Close Up: Meet The Promo Guy

Second In A Series:
Diversity In Promo

For Swire Ho, the key to success has always been through unique customer service. “We can all benefit from repeat and loyal customers, but in order to do that, we need to give them the level of service they can only experience at the company,” says Ho. Along with his business partner and wife Shirley, Ho, also known as #thepromoguy, is co-founder of Los Angeles-based distributor Garuda Promo and Branding Solutions, serving clients that include United Airlines, the U.S. Army, the YMCA, Nestle and SKANSKA.

A Chinese American (he was born in Hong Kong) who immigrated to Los Angeles in 1996, Ho says being a distributor is a lot like being Marco Polo. “As a distributor, we have to constantly educate ourselves, better ourselves to find things that our clients haven’t thought of, and we bring them the idea, the item or items that could improve their sales and help them market, and then become a partner,” says Ho. 

Before joining the promotional products industry, Ho was in the CD and DVD replication industry working with music labels and musicians. In 2003, he and Shirley were enjoying the first day of their honeymoon when Ho learned the company he was working for had gone out of business. When the couple returned from their honeymoon, Ho began making calls and ultimately created his own production company, Hellman Production, Inc. “[When people ask me] how I started in the business, I say ‘an idea, a phone line and an email,’” he says. A year and a half later, Ho asked his wife to join him in the business. 

While working with musicians and production labels, Ho stumbled upon the promotional products industry. “After they would finish the album or the DVD, [the clients would] ask me, ‘Do you guys do t-shirts or merchandise we can sell?’” says Ho. “We said ‘yes,’ and we dabbled a little bit on the distributor side. At the same time, a lot of distributors like Lee Wayne Corporation [now HALO Branded Solutions] and Geiger reached out at a time when CDs and DVDs were still popular, and we actually signed up as supplier.”  

In 2013, the couple sold their CD and DVD business to a local competitor. They were ready to move on fully into the promotional products industry. “We took a year off, and we thought about what we could do,” says Ho. “We thought that there is always going to be a company that wants to put their logo on an item; it might be different types of items, but there’s always going to be a demand for promotional products.” 

Garuda Promo and Branding Solutions opened in January 2014 as a minority and woman-owned business. For Ho, the most enjoyable part of the job is the people he meets, especially those through some of the business networking groups of which he’s a member. “I like to network, meeting people and tying it into the business, too. In my inner circle, there are industries I am not exposed to,” says Ho. “For example, before networking, if you needed to talk to a lawyer, you’d spend $500 an hour, but with networking, I can learn and ask them questions, ‘What type of product would you like to receive?’ So, I am actually doing research while I’m networking. I have access to lawyers, plumbers and doctors, and each of them has a different mentality.” 

In addition to running his business, Ho also serves as an ambassador for two local chambers of commerce. “Now whenever I have a challenge, problem or I’m struggling in the business, I can reach out to the chamber,” says Ho. “Also, with the chamber, I have learned about opportunities and possibilities for business within the city of LA. By knowing how the money moves, I know which industries are doing good and which industries are not doing so good.” 

Ho’s biggest challenges now are the current government regulations on imports. “I like to buy within the U.S., but especially with my background and my last name, customers want to go oversees for a better price,” says Ho. “But finding clients the right option for what they are looking for is always the most challenging aspect. Sometimes, I have to bring them back to the table because all they want to talk about is price. I’ll tell them about the golden triangle: either you have the price, the turnaround or the quality, and you can only pick two.”

Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, Ho travels to Hong Kong every summer to look for what’s new and popular in promotional products, and to bring those ideas back to the U.S. “I look at different industries to see what they’re using that we don’t have in the U.S.,” says Ho. “In 2013, it was power banks, so I contacted the manufacturer and they were not yet in the promotional products industry. During Christmastime in 2014, we had a lot of orders for fancy and unique power banks that you don’t see here. With my background, I want to look for uniqueness mixed with other cultures.” 

PPB spoke with Ho to learn more about how he connects with his community and clients. 

PPB Tell me how your experience as a sound engineer and former owner of a production company influences your day-to-day work. 

Ho  Since COVID, I think it all comes together. I’ve been a sound engineer, [I was] trained for that, and worked in a recording studio. During my time in the CD and DVD business, I worked with a lot of film directors, so I learned a lot of tricks in video production. Since COVID, a lot of people have had a hard time doing video marketing. If you are on social media, the number of videos there have skyrocketed, and I’ve started doing our own video marketing. I started a show on Facebook called the Small Business Show where I interview people I’ve met through networking who are successful entrepreneurs or experts in their field. 

For example, I know a style and wardrobe expert, and I asked her how you should dress and represent yourself on a Zoom call, and that was our most popular video. With the contacts that I have and the know-how that I have in audio and video, I am able to put together that show with the best of my abilities, and I am using it to also market our business. 

PPB When did you get certified as a kettlebell instructor, and in what ways does this improve your life and work? 

Ho  I got certified in February 2019. Always into fitness, I actually trained for a little under a year for the certification. What I learned from it is that I am a person of routine—I love my routine—and goal setting. There were strength and fitness requirements that I couldn’t do, but I know that in business, if you have a big goal that you consistently work toward and perfect, over time you will be able to achieve those goals. For business, I always tie my interests into business. I am also a runner; I’ve run marathons on behalf of a nonprofit and I use that as leverage to help the nonprofit with fundraising. I have a lot of fitness clients that want to target the fitness industry so by telling them I am a certified kettlebell instructor from StrongFirst, The School of Strength, then I don’t appear as another salesperson, but an expert in the fitness industry. By having those experiences myself, I become an expert as well and I also test the products, too.  

PPB As a Chinese-American, what advice do you have for other minorities starting off in this industry?

Ho  As a company, we are a certified DBE (Disadvantage Business Enterprise), SBE (Small Business Enterprise), WBE (Women Business Enterprise) and MBE (Minority Business Enterprise). These are all certifications we’ve got from government and state agencies. Why is that? People think being small, woman-owned and minority-owned is a disadvantage in doing business. A lot of the time it is, however, I found early on that there are a lot of organizations that [purposely] do business with minority-owned, but you have to have the certification. 

We end up winning bids because we have these certifications. And for state and local governments and even some big businesses, they have a mandatory goal annually to work with small businesses with certifications. For example, in Los Angeles county, we are certified as a small, minority-owned business and if we go into a bid for a $1,000 project, we actually have a 10 percent preference. So, if we all come in at $1,000, our bid will come into them at $900, but we still get paid $1,000. Even if you are a big company, I have a 10 percent advantage over you. This is a huge advantage and a lot of people don’t know that. 

Don’t be afraid to let people know that you are a minority, woman-owned or a small business [if you are]. There are a lot of businesses, more than you think, that will reach out and do business with you.  

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Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB. 

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