Driven To Succeed
With their vast networks and almost infinite product knowledge, multi-line reps are in business to generate more demand and more sales on both sides of the industry. Read how they can help your business.
Together these six multi-line reps rack up more than 158,000 miles a year from Alaska to New England bringing samples, promotional ideas, case studies, information and solutions from select suppliers to distributors and their clients.
For decades, these individuals and those like them have shared their expertise through countless personal visits, end-user meetings and trade shows. Even in today’s world of mobile devices and instant communication their work fills an essential role in seamlessly bridging the gap between factories and distributors. The industry couldn’t run without them.
PPB recognizes the valuable contributions of the promotional products industry’s multi-line reps with its annual spotlight. The individuals, selected by an in-house panel as PPB’s 2016 Best Multi-Line Reps, were nominated by industry suppliers and distributors for their ability to be creative, knowledgeable, dependable, in two places at once and prepared for just about anything.
Each will receive a custom, silver-plated lapel pin generously designed and donated by PPAI supplier member Gempire/gwi (UPIC: GEMPIRE).
Few promotional products multi-line reps have a background as broad in scope and as rich in diversity as John Bennis. By the time he founded his own rep firm in 1981, Bennis’s career was in full throttle. After graduating from the University of Illinois, he was hired to teach scuba diving at the Playboy Club in Jamaica but was wooed away by his father’s best friend to become a premium rep. Over the next few years he was a national sales manager for apparel lines Swingster and Modern Jacket. Before launching his rep firm, he opened a hat manufacturing business and later a clothing firm that manufactured NASCAR apparel. The latter began his long sales relationship with the racing industry, where he learned the ins and outs of NASCAR sponsorships and product licensing.
His interest in the track waned in 1992 when his son, Max, was born. He decided to call it quits with his NASCAR clients because he didn’t want to spend 20 weeks on the road and every weekend at the races. Bennis went back to his roots selling for Klouda-Lenz, the national sales division for what was then the clothing manufacturer Munsingwear. The company later became Premiumwear and eventually was acquired by River’s End Trading Company.
Today Bennis travels about 30,000 miles annually throughout Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C. and Delaware. In addition to representing six lines, he also considers himself a consultant helping customers with their marketing campaigns and educating them and their clients about promotional products. Bennis relishes this consultative role because he believes that’s where the rubber hits the road. He’s fortunate to get to spend time together with the end buyer (along with the distributor) about 20 percent of the time. It’s the people, he says, both on the customer and supplier side that get him up every morning.
“I’m not your typical rep,” he explains. “My diverse background allows me to provide solutions on many levels. For example, if the company is going to sponsor an event or become a licensee, I know the questions to ask. And I’ve always loved the idea of being able to take one product and market another product or service by combining the two,” he says of his experience selling on-pack promotions with RJ Reynolds.
Bennis has also lectured at the University of Georgia business school in the areas of sports marketing and events, and he holds two patents acquired in the 1980s for a handheld credit card transcriber used by Mary Kay, Tupperware and Avon.
“John always has very specific ideas for clients as he takes the time to get to know you and your client base,” says nominator Donna Majewski, promotional products specialist with distributor Target Marketing Group in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “He has a wealth of knowledge and will do anything he can to help me secure an order [including] end user calls, bringing samples for my customer with their logo and creating flyers with customer logos that are specific to their needs. He is an outstanding multi-line rep.”
Up Close With John Bennis
The Changing Role Of MLRs: “With the research tools available today, we must become proactive and really get to know our customers. Suppliers want reps to go out and see distributors four days a week and then spend one day in the office. But distributors are busy and their customers want to see them too. It’s getting very congested out there with everybody competing for the distributors’ time. We have to be more proactive on how we, as reps, ask questions to get the information from distributors, and then give them the creative solutions.”
