Forever Learning

 

Eric Shonebarger began working at Hit Promotional Products as a network administrator 16 years ago. Before joining the family-owned, Largo, Florida-based supplier, he was implementing electronic medical records for an urgent care company and was ready for a change. “There was a whole lot of regulation and I couldn’t get a whole lot done,” says Shonebarger, about his former job. “It wasn’t really built for my personality type. So, I thought, ‘Okay, let’s get into the promotional products industry.’” 

He found the job at Hit by responding to a phone call. “The caller said, ‘Hey, we are looking for someone to be a network administrator.’ I drove across the bridge in Tampa, interviewed with the family and I was hired on the spot. I started the next day.” From network administrator, he was promoted to senior network administrator and then to director of IT. In 2012, he became chief information officer before his recent promotion to chief operating officer.  

With his background in IT, Shonebarger has seen every step of the business cycle. “Everything flows through IT,” he says. “At some point, that quote must become an order, that order has to get billed, then you have to collect the money. If you really spend the time to learn the business while you’re doing that, it’s a unique opportunity to learn the entire business, if you choose to take advantage of it.” But, Shonebarger says it’s the people who make this industry special. “There’s just some amazing people in this industry,” he says. “They give back, they’re as creative as can be and they are just fun to be around. It’s really that an energy that keeps me going.” 

Spending quality time with others can result in invaluable lessons. Shonebarger cites two important ones he’s learned while working in the industry: never stop listening to people and never stop learning. “Anytime you’ve been doing something for a while, you have the tendency to think you know it all,” he says. “I feel strongly that you’ve got to continue to listen to people and with that, be in a position where you are always learning. [For example,] I’ve been at Hit for 16 years and I just spent time yesterday working with our VP of manufacturing. I was learning stuff right on the floor. It’s an industry where you never stop learning.” 

Over the years, Shonebarger has been involved in many different aspects of the supplier’s business. “I’ve seen Hit go through a lot of growth from acquisitions, and I’ve learned a lot.” As COO, his latest challenge is learning to make decisions for both the present and the future. 

The CIO role is incredibly strategic. If you come up with a design for software or if you are going to change a business process, that doesn’t happen tomorrow. That has to be designed and scoped out,” Shonebarger says. “By default, you’re almost always working in a futurestate that is sometimes a year away. As COO, there is a greater emphasis on the present, such as how we are performing now. I’m moving from strategic to tactical then back to strategic. There’s a tension between the two because a decision I make in the present will affect a future decision. This requires not only a change in thinking, but also seeing the business with new eyes.”

So far, Shonebarger says he’s really enjoying the challenges of his new role and seeing aspects of the company from a different point of view. “I have been here for years, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s new! I haven’t seen it like that before; let’s go after it.’” This year, Shonebarger says Hit Promotional Products is focusing on operational excellence, increasing throughput per worker, adding resiliency to its supply chain and reducing errors. “Ultimately, we believe this strategy will deliver the best value and experience for our customers.” 

PPB spoke with Shonebarger to learn more about him, his expectations for 2021 and his thoughts on the future of the promo industry. 

PPB  Who inspires you and why?

Shonebarger  It changes often. I tend to be inspired by ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. Currently, it’s a retired 70-year-old Marine at my church who noticed that a lot of organizations that provided food assistance to homeless people shut down during COVID. He jumped into action and is now providing 2,000 meals a month despite the risk to his health.

PPB  How has the pandemic affected your company’s mission and what do you expect to see in 2021?

Shonebarger  Obviously, things aren’t the same as they were in 2019. We’ve had to adapt the supply chain, learn how to produce promotional products in a socially-distant manner and deal with logistics problems. You’ve had to react, and you’ve had to move. I think the best businesses during this time have embraced that and figured out what to do. I don’t think we are out of this yet, and 2021 will have some challenges. For companies and individuals, I think these challenges are what ultimately define you and make you better in a short period of time. There are definitely some things we have done at Hit that have made us better and stronger. You can use challenges and adversities to your advantage. 

PPB  What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry and what are you most optimistic about moving forward?

Shonebarger  There are some short-term challenges. There is lost revenue right now because we don’t have these large-scale events occurring. I don’t think those are going to start tomorrow and as we can see, it’s going to take time to get through this year. But people are inherently social in nature, so I do believe that those events are going to come back. With the world becoming more digital, there is going to be a desire to touch and to feel [products] which is, in essence, a good chunk of our industry. I think at the end of this people are going to adapt and come up with new ideas. This is not the death of the promotional products industry. The promotional products industry in the United States is as old as the country itself. We’ve been through pandemics before, and by working together, we will continue to meet the needs of our customers.  

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Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.

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