Above And Beyond


Being named a top supplier is one thing; being voted as the best in class by your customers is an over-the-top compliment, and a reliable indication that your company is operating at the top of its game.

Nineteen PPAI supplier companies reached that elite level in January 2019; 11 earned the Supplier Star award and eight received an Award of Merit.

The PPAI Pyramid Supplier Star competition is an annual opportunity for all PPAI member suppliers in good standing, who update their sales volume with PPAI every two years as required and who have earned a SAGE Supplier Rating of an A or higher, to be included on the ballot. All PPAI distributor members are eligible to vote for two PPAI member supplier companies in each of the 11 categories. Voting takes place online during the designated period; this summer voting took place from July 1-19 for the Supplier Star awards that will be presented in 2020.

The 2019 winners include some familiar names and some relative newcomers that have quickly earned their customers’ admiration in the areas of communication, customer service, top-quality products, excellent decorating and packaging. Read on to find out what makes these companies outshine their competitors.

Insights from Ray Jabro, director of wholesale operations
Years in business: 10
Primary product category: Custom apparel, mostly holiday sweaters and accessories like beanies, scarves and more.
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: To never deny a request without a compromise. Always try your best to make a client happy regardless of the difficulty of the task, make yourself available to distributors in different time zones and communicate quickly.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: It starts with keeping in contact with the hard-working distributors that produced orders since the beginning. Showing appreciation to these men and women has helped big time. Our graphic designers continue making unbelievable, on-demand virtual concepts for distributors and our creative department produces media that really captures how nice our apparel is.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: We provide quality threads on all our products. The designs we produce are carefully produced to match the client’s colors and industry. For example, we apply cars to the virtual concept if it’s being made for a car company. Our employees are eager to see the finished product as much as the recipients because we really care and work hard to ensure it is done correctly. Plus, it’s our objective to meet urgent demands in this demanding industry; rush projects are accepted until the very end.

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Insights from Mark Norton, general manager
Years in business: 61
Primary product category: Awards
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: We treat our customers like family. Our job is to make your job easy.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: We look at new products every year and add a fresh selection to our catalog for our customers to choose from.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: We’re a small business that can scale up and handle large orders but we’re still small enough to handle your single awards. We want to work with you on your customers’ awards needs.

Insights from David Katz, partner
Years in business: 29
Primary product category: Candy and snacks
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: If we had to sum it up, it would be communicate, communicate and communicate. We teach our customer service specialists that the only bad response is no response at all. If we take care of our customers from start to finish they will be loyal. Every business wants raving fans. Our exceptional products get us orders, our exceptional service gets us customers. It’s that simple.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: We have a full team of creative product and packaging designers who are constantly producing items on the cutting edge of innovation and ensure that we are first to market with new and exciting promotional food items.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: Unlike our competitors, Midnite Snax is one of the last pure food companies left in the promotional products industry. With almost 29 years of experience focused solely on food and packaging creativity, we believe we have separated ourselves to a class all our own and we do things that no one else is doing. We pride ourselves on making sure we are first to market with new and fresh ideas in the edible space and have worked diligently to build long-lasting relationships and a reputation for delivering an exceptional product time and time again.

Insights from Dawn Pilon, account executive
Years in business: 30+
Primary product category: Custom-molded Belgian chocolate
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: Our goal is to give our distributors an amazing customer service experience from start to finish. We will walk you through options, pricing, art, shipping and deliver a beautiful and delicious finished product you will be proud of.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: All custom orders are produced on demand—the chocolate is poured and packaged specifically for each project. Clients work with our in-house art team to ensure the perfect storytelling marketing piece for clients.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: Our customer service. We are authentic, dependable and happy to help.

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Insights from Lavina Honeycutt, promotional products sales manager
Years in business: OraLabs, Inc. was started in 1990; the promotional division, Leashables, now known as OraLabs Promotional Products, was launched in 2005.
Primary product category: USA-manufactured personal care products
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: The sales team can bring in the business, but excellent customer service is what keeps the business. We use automated emails and phone calls to keep our customers updated on their orders; 24/7 order status is also available on our website and provides up-to-date information.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: We are constantly doing R&D to offer on-trend containers, formulas and fragrances. For example, because of the new sunscreen regulations that ban certain ingredients shown to damage coral reefs, we developed our new SPF 50+ mineral-based, all-natural, reef-safe, broad-spectrum Sunscreen Stick.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: With 30 years of manufacturing, marketing and distribution experience within our business segments of retail, promotional products and contract manufacturing, OraLabs has become the largest private label lip balm manufacturer in the USA and is the go-to source for best-in-class promotional distributors, retailers and some of the largest consumer product brands in the world. 

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Insights from Nate Robson, director of business development
Years in business: 23
Primary product category: Personal care items
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: Our goal when it comes to communication is to be prompt, clear and as transparent as possible. There is a lot that goes into each order and without excellent communication, things get missed and people get let down. Customer service is truly a mindset and a commitment to serve. To fill the role of customer service in our organization, you have to be willing to embrace the following statements: I will demonstrate empathy, understanding and competency; I will take ownership of problems and see them through to resolution; I will ensure that every customer feels valued and work to earn the right to have them speak highly of us.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: As a contract manufacturer for several cosmetics brands in the retail space, we have our pulse on what is trending in that universe. This exposure gives us a leg up in identifying what consumers are looking for, and we try to leverage that knowledge as we think about what to provide in the promotional products space.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: One reason we have excelled as a supplier is that we continue to stick with what we are great at. There is plenty of temptation to expand beyond the categories we currently serve to drive more top-line revenue. However, our decision to not divert focus away from our core products allows us to achieve a level of expertise that wouldn’t be possible if we strayed from our lane. With that laser focus, I am excited to see in what creative ways we continue to improve our customers’ experience and add value in the future.

