During his senior year of college, Steve Donlin jumped at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play football for leagues in Italy and England. He says a year immersed in the sport was a great experience, but he knew his future was back home in the promotional products industry. After all, it was the family business. Donlin had grown up working summers with his father, Dick Donlin, who opened a multi-line rep firm in 1982. “Dad hired me when I got back for $500 a month and sent me to parts of the Midwest that most people would never dare to go to,” he says with a chuckle. “He handed me samples and catalogs and told me to get out there and call on people.” Twenty-six years later Donlin is running the company based in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
What keeps him coming back every day is the enthusiasm he’s able to bring to his distributor clients. “When you are presenting products and ideas to distributor salespeople and they light up as they understand what you are presenting and where it applies, it’s the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy doing the most—bringing new and different ideas to people.”
It’s evident that his clients feel the same way about Donlin—four nominated him for this year’s recognition. Among them is Dan Livengood, CAS, VP of marketing and business development at 2020 Brand Solutions, who appreciates Donlin’s genuine interest in the business. “Steve has always been responsive to whatever my or my colleagues’ needs are,” he says. “Steve is a relationship person who not only values the business side when interacting but, most importantly, the human side. He’s insistent in connecting the dots and making introductions to strengthen relationships inside and outside of the industry. In short, Steve cares about the industry, the people and making sure everyone has a voice, a place and a chance to prosper.”
Other nominators are Mike McElligott, president of MEM Advertising Co.; H.A. Gross, sales manager at Plaza Printers; and Paul Hohenwald, owner of Spartan Promotional Group. “Donlin is always on top of his game,” says Hohenwald. “Out of all the multi-line reps out there I feel like a partner with him, not just a sales number.” McElligott says he also appreciates the training Donlin provides on his lines. “It’s very educational and packed with samples and specific ideas.” Gross agrees adding, “Steve shows me how to sell the lines and products that he represents. I liked his approach from the beginning. I also like the way he thinks of me and my company when he talking to the suppliers he works with—that makes me feel valuable.”
One On One With Steve Donlin
On maintaining the exclusivity of his lines: I find suppliers who manufacture or have single-mindedness in one category because they are experts at one thing. They aren’t going to add powerbanks to a glove line. It really is about finding suppliers who are very focused.
On giving equal attention to all lines: I’m a heavy project-based guy. If someone sends me artwork and says there are 1,000 employees, I’ll take that artwork and route it to all my suppliers and get them involved. Then, I’ll come back to that distributor with vinyl graphics for a trade show, recognition products and a bunch of different things that they’ve ever thought about showing their client. Over the years, distributors have learned to lean on me. They may not have time to [think through all the creative]—they’ll say, “Let’s throw this to the multi-line rep.” You can ‘wow’ them with ideas they’ve never thought of before.
On how reps can remain relevant in a changing industry: We’ve all had to change over the years. I’ve lost more lines to acquisitions than to anything else. Again, I go back to working with suppliers who are experts in categories—they might be smaller suppliers who need help growing their business. You need to be looking out for the next company that needs help. Be willing to understand the distributor salesperson and the clients. Build a level of trust. If a distributor trusts you to handle artwork and work on projects, then that would keep you relevant. Building those relationships is something that no acquisition can ever take away.