The Future Of MLRs: “The future is consultative selling, so I’m not just selling products but presenting solutions. I’ve developed a form for my distributor customers to fill out so that I can be proactive with what they need, who their top customers are, what they do and their price points. When I come into a meeting with all the distributor salespeople, I can first give the 30,000-foot view of what our lines provide, and then schedule one-on-one meetings with each individual rep with solutions for their customer.”
The Biggest Issue Affecting MLRs Today: “It’s the lack of having a true partnership with distributors. The hardest part is understanding who their customers are and their core business. That’s a moving target also, because distributors lose customers and gain new customers.”
What He Wants Distributors And Suppliers To Know: “I have always said we are lobbyists; we are fence sitters. On one side, we have manufacturers we have to please, and on the other side, we have customers to please—and we have to do both exceptionally well. My major concern is my customer’s customer; if I keep them happy, I keep my customer happy. The philosophy is, ‘Let’s solve the problem now and worry later on where that problem falls.’ That is going to keep the end customer happy.”
Help Him Do A Better Job: “There’s an elephant in the room—our products are now being seen as commodity items to which anybody has access. They are not seen for what they really are—marketing tools. I think PPAI is doing a tremendous job to educate people that it’s not just a pen with their name on it, it’s a marketing message. How can reps and distributors help to get that message out to the end user? How do we join forces together to go out and educate? How do we understand why they are using this product at their events? It’s not about the price, it’s about the outcome. If our products become commodity items, then we have lost the ability to make money and execute properly. And this is what is happening today.”
Lee Ellen Coscia
Lee Ellen Coscia was working in the admissions office at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts when it dawned on her that she was not really in education or academia as she had planned—she was in sales. And she was darn good at it! Why not make it her career? She approached her uncle, the late Tom Monahan, Jr., who was a longtime industry multi-line rep, to learn more about selling. One opportunity led to another and she was offered a job at supplier ARC Glass selling premiums. She took it, became district sales manager and later joined Themco LLC, the group that represented the premium side of the company, as a multi-line rep. Now, 28 years later, she’s a partner in the company. (Fun fact: Themco is an acronym based on the name of her uncle, who founded the company: Thomas Henry Eugene Monahan. Now you know!)
Coscia travels about 20,000 miles a year representing six suppliers throughout New England. She makes her home in Marshfield, Massachusetts.
She believes her greatest strength as a rep is the customer follow-up she provides, and nominator Amanda Clay, MAS, vice president sales and marketing for Walker-Clay, Inc., explains why. “Lee always goes the extra mile and strives to educate our team on all of her lines. She also looks to learn about our business and brings ideas on how we could position her lines to our clients. In fact, if there are items she does not have, she will refer us to other industry friends who may be able to help.”
Coscia likes being an MLR because of the exposure she gets to new lines, new products and new opportunities. “It’s always great to find a new line that you know your customers will get excited about and have it be profitable,” she says. And Coscia knows her customers’ hot buttons. For her clients at Walker-Clay, it’s costumes at Halloween. “The first time Lee called on us it was Halloween and she wanted to drop samples by,” says Clay. “Since we are pretty serious about Halloween here, we said, ‘Sure, come on by, but you must dress up.’ Well sure enough Cowgirl Lee showed up to deliver the samples [riding her 125-pound yellow lab as her trusty steed] and we allowed her to come in for a full meeting after that.”
Up Close With Lee Ellen Corsica
The Changing Role Of MLRs: “The role of the multi-line rep is cyclical. We go for a handful of years, and suppliers realize the enormous advantage of having a multi-line rep. Then there’s a paradigm shift where suppliers think they’ll have more success managing a company person, then there’s a shift back.”
The Future Of MLRs: “I have no ‘quit’ in me, so I have to believe that the future is bright for multi-line reps. We open a ton of doors with our bag of tricks that a supplier with one gig may not be able to open. We’re here to stay.”
The Biggest Issue Affecting MLRs Today: “Mergers and acquisitions. You can have a line and be enormously successful with it. You have widespread placement, great numbers, profits and, bam, it’s gone. We get up, we dust off; but for that moment, it hurts.”
