Close Up: Partners Who Focus On The Greater Good
Photo: Rod and Barbara Brown clean up beaches in the Pacific Northwest.
Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. In 2016, Rod Brown, CAS, founder and retired CFO of distributor MadeToOrder and recipient of PPAI’s 2020 H. Ted Olson Humanitarian Award, along with four other distributors, established Reciprocity Road, a buying group with a philanthropic focus. It was established to create a space for shared learning, and to provide businesses with the opportunity to give back to the community and help clients to give as they branded themselves. The other founding partners are Image Source, ROBYN, Brand Fuel and The Icebox.
Executive Director Perry Wehrle, MAS, says, “I think the biggest thing that Rod was driving behind was creating an organization that would give back to the industry, hence our name Reciprocity Road.” Wehrle was brought into the organization two years ago. After growing up in the promotional products industry and owning his own distributorship for over 30 years, Wehrle was ready for a change. “So many of us have been blessed and have made fortunate opportunities in this industry,” he says. “Oftentimes, we don’t take the time to acknowledge that and give back to our community. Reciprocity became a vehicle for that.”
Through its program BrandGood, founded on three pillars—DoGood, supporting philanthropy and service; FeelGood, supporting employee wellness, and LiveGood, supporting fun social activities— Reciprocity Road distributors, or “roadies,” generously give to local charities. The group selects two charities each year to donate a percentage of their annual revenue, and create give back experiences that strengthen brands, client relationships and employee loyalty.
“We firmly believe in giving back to the industry,” says Wehrle. In 2020, Reciprocity Road donated $7,500 to the Promotional Products Education Foundation (PPEF), and since its founding has donated $38,500 to the nonprofit. Reciprocity Road also awards quarterly grants of $500 towards select community causes, donating a total of $2,000 last year. In honor of Brown’s recognition as the 2020 H. Ted Olson Humanitarian, “roadies” contributed $8,000 to The Chilanga School for the Blind in Malawi, Africa, an institution which cares for orphan students with vision impairments that Brown actively works to help. “I’m not saying that other organizations and companies don’t do the same thing, but we have in our mission statement that [giving back] is part of our goal and our objective,” says Wehrle.
Reciprocity Road also officially commits to donating a percentage of its rebate from suppliers to charitable causes. “It’s more than just words on paper,” says Wehrle. “It’s an actual driving mission that we have, and as much as we negotiate with our supplier partners to get better prices, leveraging better relationships and better terms, we want to show them that they are part of this road we are traveling on.” Comprising approximately $230 million in pre-COVID promotional products spending, Reciprocity Road currently represents 10 distributor partners and 55 supplier partners. “I think that’s the purpose behind Reciprocity,” says Wehrle. “To not only be a buying organization of a unified group of partners, but to also create an opportunity to leverage those relationships for the greater good and give back.”
Companies looking to become a part of the organization must meet several qualifications. “Early on, the owner partners, when developing Reciprocity Road, determined that it wasn’t really about growing the big numbers. We didn’t want to have 30 to 40 distributors; we wanted to be more of a boutique-like organization,” says Wehrle. “They made the conscious decision to limit growth to no more than 15 distributor partners. We have 10 right now and every year we add one.”
For distributors, Wehrle says that “roadie” wannabes must first have an annual revenue minimum of $10 million. Next, Wehrle says they look at the organization’s standing in the industry, asking if the company already follows Reciprocity Road’s philosophy. Reciprocity Road makes sure any new additions do not geographically overlap with other members. Wehrle says they also look at diversity, equity and inclusion components and the financial stability of potential members. Prospective supplier partners can apply online and Wehrle says the process is arduous as they thoroughly review each applicant. “We drill down and ask about the owner partners’ experience with this company, then we drill down even further, asking our salespeople to vote on them and give input,” he says. “We don’t approve vendors haphazardly and like how we only want to have a max of 15 distributors. We don’t want to have 100 suppliers; that dilutes the value for the partners that are there.”
Left: Staff from distributor ROBYN team with the OKC RIVERSPORT “River Protectors” to pick up trash in and around Oklahoma City’s Lake Overholser. Right: At the PPAI Expo 2020 are (lower row from left) Todd Pottebaum, MAS+; Rod Brown; Robert Fiveash; Danny Rosin, CAS; (top row) Tom Goos, MAS; Sandy Gonzalez; Toby Zacks; Donnie Brown; Eric Granta, CAS; Cory Benton; Bethany Benton and Perry Wehrle, MAS.
PPB spoke with Wehrle to learn more about how the pandemic has affected Reciprocity Road’s mission and what the members are optimistic about moving forward.
PPB How has the pandemic affected Reciprocity Road’s mission and purpose?
Wehrle We had scheduled a sales seminar called Road Rally for April 2020. Of course, as we all know, nothing happened in April 2020, so we pushed it back for a year. We were going to do it this month. But in September 2020, as I began surveying suppliers to see if they were ready to get back out in this “new norm,” I got a lot of pushback, saying “Let’s wait.” I took that as a sign that we needed to push back the event even further. We decided that September 2021 would be a better time to have a sales conference and meet with our people. We are going to do that in Scottsdale, Arizona, and we are bringing in about 100 salespeople and close to 50 vendor partners. We are going to do it in a format that is somewhat socially distant and safe, mentally and physically. I am a firm advocate in that we, as an industry, need to get back to what we do best, and that is showing our clients that it’s okay to travel and it’s okay to start having events. We are not going to go around hugging each other like we used to. I think those things have changed and we are ready for that now.
PPB What’s Reciprocity Road’s primary focus for 2021?
Wehrle It’s going to be our Road Rally with it being our largest event to curate. We’ll be taking care of all the participants for three days, providing education, fun activities and food. We’ll also be focusing on what we call our “roadie crew calls.” And every two weeks, we get all the partners together for an hour to discuss concerns, opportunities and issues. This year, what we’ve started doing is at every other meeting we air out a topic that is critical for discussion. It could be, for example, how COVID is affecting our business. We get on these calls and we bring the collective minds together to start hammering out some great processes and great thoughts. A lot of other independent distributors do not have access to that brain trust in a safe space. Every day, business is so difficult, and owners face these challenges without the ability to talk to a peer in the industry. This Reciprocity group allows for owners to share their awful day or ask for advice in a safe space. We learn from each other and this happens organically.
PPB What are you most optimistic about for the organization moving forward?
Wehrle As an industry and as an organization, sales were great, profits were wonderful and nobody had a care in the world [before COVID]. Life was great, but all of a sudden, COVID hits. Everybody pulls the breaks, shuts their doors and begins reinventing themselves. Now, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I like to think of it as not a full 100-watt light, but as a 60-watt light. We are pushing for 100, and I see that energy in our salespeople when I talk to them. The objective this year is to get in front of clients, physically, and reestablish those relationships. Part of my goal is to support those efforts and help our salespeople and owners to bring that forward. I am optimistic, hopefully by Q2, that we will see a massive shift in the direction of our industry and organization. After that, we are just focusing on keeping our industry strong and healthy.
Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.