A Culture Of Caring

Robert Fiveash knows how to keep busy.

“I love to jog (the hotter the better), play guitar (still bad after 30 years, but I just bought an electric so I’ve recommitted!), paddle (kayak or whitewater canoe), coach (girls’ lacrosse), and travel with my family,” he says, ticking off a laundry list of activities.

The resident of Virginia Beach, Virginia (he recently moved from Norfolk) shares a home with his wife, Amy, their two daughters— Grayson, 14, and Anne Burns, 12—and the family dog, Bear. “Bear is the office mascot, so he hitches a ride with me pretty much every day,” says Fiveash.

Fiveash works in the Norfolk location for distributor Brand Fuel, headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina; he and co‑president/co-founder Danny Rosin, CAS, launched the business nearly 20 years ago. “My first job in the industry was starting Brand Fuel with my bestie [Rosin] in 1998. I moved down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, after getting my MBA from William & Mary in 1998, and we opened up shop behind a Domino’s Pizza,” he recalls. “It’s crazy how time has flown.”

In that time, Fiveash and Rosin have committed to growing a business where culture reigns supreme. “This will sound odd perhaps, or maybe like an excuse, but I bet we could have been two times our size at this stage if we had concentrated on growing the number of salespeople instead of company culture,” he says. “I guess you can do both successfully, but it’s really hard.”

Fiveash is also committed to volunteering, with Big Brothers Big Sisters and as president of industry nonprofit PromoKitchen, as well as with PPAI and his regional association. Read on to learn more about a typical day at the office for Fiveash.

Describe your office atmosphere.
Dog-friendly. Open door policy. Music. Lots of fun rock-and-roll art on the walls. Shared space with a kick-ass tech company. It’s really a great place to come every morning.

What kinds of projects or tasks might you tackle on a given day?
It really runs the gamut. Today I got in earlier than usual; I worked on a large reorder (75,000 pieces) for one of our top clients, finished up an RFQ for a significant local prospect, worked on a few PromoKitchen initiatives, attended a supplier’s lunch-and-learn event, set two appointments with prospects, worked on budget docs in Excel, and talked with a CPG expert/consultant about an idea we’d like to get out into the marketplace. My days are typically a mix of what I need to do (help facilitate sales and work with the accounting team) and what I love to do (volunteer in the industry and feed my head with creative ideas and products). I think it works!

How do you collaborate with coworkers?
Most of my collaboration with coworkers is around large account management and prospecting, meeting with supplier partners, brainstorming product/campaign ideas, on-site client events and wellness events. My door is open 95 percent of the time, so colleagues are in and out all day long. It may not be the most efficient way to get things done, but it’s how we do it at Brand Fuel—and I think we all appreciate the informality of it.

How does this job challenge you?
My mind craves completed projects, where I can start at A and finish at Z and feel a true sense of accomplishment. But my soul often steers me toward bigger-picture, creative endeavors. In my daily work life, I have a to-do list that never ends. Things come off, but an equal or greater number of new things jump on. I need to find a way to be a more effective delegator, so I can do fewer things better. I sometimes feel like this industry forces many of us to be jack-of-all-trades, where we do a hundred things at a B level
instead of 25 things at an A+ level.

What changes or improvements have you recently implemented, or are you planning to make in the future?
We have created a suite of add-on services for clients called Brand Fuel eXperiences. Our hope is we can envelop the ritual of the merchandise handout in these “live” events, creating an impactful and memorable experience for the recipient—and bring additional ROI to the client. The future? Who knows! But it will likely involve technology—and if both distributors and suppliers aren’t throwing things against the wall on a daily basis to see what sticks, they’re not preparing for the future.

What do you love about your company?
We’ve chosen to make sure our colleagues feel loved and appreciated, and we’ve been rewarded with very minimal turnover and a large degree of retained knowledge and experience. There’s no right or wrong answer, but the fact that we choose a culture of caring is probably what I love the most about Brand Fuel.

What makes your company a valuable member of the promotional products community?
When we came on the scene 20 years ago, we were seen as a “young and cool” company doing crazy/creative things. But now as we approach 20 years in the business, we have become mentors to the younger up and- comers. And we share and encourage, which feels great. And, thankfully, we still feel like that young and cool company, because we think the same way as when we started. I think what makes us a valuable member of the promotional products
community is that we give back and we care.

Jen Alexander is associate editor of PPB.