What She Wants Distributors And Suppliers To Know: “I am representing the supplier. I have the same knowledge, skill set, training, access and ability as any direct company employee (and often more experience). I am not a middleman; there are no advantages to ‘working direct.’ When I am wearing my Supplier A hat, I am Supplier A, and so forth. The language is inclusive. I say ‘we’ when referring to the supplier, not ‘they.’ I am the supplier.”
Help Her Do A Better Job: “Distributors can be open to considering new vendors/vendor presentations because there’s always something new to learn. Every supplier is evolving and often changing strategies on how they are coming to the market. If distributors assume that they already know a supplier, they may be missing out. Suppliers are upping their game. Give me the work, give me the project and let me run with it. More often than not, we’ve been asked for a similar profile of a project. Let us use our suppliers, our experience, and our successes to present the right items with the right secondary applications in the right packaging for that target audience.
“Suppliers can continue to be responsive to customer needs by staying up to date on market trends, new product development, and streamlining information delivery to both the sales force and customers. Information access is key. Equally important is to establish a market brand identity through advertising, press releases, show attendance (both regional and national) and social media outlets. Staying in front of the customer is crucially important at this time. Suppliers can be present through industry channels on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, and MLRs can present on-site as often as necessary.”
“Tim’s signature is making people laugh,” says nominator Dan Pigott, CAS, of supplier Stromberg Brand. “It is a huge component of who he is and what he does. His best material is self-deprecating and that is what endears him to his account base.”
For Rosica, it’s all about keeping his clients’ attention. “I try to be as informative but also as entertaining as possible,” he says. “If I can’t keep their attention during a presentation, then they won’t want me back.”
Getting and keeping customers is a hallmark of Rosica’s work—and has been for the past 21 years. “His strongest business asset is that he tenaciously works his territory,” says Pigott. “Many reps stop making as many calls after they’ve been in the market for several years, but not Tim. He understands the extreme value of face-to-face meetings. Few multi-line reps know the details of their supplier’s products better than Tim.”
Working from his home base in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Rosica was a sales rep for Gallo Wine Sales of New Jersey before being introduced to the industry in 1995 by fellow MLR Paul Sprunk of PWS Associates. He was hired as a sub-rep and in 2006 formed his own rep company, Rosica Marketing.
What he likes best is the variety of people and projects he works with on a daily basis. “Every day is a new project; every project is a new adventure,” he says. While the upside is the variety, the downside is the travel (about 28,000 miles annually) and time away from family. “That’s where Facetime becomes more than just a phone call,” he says.
Up Close With Tim Rosica
The Changing Role of MLRs: “I don’t think the role of the MLR is changing, but rather technology has increased the forms of communication. When I started, I would drive up to a pay phone to call a client. Now I can email, text, tweet, Instagram, Facebook, etc., to follow up or convey a promotion or special. While these forms of communication are fast and easy, the greatest form of communication, for us, is still face to face.”
The Future Of MLRs: “If you are a hard worker and get out to see clients often, then your future is great. Half of the MLR business is being there in front of your clients. The other half is creativity, follow-up, knowing your products and providing great customer service.”
The Biggest Issue Affecting MLRs Today: “Trying to convey the value of the MLR to a company that has never used one. The idea of someone selling your products along with other suppliers’ products on a single sales presentation becomes disconcerting until those companies see results.”
What He Wants Suppliers And Distributors To Know: “MLRs provide a multitude of products, ideas, case studies and information that can help distributors sell to their clients with confidence.”
To Help Him Do A Better Job: “Distributors can help by buying more of my products (laughs), however, it’s my job to make them happy. I can influence distributors to purchase more of my products by providing great customer service with the help of my suppliers. My suppliers and I need to stay proactive and keep my customers happy. If all of this works, everyone is happy.”
Thirty years ago, Rod Williamson met a guy on a golf course who invited him to join his premium rep group and open a promotions division for the company. Williamson deftly made the transition from selling paint supplies to home improvement centers to launching the promotions company’s first line of promotional apparel. With the learning curve tucked firmly under his belt, in 2008 Williamson opened his own rep firm, Drake Marketing (the name pays homage to his love of duck hunting; a male duck is called a drake).
