her sales and marketing skills to the promotional products industry—and never looked back. As an account executive at BrandAlliance, formerly known as Activate! Promotions + Marketing (UPIC: Activate), she enjoys using her sales and creative marketing skills to help companies in a variety of industries promote their brands and implement safety and recognition programs.
Walker grew up in Arlington, Texas, and the proud Texan hasn’t strayed far. She still lives in North Texas, close to her mom and dad. When she’s not working or visiting her brother’s family in Virginia, you might find her at the lake in the summer, or, in winter, hitting the slopes of Colorado with her boyfriend, Mark LaVoy.
Skiing was not something she grew up doing. “Skiing is my boyfriend’s whole life. I learned to ski because of him. Most people quit [about the age] I got started,” she says. Walker proves that if you’re open to new opportunities, both professional and personal, you just never know when you might find your next passion.
What was your first job in promotional products and how did it come about?
I got into promotional products in 2000 as a second career after working out of the Dallas Apparel Mart as a manufacturer’s rep in the apparel industry for the first 18 years of my career. I had a friend who had also been a rep in the Apparel Mart who went to work in [the promotional products] industry [as a distributor]. I went to work for him and it wasn’t a good fit. So I wound up going out on my own. He was the one who told me about PPAI and the Expo coming up in January and it was all right here in Dallas, easy and accessible. Once I got registered, I started taking classes and that’s really how I learned the industry.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I love to entertain. I like to have dinner parties and invite people to come to my house. I am also a car girl. At one time I had four cars. My first fun car was a ’56 Thunderbird. I bought it as an investment in my early 20s. Then I bought a 1960 Chevy Impala convertible and a ’61 Chrysler Windsor. I think that’s why my ex-husband fell in love with me. He came to my house on our first date and I had four cars! I sold the T-bird and I got one of the retro 2003 Thunderbirds because I can drive it any time I want! My ’56 was always in need of repair. The 2003 is the fun car I drive all the time now, when I’m not in my work car—a Cadillac.
Who or what has had the greatest influence on your career and why?
The people who have influenced me the most have been Paul Kiewiet and Cliff Quicksell [both former industry distributors who now consult]. They’re probably the two people who have given me the vision and the mentoring to become what I am in the industry. Paul was one of the very first people I met in the industry. I just happened to be standing there at the first Expo in Dallas and we were watching a fashion show. I was brand new in the industry after starting my own company by myself. We just started talking.
Cliff really helped me elevate my game substantially in 2009-2010. He’s hard to work with in that he’s tough on you. He doesn’t baby you. I consulted with him for a year and a half. Coming out of the apparel industry, I had done product development, been to Hong Kong and China, and seen factories. I knew a lot about apparel and I think I sold differently than most people do. I always sell by samples. I’m not a catalog person. I like to sit down and talk to somebody and find out what they’re trying to accomplish, and I’m very product specific. If I see something I like, I get a sample of it. In 2009 when the economy crashed and the internet began to come on strong, that level of sales lost its value.
Somebody said in a seminar—it may have been Cliff—if they can buy it on the internet, they don’t need you. So if all you’re doing is delivering a catalog and taking an order, they can do it cheaper on the internet … you have no value proposition, you’re just an order taker. So I began to try to determine, what is value? How do I bring true value to the table in working with clients? I had attended a couple of Cliff’s classes and liked what he preached. I reached out to him and we started working together. It was a brutal process. There’s a saying that if you don’t mess up every once in a while, you’re not trying hard enough, and I did my fair share of messing up. It was a lot of trial and error. But by 2012, I had won two PPAI Pyramid Awards.
I also have to acknowledge PPAI. This organization has provided education, resources and networking that has influenced my career in this industry.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
I started doing a safety program in 2010 and we moved the needle [as far as ROI]. I won a Pyramid Award for that program. This company had had some accidents—it was a fast-food franchise. In the first nine months of their program we reduced the number of accidents by 50 percent and the dollar value of their claims by 90 percent. Their insurance dropped by more in the first year than what they were paying for the program. They have been able to sustain those reductions and that program has been running for six years. Last fall, based on the success of that franchisee, the corporate office launched a pilot safety program to a small group of corporate stores, which just rolled out to all of the shops on July 1. They are now putting together a recognition piece for the non-store corporate employees.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
When I’m working with a buyer and we exceed their expectations. When they accomplish a goal, achieve a benchmark … when they are successful.
What advice would you give to an industry newcomer?
To do this industry well, you have to be in it for a while and ask questions and get your suppliers to teach you all of their processes, such as how they imprint. Every product has its own challenges and advantages and methods of decoration. Learn as much as you can. Education is huge. Make really good friends in the industry because they can help you a lot. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Just make sure that you learn from them. Figure out what you did wrong and put in a process to make sure you don’t repeat the same mistake again. There are so many ways you can drop the ball in this industry. When it happens, the best thing you can do is own it. I find that nine times out of 10, suppliers really want to help you get out of a bad situation. They’re here to help you, not to penalize you. But at the end of the day, the buck stops with the distributor. You should only hold suppliers accountable for what they’re truly accountable for. Our customers make mistakes, we make mistakes and our suppliers make mistakes. That’s life. It’s not about avoiding the mistakes, because they’re going to happen. So deal with it with integrity and learn from it. Put something in your process that will be a check and a balance to try to keep that thing from happening again. Somebody once told me that the first year you’re in this business, you’re going to say, “Oh my gosh, why did I get into this business?” The second year you’re going to say, “Ok, I think I’m starting to figure this out.” The third year you’ll say, “Ok, now I’m glad I got into this business.”
Julie Richie is associate editor for PPB magazine.