A Generous Heart

Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+ (front row, third from left), with Paula Wygonik, MAS (front row, fourth from left), is proudest of her stellar team at CE Competitive Edge, LLC.

 

For decades, Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, has championed the promotional products industry. “When I started in the industry, it wasn’t very prestigious to sell promotional products or ad specialties,” says Tomasini, CEO of distributor CE Competitive Edge, LLC in Stevensville, Michigan. “People would say negative things like we are ‘trunk-slammers’ selling ‘trinkets and trash,’ and I always took that on personally because I wanted people to know that this was a chosen and dignified profession.” 

Back when businesses could buy an ad in the Yellow Pages, it was Tomasini who fought for years to change the ‘advertising specialties’ section to ‘promotional products.’ “I remember before we started calling it promotional products, I was calling it promotional products. Being listed under that header was so important to me,” says Tomasini. “Advocating means doing what you can to keep the industry visible and in front of people so that we’re relevant. The advocacy has been an evolution for people to understand that we are marketing professionals, and the value that we bring to the table.”

Thirty-seven years ago, Tomasini got her start in the promotional products industry by working for a Michigan distributor. In October 1993, she opened her own distributorship in Southwest Michigan. “In the beginning, it was just me,” says Tomasini. “When I started, I did everything. In fact, when I bought used furniture for my first office, I got three desks. I would literally roll my chair from one desk to the other. One desk was all about sales and one was all about billing and accounting. The other was for artwork because, at the time, artwork wasn’t done on a computer. It was a piece of film and you had to overnight artwork to somebody. So, during the day, I was selling and at night, I was rolling around my office, working.” 

Over the next 27 years, Tomasini grew CE Competitive Edge to be an industry standout, drawing praise and recognition with its many accomplishments. Her company has been recognized by PPB as one of the industry’s Greatest Companies To Work For and by Counselor magazine as one of the Best Places To Work. Michigan Women’s Business Council named the company a Top 50 Women-Owned Business in Michigan and the Michigan Outstanding Women’s Business Enterprise of the Year, and DiversityBusiness.com added the distributor to its Top 500 Women-Owned Business in the U.S. listing. “When you’re in that entrepreneurial phase, you are definitely very nimble, and I guess you never stop being nimble,” says Tomasini. “It’s been a great evolution, becoming a small business.”

Tomasini says she was “joyfully humbled” when she found out she was PPAI’s 2021 Woman of Achievement recipient. “I was happy and honored, but the first thing I thought of were the other women who were nominated,” she says, adding that she’s grateful to be in their company and blessed that her peers think so highly of her. “I also thank God that I am alive to enjoy this award as it’s been an It's A Wonderful Life experience. So many people have reached out to me since being named to tell me the difference I have made in their lives and they’ve shared so many stories about things I have done or said that made a difference to them. I never knew about most of these. It’s been truly touching.”

Tomasini’s entrance into the promotional products industry was a slow and deliberate transition, but she says she quickly fell head over heels for everything the industry represents. “One of the things that I loved was the breadth of the industry, and 30 years ago, it wasn’t near what it is today,” she says. “I love the complexity of it, and I love the challenge of finding something that is amazing and going to achieve the objectives of my client. I also realized, early on, that I had a talent for being nimble enough to be one minute working on pens and the next, working on some complicated promotion. I think that takes a different kind of person to make that transition.” 

For Tomasini, being an industry advocate has meant contributing at a high level as a volunteer and mentor. “I have always felt that it’s important to give back,” she says. “I really believe that a rising tide lifts all ships and I feel like it’s my job to do what I can to lift people up. I love to help people.” She has served on several PPAI advisory and action groups, committees and councils, and was a member of the Association’s Board of Directors in 2014-2019, including a term as board chair in 2017. 

Through her service opportunities, Tomasini has learned that leadership is about more than what you know. “I’ve evolved as a leader by learning on the job,” she says. “There are certain things you don’t know until you have to navigate through them. Leading over the past 30 years, I have learned that leadership is more about strategy and being willing to try different things.” 

Tomasini is also active in her regional association, having served on several Michigan Promotional Professionals Association’s (MiPPA) committees and volunteer groups. She was inducted into MiPPA’s Hall of Fame in 2020. As a member of PPAI’s Government Relations Advisory Council in 2015-2020, Tomasini met numerous times with state and federal law makers in Lansing, Michigan, and Washington, D.C., to represent the promotional products industry.