Six years later, Williamson joined forces with fellow rep Bryan Mercer to launch MW Reps. The pair now represents six supplier lines across Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa.
Much of their time is spent exhibiting at trade shows in major markets; the two do 30-35 shows a year including table tops and distributor user shows, and they share the load—literally. “I haul a carload of catalogs to the shows and Bryan takes all the samples,” he explains, with a laugh. “We both help set up, work the show and tear down.” And Maddie, Williamson’s red golden retriever, always rides along to keep him company.
What he loves about the job is that every day is different. “There’s never a week that’s the same—I make calls, do shows, organize all the samples in my garage. There’s not the repetition that so many jobs have.” To manage all the samples and catalogs—one of the most difficult aspects of his job—Williamson had to build a barn on acreage near his home, an old farmhouse he bought and remodeled in Pleasanton, Kansas, an hour south of Kansas City.
Despite the occasional challenge, Williamson thrives on the many business relationships and friendships he’s built over his three decades in the industry. “I have customers I’ve been calling on since 1986,” he says proudly.
It’s that ability to forge lasting relationships that caught the eye of nominator Michael Dustman, vice president of sales at supplier Meridian Metal Works. “Nobody in any sales position is as relational to their customers as Rod is,” he says. “He hasn’t allowed dependence on technology to stop him from continually making face-to-face calls on his clients while attending all the shows where he can best represent his supplier lines.”
Williamson says he didn’t even realize this strength until a friend pointed it out one day. But he knows exactly what it takes to build those alliances. “I meld into that person to make them feel comfortable,” he explains. “I use humor. I am honest. I underpromise and overperform. You’ve got to do what you say you are going to do.”
Nominator Andy Arruda, MAS, national sales manager at supplier Hub Pen Company, adds, “Bryan and Rod are fantastic; they have a terrific rapport with their clients and do a fantastic job of representing us in front of both their largest and smallest accounts—they are up almost 30 percent this year over last.”
Williamson is proud of what he’s achieved for himself, his partner and his business, but he’s still looking to the future and that next opportunity. “We bring long-term relationships to this industry; relationships that can get us immediate results because we’ve earned people’s trust.”
He’s been told that one day something will click and he’ll say to himself, “This is enough … time to move on,” but until that time he’ll keep doing what makes him happy.
Up Close With Rod Williamson
The Changing Role of MLRs: “In my 30 years of being in this industry and comparing to what it was like back then, we are doing more shows today and fewer meetings. Good meetings have become tougher to get, and then getting a good turnout at the meeting is difficult as well. As a result, we are starting to do more and more drop-bys where we stop by, poke our head in the salesperson’s door and see what they are working on. We’ve also become more show-oriented; I used to make 12 sales calls a week, now we are doing 30 shows a year.”
The Future Of MLRs: “I hope it’s a viable future. I don’t see it changing negatively in the next five to 10 years. We don’t know what’s coming with new technology, but Bryan and I are doing some things to keep up with changes. I like having a 40-year-old partner whose wife is a graphic artist [she also handles the company’s social media]. We are marketing our factories in other ways than face-to-face and tabletop shows. For instance, we are marketing to Millennials through Facebook and Twitter, and I’m finding out that younger people like jumping on our website to find our flyers, specials, links and such. That’s the way we are attacking the younger market.”
Biggest Issue Affecting MLRs Today: “Everybody is trying to figure out how to increase their business. We have lines that are focused. If a line decides to diversify and add say, pens, sometimes there’s an uh-oh and we have to give up a line to avoid having our products overlap. Diversity is what’s going on out there, conflict with lines.”
What He Wants Suppliers And Distributors To Know: “What both sides need to understand is that we are a direct conduit and liaison between the factory and customer. Either can come to us with an issue—if they are looking for great pricing or a great program, for example, I can immediately put them with the right people who do program business. We are trying to be that common point to bring customers and distributors together.”
