Close Up: Defining The Sandbox

 

For Jill Haspert, life is filled with these “weird aha moments.” Haspert became CEO of Foxtrot Marketing Group, the 10th largest minority‐owned business in the Twin Cities, three years ago. Haspert says “it just so happened” that Foxtrot’s parent company is in the part of Minnesota where she grew up. “My family still lives there, and I’ve seen firsthand the economic impact the Tribe makes in an area that’s historically economically depressed. It is extraordinary.” Foxtrot Marketing Group is owned by Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, the business arm of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. 

“We tell the story that when you do business with us, our profit doesn’t go to a small group of wealthy people. It it It helps our ownership group build their tribal economy, preserve language and culture, and promote environmental stewardship,” says Haspert. “Our customers care about supplier diversity. But ultimately, that is a cherry on top. We still have to deliver the best product and have the best service.”

Haspert, who started her career in finance, was working in a business group when she had an aha moment with a team member who encouraged her to go back to school to pursue her MBA. “I was telling her how I wanted her job. She was leading the team, setting the vision and [was] responsible for the financial results of that organization,” says Haspert. “I was asking about her path and how she got there, and she told me she went back to get her MBA. That really crystallized for me how to lead an organization.” After earning her degree, Haspert went on to lead businesses for consumer-packaged goods company, General Mills, for seven years. 

Through a recruiter, Haspert found Foxtrot. “I never really knew about the promotional products industry before,” she says. “I mean, I knew about it, but I didn’t realize that it was an enormous industry, supporting so many people and jobs.” When she joined the company, Haspert says she felt like she was getting a crash course in the promotional market. “This industry is filled with crazy-creative people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and I love that. I’ve enjoyed seeing campaigns that other companies create, and the interesting ways they’ve solved problems for customers is really inspirational,” she says. Straightaway, Haspert also felt the industry was filled with professionals supporting collective growth. “Being a relative newcomer, everyone I’ve reached out to has been so welcoming and willing to share information, even if we are technically competitors. Everybody seems to be really focused on making sure that the industry keeps growing.” 

For Haspert, 2020 was the most challenging year of her career. “Like so many distributors, we moved quickly to respond to changing market conditions,” she says. “You couldn’t just tread water. We reimagined what we wanted our business to look like and put plans and processes in place to get there.” Haspert says the pandemic helped cement Foxtrot’s mission of focusing on selling company stores. “The consumer shift to online purchasing will definitely benefit us in the long run, and most of our business is already there. This pandemic forced us to reevaluate and reeducate our sales team in selling these online stores. I don’t want to say it was fun, but it was a fun challenge for me because I enjoy long-term, big-picture thinking. We had to balance our growth mindset with the realities of running a business during a pandemic while managing our cash and inventory levels.”


The Foxtrot leadership team volunteers at a food distribution event last winter.

Being honored as one of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s 2021 40 Under 40 honorees came as a fun surprise to Haspert. She says it was never a goal, but for 2021, she is focusing on being an even better leader. “Our company works best when I set the vision and then get out of the way,” says Haspert. “It’s so tempting to focus on the details and work in the business versus working on the business. That’s a constant focus area of mine. How do I continue to set the vision, set expectations and define the sandbox that we want our teams to play in?” 

Haspert also says she wants to make Foxtrot the best place to work for current and prospective employees. “We want people to want to work at Foxtrot. To that end, this year we are relocating to a building that is much more employee-friendly. Our current building has served us very well, but it doesn’t have the modern amenities that our employees are expecting.” In the new space, Foxtrot will be making employee wellness a top priority while rethinking work culture. “We will have no private offices and I mean, none. Even I don’t even get a private office,” she says. “It’s all about reducing hierarchy and making our headquarters a social, collaborative hub. I am really excited about how we are better serving employees going  forward.”

New ideas make Haspert optimistic for the future. “I think we have a great leadership team here at Foxtrot, and I look forward to their ideas on how to grow our business, better serve our customers and be a better community member. Ideas are the lifeblood of what we do.”

PPB spoke with Haspert to learn more about how she’s “defining the sandbox” for her team, her concerns for the future of the promo industry and her advice to other  leaders. 

PPB What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?

Haspert Early in my career, when I was in finance, I was working super long hours, constantly traveling and approaching burnout. I remember having a conversation with a mentor of mine, and at that time, I was a 24-year-old all about the “go, go, go.” She told me, “Jill, this organization will absorb from you as much work as you are willing to give it.” That was such an aha moment for me. It made me realize that I hadn’t set expectations for myself and with my leader. That really forced me to focus on getting the most important work done, but I also realized I had a responsibility to myself to draw the line and say when I finish with this work, I need to focus on things outside of work. I always thought, “If there’s work to do, I will work until the work is done,” but the work is never done. 

PPB What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry?

Haspert The environmental impact of our industry concerns me. I think the work that suppliers and distributors have done, specifically over the past few years, with corporate social responsibility and environmental stewardship has been wonderful. I am really heartened to see that, but I think there’s a lot more work needed to be done in making sure we are emphasizing the sustainability of existing products, but then also continuing to learn about new offerings and creating demand for those items. From a distributor perspective, how do we all run our businesses more responsibly?  

PPB What’s your advice for other leaders in this industry?

Haspert I feel like as a relative newcomer I should probably be seeking advice, but what I’ve observed is that this industry is experiencing so much disruption from technology. Every company in our industry will be a technology company or should be making plans to become a technology company. My advice is not to fight that, but to really think about your business model and how you can embrace it while still maintaining those relationships with customers. Technology does not replace relationships, and you should be thinking about how the industry is adopting technology and making sure you are riding that wave. Along those same lines, we should recognize that businesses are a lot more resilient than people think. Making these changes doesn’t change your values and it doesn’t change who you are at the core of your company.  

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Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.

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