Having learned how to launch and also operate her own promo business from the ground up, Tomasini loves to save others from enduring the same “perilous” trials she’s experienced. 

 

Top: Mary Jo Tomasini congratulates Charles Duggan, II, MAS+ (center) on receiving the PPAI Distinguished Service Award during The PPAI Expo 2018. Danny Rosin, CAS (left), presented the award. Above: At The PPAI Expo 2018, Tomasini officially concludes her term as PPAI chair of the board by passing the gavel to Incoming Chair Dale Denham, MAS+.

“When she first applied for certification with Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) in 2000, the process was long, detail-oriented and arduous,” says Paula Wygonik, MAS, president of CE Competitive Edge, and Tomasini’s nominator. “Mary Jo was a pioneer in learning the process and completing each step. As WBENC interest and applications grew, Mary Jo was the first on the western side of Michigan to sign up as a mentor for those following in her path. She has been mentoring women who are applying for WBENC certification for nearly 20 years.” 

Tomasini adds, “My journey as an entrepreneur and passionate volunteer in this industry might not have happened without the generous assistance from others who have helped and mentored me along the way. In turn, I’m only too glad to help others. It’s been my pleasure to lift other people up and make a difference in their lives; that’s what has given me the most satisfaction and meant the most to me.” 

Over the years, Tomasini has built a solid reputation for nurturing and caring about others. “Mary Jo has made it her life’s work to put others, especially women, ahead of herself,” says Wygonik. “In the challenging first years of business, Mary Jo took out a credit card loan to be able to gift and thank her employees; a true woman of achievement knows the importance of appreciating others. She has set up a scholarship endowment at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to be awarded to female students who need financial assistance with their education. She's often a secret angel to others giving money anonymously to those in need, as she did for a single mom without money needing to travel to see a dying loved one. These big-hearted actions are not exceptions but, rather, speak to her values and how she lives her life. 

Despite strategic foresight and careful planning, businesses around the world couldn’t have prepared for what the pandemic wrought, and when the first closures began hitting in early 2020, they were a gut punch to Tomasini’s business. She found herself working in the shipping department to keep orders moving and revenue coming in, reminding herself of when she used to roll around from desk to desk. “The biggest challenge was survival,” says Tomasini. “[The pandemic] came out of nowhere. Before the pandemic was even called a pandemic, we started seeing event cancellations which has typically been the lion’s share of what we do.” She says shifting to personal protective equipment helped the entire company make it through the year. 

“We were able to help a lot of our customers get what they needed, strengthening our relationships with them,” says Tomasini. “We are going to continue to navigate this pandemic while acknowledging that the world has had accelerated growth. Growth is never going to happen slower than it’s happening today.”

She says many of her best memories in the promotional products industry have come from the relationships she’s formed over the years. “When I served on the PPAI board, that was an amazing experience for me. I met people I never would have met, I learned a lot from them, and I got to do a lot of great things, including going to Hong Kong in 2018. We represented the industry to the world. I’ve had so many incredibly cool experiences like that, but the people make this industry.” 

Tomasini adds that she’s had the honor of receiving consistent recognition throughout her career. “I’ve had the privilege to do a lot of different things,” she says. “All of my accomplishments are important and humbling. When I look at my top three accomplishments, one is growing from being a one-woman business and trying to make a living in a basement office to being this larger company that today employs more than 25 staff members, and being responsible for those individuals and their families. Second, we really do have an amazing company. I’m thrilled that people want to work for this company. I remember, early in my journey, a man telling me, ‘You need to decide right now if making money is your objective or being an entrepreneur is your objective.’ He told me I would have more free time and money if I would just sell versus being an entrepreneur who cares about my team. It was no contest; I decided being an entrepreneur was most important to me and inspiring others and leading with character, integrity and grace has been its own reward.”

Looking back over the highlights and accomplishments of the past four decades, Tomasini is simply thankful. “I am blessed by all of the things I have been able to do and experience since choosing this as my profession,” she says. “Competitive Edge is an example of what can happen when you surround yourself with a passionate and highly engaged team of professionals. I couldn’t be happier with what we’ve done together or more optimistic about what’s ahead.”

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The prestigious PPAI Woman of Achievement award was presented to Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, at a special evening event during the PPAI Women's Leadership Conference in June. 

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Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.

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