AIA Corporation’s new CEO, Matt Gresge, believes in the power of collaboration.
Matt Gresge grew up in the quintessential sleepy small town: Geneva, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Chicago. It was the kind of place where farming and football were woven into the fabric of life—and often intersected.
“I played high school football and used to bale hay on my friends’ farms to get ready for the season,” says Gresge. “It sounds like a corny story from a hundred years ago, but it’s true.”
Now living in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs, Illinois, Gresge is part of a six-person home team. He and his wife, Mary, have four children—three daughters and a son. Their two oldest are in college: Gabbie attends the University of Missouri and Dani is at Georgia Tech, while the two youngest, Livvie and Griffin, are in high school.
In October 2016, Gresge was appointed CEO of Neenah, Wisconsin-based distributor AIA Corporation (PPAI 101364). He most recently served as president and chief operating officer for The Highlands Group, a service provider to independent distributors and their supporting manufacturers. Before that, he was president of TOPS Products, a $300 million manufacturer of business products sold through leading retailers, e-commerce resellers and a nationwide network of over 2,000 independent distributors. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
What was your first job and what lessons did you learn?
My first job out of college was as a commissioned sales rep with RR Donnelley & Sons Company (now LSC Communications), a large commercial printing company. I covered Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri and was lucky to have opened accounts with the St. Louis Cardinals, Schnuck’s Markets and Fred Pryor Seminars, among others.
Earning a living as a commissioned sales rep taught me the high value of being face to face with customers, prospects, colleagues and suppliers, and listening very carefully while with these important people. I also learned to sweat the small details of a transaction and the importance of doing what you said you would do.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’ve been privileged to be a member of some of the strongest leadership teams in the industries in which I’ve worked and have also had the privilege of building and leading exceptional leadership teams. I never cease to be amazed by what a high-caliber team that’s in sync and moving in the same direction can accomplish. For example, in four separate businesses my teams have been able to at least double sales and profits in a relatively short amount of time. Growing a business with people you respect and enjoy is the most fun you can have in business and is a source of great professional pride.
Who are your mentors and what have they taught you?
I’ve been lucky to have been mentored by some of the best in the business. Most recently, Tom Lehr [executive vice president and chief operating officer] at AIA has been a patient mentor as he’s taught me the ins and outs of the promotional products business. I still have a long way to go, but I have a steady guide in Tom.
Going farther back, Mark Angelson, our CEO at Moore Wallace and RR Donnelley, taught me the importance of balancing a relentless focus on delivering financial results with a sincere and tireless focus on the key personal relationships that make a business go.
Tom Quinlan, our CEO at RR Donnelley and LSC Communications, taught me the value of keeping it simple, meeting commitments and always searching for the better way.
Lastly, Jim Ellward, now president of TOPS Products and one of my first hires as a new manager 25 years ago, taught me the power and potential of close collaboration within a team and that the power of the team is far greater than the power of a leader.
If you wrote a book about your life, what would the title be?
Matt’s Excellent Adventure: The Joys of The Random Walk. My career has been anything but a straight line, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I’ve met great people, been endlessly fascinated and entertained by the businesses I’ve been part of, and been able to travel all over the United States and the world.
What are your plans for AIA in 2017?
The AIA community has big dreams and great expectations. So, the first order of business is to put a leadership team in place that will meet and exceed the wants and needs of our owners. AIA had a strong foundation, but to meet our commitments we needed to add new leaders in sales, marketing, supplier relations and human resources. Fortunately, AIA has been able to attract strong talent for each of these positions.
Mark Evans, our new chief marketing officer, comes to us from Essendant where he had a long, successful track record of marketing with and for Essendant’s 3,500 independent distributors. Katrina Willis, our new senior vice president of supplier relations, comes to us from Sports Authority, OfficeMax and Sears Holdings, where she successfully led vendor relations, retail, e-commerce and B2B merchandising in a variety of product categories.
The new leaders for sales (Tim Parrish, who previously served as vice president of franchise sales and operations at Miracle Ear) and human resources [announced after this issue went to press] come to AIA with very successful track records and will be a great fit with the AIA team and community. In addition to assembling a strong team, AIA will spend 2017 focused on providing our owners with upgraded sales strategies and tactics, customer-focused marketing tools and programs, current technology, deeper, more strategic supplier relations, services that transfer low-value administrative burdens from our owners to AIA, and more opportunities to network with one another.
We’re excited about our future and see huge potential for AIA owners.