Tarnopolski with her husband Dave and their three sons, (from left) Cruze, Logan and Brady.
When Jennifer Tarnopolski asked for an opportunity to sell promotional products when she worked for a distributor early in her career, her boss told her that if she failed, she wouldn’t get her old job back and that she would be “done” with the company. “He thought I was too young and that I wasn’t going to be successful in sales,” she says. “But I gave it a try and I did it! Looking back, I learned a lot. Not only am I super thankful for the opportunity in sales and the introduction into the industry, but I’m also grateful, now that I have Outstanding Branding, to have learned how not to treat my employees and what things I don’t want to do.”
Before Tarnopolski discovered the promo industry, she thought she’d eventually become an accountant. “When I went to college, I majored in business administration with a minor in accounting. I had graduated, but I was still waitressing when I saw an ad for a bookkeeping position at an embroidery company. I thought, ‘Perfect!’” she says. “I started working there, and after about three months, I realized I strongly disliked it. I didn’t like the work I was doing and that I was working by myself a lot.” Tarnopolski decided to put in her two weeks’ notice and return to waitressing until she found something else. But when she told a customer that she was leaving, Tarnopolski was given a life-changing opportunity. “The customer told me that her employer was looking for a customer service representative (CSR) and that I should apply. I didn’t know anything about the company or industry, but I jumped at the chance. I applied, I got the job and I was hired on as a CSR with a promotional products company.”
As Tarnopolski learned more about the industry, she was in awe. “The woman who had told me about the CSR job was in sales, and after a year and a half as a CSR, I wanted to do what she was doing,” she says. “She was so happy and passionate, and I already loved the industry, so I wanted to give it a try.” A year after she started in sales, Tarnopolski moved on to continue advancing her career, and when she moved from one distributor to the next, her customers would follow. “In the middle of this, I was having kids too, so it was extremely difficult because I wanted to take maternity leave and in Canada, we get 12 months,” she says. “With my first child, I only took seven months’ leave and my husband took the last five because the person who was taking care of my accounts left. I wanted to make sure my customers were taken care of so I could continue to grow.”
Tarnopolski decided she would have to move companies again to ensure someone could “babysit” her accounts while on maternity leave with her second child, she says. “As important as my career is to me, my family comes first.” She adds, “Even when I opened Outstanding Branding, at 5 pm, the laptop closes, the phone gets put away, I go home, and I am a mom and wife.”
Before opening Outstanding Branding in 2016, Tarnopolski had hoped to create a partnership and build a company with a colleague. But after five years of waiting, she had enough. “It almost felt like a carrot being dangled in front of me,” she says. “I really wanted to own my own promotional products company and be the decision-maker, so I and one other girl, Tanya, left to start Outstanding Branding.”
The pair opened the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based distributor in 2016, and spent the first three days in Tarnopolski’s dining room. “I had a two-year-old at home. So, you can imagine us in the dining room with two desktops and monitors plugged in, there were cords everywhere, and my kids were tripping and tearing down the monitors,” she says, laughing. “Outstanding Branding had to move to my basement while we looked for office space.”
While Tarnopolski’s vision for Outstanding Branding hasn’t changed, she is still working to define the company’s finer points. “I knew that I wanted it to be a fun, easy going and inviting place, but what has changed is I am learning more about us. I am learning that Outstanding Branding wants to focus more on being environmentally-friendly and supporting local business and initiatives. When we first started, I just thought we were going to sell promotional products, but we also want to educate our customers about this industry. Whether it’s through our blog or our own promotions, we are just really trying to educate them.”
For Tarnopolski, owning a business reminds her of just how important relationships are. “What makes us different is us, each individual person. Obviously, our industry is very relationship-based, so a lot of customers are looking to buy from somebody they trust,” she says. “To me, the basis for any good relationship is trust, not only with our customers, but also with our suppliers and reps. When we have a new employee join our team, I always tell them, ‘Treat our customers good, but treat our suppliers and local reps even better. They are the ones who are going to help us.’”
Trust is also critical for the employee relationships at Outstanding Branding. “I wanted our culture to be fun and inviting so when people join our team, they are happy working here,” she says. “I don’t even think of my employees as employees; I think of them as co‑workers. We are all responsible adults, so nobody really needs to be a boss, maybe a leader, but not a boss.”
Tarnopolski says coming into the office is an opportunity for them to hang out as friends, not co‑workers. “I actually know my co-founder and business partner Tanya [Burdett] because her husband has been best friends with my husband since they were in fourth grade. Our kids think they are cousins,” she says.
Although the pandemic has limited the number of office guests, Tarnopolski still gives her customers the option to come in for visits. “Our industry still wants to touch and feel that t-shirt or hold that mug in their hands,” she says. Tarnopolski also shares that she’s grateful to work in such a fun industry. “You get to party with your co‑workers, suppliers, customers and competitors. When a lot of our reps come in, they say always how much they love the vibe they get in the office. We always have beer in the fridge and wine in the cupboard. Always.” She also uses laughter to boost company morale. “If I go into the office and I don’t laugh that whole day, I feel like I should focus on that tomorrow because we need to laugh,” she says. “We probably laugh at least once almost every single day. I went years without having one of those laughing fits that hurt, but, in the past few years, I’ve had like three of those at the office. And it feels so good when you have those.”
Tarnopolski’s definition of success has changed several times. “When we first started Outstanding Branding, that was success. When we had a great first year, that was success. I had a dream of growing the team to seven or eight and we did that in five years—again, a success. But I’m not done. I even have a goal of being on the board of PPPC [Promotional Product Professionals of Canada].” Before the pandemic, Tarnopolski helped create a PPPC Manitoba chapter and became president. In May, she served on a panel discussion during PPPC Women’s Empowerment Event. Always one to stay busy, she’s also an active member of her community and involved in organizations including Women Business Owners of Manitoba and Winnipeg Executives Association. “But success, to me, is more about just being happy in life. If you are happy in life, then you are successful,” she says.
Looking back, she distinctly remembers when she first leased her office space, and that puts things into perspective for her. “When we first signed our lease on the rental space, it was 2,500 square feet and it was huge. It had only one boardroom, an office, two bathrooms and this massive warehouse. I remember my kids would ride their bikes around. Then we did the renovation and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait to fill it’ and now it’s full. It’s such an amazing feeling, scary too, because now we have to move onto bigger things.”
Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.