Help Him Do A Better Job: “I’d like for distributors to honor our meetings but I do understand when they are cancelled. People are so busy today. One thing the factories do well is to support us by supplying us with catalogs, self-promos and giveaways, and they help pay the exhibit fees at the shows we attend. We take care of our own travel but are able to split the cost of the show itself among the six factories. Trade shows can get expensive. That’s a big help.”
Sometimes life has a funny way of changing course and taking us on a completely different journey than we had planned. Such is the story of Bryan Mercer, partner at MW Reps, who earned a teaching degree with plans to become a social studies teacher and basketball coach. Enter his older brother, Doug Mercer, a multi-line rep in the promotional products industry, who asked him to help out for a bit after graduation. What started as a brief diversion turned into a thriving 17-year career—one that he never plans on leaving.
From his home base in Higginsville, Missouri, Mercer represents six supplier accounts with his business partner, Rod Williamson, at the rep firm they founded in 2014. Like Williamson, Mercer most likes the freedom his job brings and the ability for him to create his own destiny. “If you work hard and are successful, you have the ability to become more successful,” he says. Mercer’s wife, Stephanie, a graphic artist, recently joined the company to handle customer flyers and virtuals, as well as the company’s marketing and social media. Occasionally she travels to meet customers located within a one-hour radius from their home.
The thriving business doesn’t leave the couple a lot of extra time, especially with raising four children ages 10 to 16, but Mercer believes his job capitalizes on his biggest strength: building relationships. “My customers are my friends,” he says. “They trust me; they know that if I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it.”
Nominator Andy Arruda, MAS, director of sales for supplier Hub Pen Co., is quick to point out how easy Mercer is to work with. “The communication is two-way and we are given great feedback from the field. He and Rod are willing to put out the utmost effort on behalf of their clients and suppliers and they are engaging their customers in many different ways—social media, ZOOMcatalog flyers, story boards. They have all been successful.”
Jeff Batson, CAS, president of supplier Next Products, who also nominated Mercer, notices the innovation too. “Although Bryan is an industry veteran, he continuously thinks of creative ways to engage our mutual customers and also provide creative solutions for their clients,” he says. He’s also impressed with Mercer’s thoughtful listening skills. “On many occasions Bryan will be taking the most detailed notes and he is not flippant with his assessment of information.”
Nominator Beth Jeffries with distributor Embassy Embroidery says simply, “Bryan is the perfect sales rep!”
Up Close With Bryan Mercer
The Changing Role Of MLRs: “When I first started, you’d get your new products and catalogs, and then sit down and go through the line with everybody. Now we have more of a consultant role. It’s a lot faster paced. People don’t want us to come in and go through item by item. Now they want case histories so it’s a personal experience.”
The Future Of MLRs: “The industry is changing pretty quickly in a lot of ways—but there is still a place for multi-line reps. Those who want to change will be successful. To be a fit you have to be able to adapt and change as the industry changes as a whole. I have to show how I’m bringing value to the table—doing trade shows, marketing, social media. It takes a rare breed, a certain type of individual to be a multi-line rep. You have to be self-disciplined, a self-starter, quick on your feet and able to adapt.
The Biggest Issue Affecting Multi-Line Reps: “Consolidation. The number of mergers and acquisitions unfortunately affects the number of suppliers in the industry. Overall, fewer suppliers are using MLRs. If a bigger supplier buys a smaller supplier and the bigger has factory reps, as they gobble up the smaller suppliers, those multi-line reps are affected.”
What He Wants Suppliers And Distributors To Know: “There is a misconception that it’s a glamorous life but that’s definitely not the case. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of travel. Just to set up for a meeting can take 15-20 minutes just to bring in the samples from your suppliers. When I get home from a trip I’m in my office at 8 or 9 o’clock at night and I’m working on the weekends. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. When we are out on the road, there is stuff going on back in the office that has to get done, and there is a lot of physical work too.”