Insights from Kippie Helzel, MAS, vice president of sales
Years in business: 27
Primary product category: Water bottles
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: We respond to all emails within an hour maximum, even if just to acknowledge that more time is required to provide the answer. We also turn large volume quotes around within an hour. We reply to all and make sure to answer the questions specifically.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: We try to follow retail trends in drinkware to offer current styles and read all the industry publications to see what trends are ahead, product and style wise.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: For any supplier to have top ratings and even be in the running for Supplier Star, it all boils down to your team and your company culture. We are lucky to have a great customer service staff that has been with us for many years, and they are our backbone. We have put more emphasis on developing an inside sales team to offer personal support for product solutions and consultative support with our distributors. Our outside sales team, both company reps and multi-line reps, know what our inside teams can and need to do, so that frees them up to make sure they have time to really work with and listen to our customers. This assures we have the best pulse on how to help make business happen together. When there is a problem with an order, our quality assurance team understands what is essential: determine if time is of the essence, take care of replacing/reacting first and worry about whose fault it is later. We have always been aggressive in product compliance testing and attend the PPAI Product Responsibility Summit annually to continue to monitor standards and to assure we are complying with the most current regulations. As a smaller supplier, relatively speaking, we have the ability to be flexible and more responsive. And we wouldn’t be who we are, and in this position, if it weren’t for our production team and our outstanding production manager who truly understands who pays the bills—and that is our distributors. Our goal with every call and every order is “if we can’t meet the specific requirement, offer the options available and find a solution.”

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Insights from Paul Lage, MAS, president
Years in business: 23
Primary product category: We have 15 major categories; primary lines are drinkware, writing instruments, tech and business-related items.
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: We will communicate any way, any time and provide immediate answers for our customers. Some of our communication is proactive and we provide tools for our customers, so they can seek out their own answers on our website.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: We manage category teams to evaluate products and trends. We follow up with sampling a variety of groups to validate and provide input as we prioritize new product launches.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: Customer service! We care about our customers and we want them to have a positive experience every time we get the opportunity to interact with them. We truly embrace the attitude of “Whatever It Takes” in everything we do.

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Insights from Mark Godsey, CAS, president
Years in business: 71
Primary product category: Writing instruments, golf accessories and drinkware
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: We view our customers as extensions of our Gold Bond family and pride ourselves on crafting an experience that makes them feel as though they are working within a tight-knit, family-style community. Each phase of the rendezvous is methodical and each step in the process is crafted for the most convenient encounter possible to provide more than they expect—because we’re family.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: We consider ourselves the self-made understudy to the most impeccable trend hunters in the world. We are forging our exclusive and staple selections based on the most up-to-date trend analysis and client feedback. We consider our customer feedback as the best building blocks for tactical assessments on how to make regular items sensational whether in features, services surrounding the item or marketplace ideation.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: We have a large variety of decoration methods that are accommodating to any brand, a social media presence that has won several awards and in-house construction on one-of-a kind bundles that are comprised with only the client’s needs in mind. We don’t just offer promotional products—we invent experiences designed for a one-of-a kind event that will never be a click-to-buy philosophy.

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Insights from Pamela Baker, sales and marketing project manager
Years in business: 65
Primary product category: Writing instruments
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: We are a family-oriented company and think of our customers as family, too. We have our customers’ best interests in mind and our employees and customers love that camaraderie. We believe in a personal touch. When customers call, they get a human being. We also send thank-you notes to our customers, too. We are very hands-on.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: We have some pretty cool stuff coming in the fourth quarter—we are going to be branching out by adding packaging that’s as nice as the product inside, such as digital printing on gift boxes with matching pens. We’ve also recently teamed up with the creative people at Origaudio, so our products and packaging are going to reflect a hipper vibe. We still have all the pens everybody knows and loves but we are introducing some cool, cutting-edge products, too.
Why it excels among industry suppliers: We put a lot of research and development into our products, particularly to consider what it is that nobody else has. We started with inks—we were the first in the industry to have smooth-writing inks. It set us apart. Going forward we will continue to offer products no other company offers. And we also excel in communication and customer service. It’s about the people. We remember our customers; they know who we are and they know who their CSR is. Every customer has a dedicated CSR and if that person isn’t available, another team member picks up the phone. Again, it all comes down to a personal touch.

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Insights from SanMar
Years in business: 48
Primary product category: With about 85,000 SKUs, we deliver top-quality, printable promotional activewear, outerwear, t-shirts, accessories and apparel that unite people and promote teams.
Company philosophy on communication and customer service: We believe in passionately serving the customer. Communication is paramount in all we do. We provide ongoing training for our employees to provide the best customer service possible. We take our cues from our customer.
How it keeps product and packaging offerings fresh and in-demand: Jeremy Lott, owner and president, says, “We have merchandising and design teams whose job it is to shop internationally and subscribe to trend reports. We have a trend editor whose job it is to take very far-out macro trends affecting the world and help us understand what that means for our apparel. Then they make products to meet those trends.”
Why it excels among industry suppliers: We excel because we passionately serve the customer. We operate under the philosophy of treating our customers like family and always doing the right thing. We truly realize that we are a part of something bigger. We take pride in staying focused on making products that are ethically and sustainably sourced because we know many of our customers demand it, and it is 100 percent the right thing to do. Internally we also make sure to “tell the truth and be nice” to each other above all else. We believe in a healthy work and life balance, because happy and healthy employees are our best ambassadors.

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Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.

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