Houston Distributorship Finds Second Success
When opportunity comes knocking, you not only have to be prepared, you have to hear the knock and open the door. Leslie Roark and her husband, Sean, were attuned to such an opportunity in 2002 and today are owners of thriving Houston-based distributorship, PromoPros (UPIC: ppros).
While the Roarks have only been in the promotional products industry for eight years, their company has roots that go back to 1946 when the company was called Harry E. Jones & Associates, LLC and owned by Leslie’s best friend’s grandfather, Harry E. Jones. When Jones died in 1992, his daughter, Nancy Jones Holliman, ran the company for several years. When she passed in 2002, her daughter, Leslie’s childhood friend, Michelle Holliman Lowther, was preparing to close the business down when she mentioned it to Leslie one day.
“Sean had great experience in operations, marketing and software,” says Leslie, who holds a BFA in graphic design, was creative director for several dot-com companies and has extensive experience in software training, design and development. “My husband and I had worked together many times before.”
The Roarks bought the company but started from square one. “There were clients, but no one left in the company to tell where to find the files,” says Leslie, laughing. “It was a shock to come from a software background and walk into a company with nothing on the computer.” Their saviors turned out to be members of the local regional association, Houston Promotional Products Association (HPPA), of which Harry Jones had been a founding member.
First, they asked for help from HPPA members and many people stepped up, including supplier rep, Patrick Reineker of Reinecker Marketing Associates. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t even know what an ‘A’ meant!” she remembers.
The pair was hungry to learn about products and began to get familiar with sources for suppliers. They asked, learned, listened and cultivated their business slowly and thoughtfully.
A big step forward came in 2005, when the Roarks added incentive programs to their business offerings (Sean has since earned his Certified Professional Incentive Manager designation). “That’s where we have concerted our knowledge base and energies,” she says, adding they use Quality Incentive Company as a fulfillment house, which Leslie says made it easy for them to get into the incentive market.
That first year, incentive sales at PromoPros comprised only 10 percent of the business; now sales are split at 40 percent promotional products, 60 percent incentives primarily in the area of safety incentive programs.
In 2006, they renamed the company, PromoPros, because “Harry E. Jones sounded like a law firm,” Leslie says.
Houston’s thriving petro chemical and construction industries offer almost unlimited business opportunities for safety incentive programs. “We go to safety-oriented tradeshows, professional safety association luncheons, anywhere connections can be made for safety incentive programs,” says Leslie.
She admits selling incentives is different from selling promotional products. Both should be provided within a full-service program, but while PromoPros doesn’t track metrics on promotional products, incentive programs need a way to measure outcome.
“We focus on creating a really strong ROI for each program,” she says, explaining that PromoPros finds the best metrics to measure return on investment for whatever the client is trying to accomplish. “We set up programs that fit our client’s needs and implement them and manage them ourselves. It’s a turnkey service,” she adds. “Because of the annuity nature of well-planned and well-run incentive programs, we hope to continue to maintain and grow that in the next few years.”
Leslie is putting her faith in incentive programs because she says if a company has a well-performing safety program, it is not going to want to cut it back. “The gas and oil industry is not hurting as much as a lot of other industries are,” she says. “That’s where we want to grow.”
This year, the Roarks are looking to exceed $1 million in sales (in comparison, sales from 2006-2009 were $300,000 to $500,000)—by nurturing their incentive business and getting back the 30 percent in promotional products business lost during the past year. “We don’t want to do anything too fast,” she cautions. “We want to make smart decisions and learn as we go. We’ve been involved in companies that have grown too fast and gone under. The worst thing we can do is to turn a blind eye to what life is trying to tell us.”
Among the strategies they’ll use to expand the client base are active participation in client industry tradeshows (Sean is often a speaker), networking at the shows and encouraging referral business. “We want to make sure people know our name and what we do,” she says, adding they also plan to add two to three people to their outside sales team. Currently, Sean and another team member handle incentive sales for the business.
“I’m not keen on quota-based sales, but I do like relationship building. I like to meet someone and then keep in touch. It works so much better than cold calling,” she says. “Sure, there’s product research and writing up orders but I’m taking care of clients—friends. I like to create relationships.”
Working with a spouse doesn’t pose many problems for the Roarks, who have been married for 13 years, because they’ve learned to handle tiny crises before they can become big crises. “We’ve worked on ourselves and our relationship for many years,” she explains. “When one of us is upset, we don’t let it escalate. Communication gets stronger as we learn what the other person is going through. We put each other first.”
Where does Leslie see the company in five years? She says one of their sons, currently a junior at Texas A&M University, wants to take over the business one day and he will certainly bring more fresh energy to the company. “We love what we’ve built here,” she says, adding that her childhood friend, Michelle, is happy to know her grandfather’s legacy lives on.