To Help Him Do A Better Job: “Open communication. From the distributor standpoint, the more they will share with me—the more it will help them. If they can communicate with me what they are working on and the industries they are calling on, that helps me to be a better rep for them. For suppliers, keeping us up to date on quotes when we are out in the field [is critical]. At times, there can be a disconnect. Email is the most time-convenient way to get the word out to the whole sales team but every supplier is a little bit different. One of our suppliers is based in Missouri and I’ll stop in there every two or three months if I’m in the area for training, or to pick up samples. A lot of suppliers will have us come out every one or two years for sales meetings or we’ll have sales meetings at The [PPAI] Expo.”
When Vilia Johnson made the transition from wholesale sales in the retail channel to national sales at promotional products supplier Cross 14 years ago, she was already acutely aware of the robust power of a brand. Her years working as a vice president at L’Oreal with major retail fragrance brands like Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and Paloma Picasso helped Johnson understand how brands are used to incent, reward and delight the client base.
Now, as president of her own multi-line rep firm, BrandSource Incentives in Bellevue, Washington, she enjoys finding the right items that reward, recognize and motivate customers, their clients and employees. “I love the diversity of what we offer—from great products to great on-site experiences to technology solutions,” she says. Her role now as a multi-line rep plays to Johnson’s strengths. “My customers know that I am devoted to their best interests and that I am not going to let them down. If something goes sideways, we work very hard to make it right.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Johnson travels only about 10,000 miles annually, most of it by plane, to serve customers throughout Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho. She says she’s much more productive working with customers from her desk. The biggest challenge, then, is not driving a carload of samples and catalogs from customer to customer but the sheer diversity of products she must learn about and be prepared to present to clients.
“There are too many fun products to sell,” she says. “The hundreds of retail brands we represent have so many interesting and exciting products. There is no way to talk about all of them but we know what is available when the right opportunity comes along.”
Her nominator, Nancy Varner, owner of distributor AIA/C’Est Bon Creations, LLC in Seattle, Washington, admires Johnson’s incredible knowledge about all of her lines and her commitment to her customers as well. “She was willing to attend an extremely large end-user show out of state for two years in a row,” Varner explains. “She was the expert in her lines and the end users were very impressed with her knowledge. I’ve asked other multi-line reps to do the same with that show and they were all too busy. Vilia is always busy but never too busy to help out. She has a wonderful attitude on life in general which translates into her business.”
Up Close With Vilia Johnson
The Changing Role Of MLRs: “Rep/distributor partnerships used to be based on personal relationships. Now they are based on responsiveness, insights and the business savvy we can offer our customers. It’s not really about products. It’s about finding the right solutions. We all know that a smooth and reliable sales process beats products in the long term, and our role is to facilitate that process.”
The Future Of MLRs: “It isn’t an easy job but there are many new opportunities if we are willing to embrace change and innovation.”
The Biggest Issue Affecting Multi-Line Reps: “Our challenges are reflective of the entire supply side’s concerns about cross-channel selling and how merchandise is sourced. The supplier/rep/distributor model must be a true partnership to help our customers compete effectively and find new ways to grow.”
What She Wants Suppliers And Distributors To Know: “Premium reps provide tremendous value in helping promotional consultants navigate the brands their clients love and want. A recent Incentive Research Foundation survey found that 75 percent of small businesses buy merchandise incentives online or at retail. If our distributors are not providing premium products to their clients, the client is buying them somewhere else. Reps can help [distributors] win that business.”
Help Her Do A Better Job: “Distributors can help by digging deeper in their discovery questions about projects. Don’t just ask me for a specific product. Tell me how the product is being used and provide all the relevant details. Describe the demographic of the recipient. How many do you need and when? Does the gift need to get through airport security to fly home on a plane? We might offer a far more appropriate idea for you than what your client requested. Suppliers can help by understanding the speed at which distributors work and the need for urgency, responsiveness and reliability.”
Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.