Karesa Wells never thought she would open her own business. For 10 years, Wells was saving lives as an ICU nurse. “I loved nursing,” she says. “I never thought I would leave it; this has been a totally different world.” 

When she needed a break from the stressful environment of health care and wanted something different, Wells left that career and began working with her father, Gary Estes, in his 30-year-old hat printing business. It was the second time Wells had worked alongside her dad—the first time was when she was 12 years old, and her father had just opened the business. “We started in a house, and I learned to print hats,” she says. “He would pay me 10 cents a hat, so I was a part of his production team at a very young age. That’s what introduced me to the industry.” 

Once Wells went back to work with her father, she began thinking of new ways to grow the business, so her dad encouraged her to start her own company. “I had no intention of starting a business,” she says. “I was literally just going to work out of my house and try to get a few clients that I could take care of, and it has developed into something bigger.” Today, Wells is president and CEO of Blanchard, Oklahoma-based distributor Cross Country Specialty Advertising, a sister company to her father’s printing business. “All my clients that I started out with were from cold calls,” says Wells. “I have never had any sales training. I just dove in and started meeting people, calling people and getting appointments.” Partnering with clients to make events and campaigns a success, she focuses on serving fiber energy companies—becoming an expert in this niche market, in addition to banks and credit unions, and clients in the technology industry. 

Wells says her commitment to building client relationships is what makes her business stand apart from competitors. “It’s important for me to know their pain points, their needs and goals or dreams,” she says. “I am more about a relationship than selling an item.” Wells finds working with people the most enjoyable part of her job. “I love people. I love clients and building client relationships. I want to make sure this a great place for my employees to work and for my clients to know that Cross Country will take care of them,” she says.

For Wells, starting and running her own business has been a new challenge. “It’s made me learn to appreciate when someone says they’ve started a business,” she says. “You don’t really understand until you’ve been there. The stress, the many hours you have to spend to make it all work—it’s made me learn how to work hard to get what you want from yourself and from others.” The most challenging part of opening her company was not having clear guidance on what she needed to make it successful. “Being an entrepreneur and not planning to be, there’s no person standing there telling you what you need for your business,” says Wells. “There’s no business model to follow. You are setting everything up from scratch.” Because of this, she believes in the importance of passing on knowledge. “A lot of people try to hold on to what they’ve learned, but if you can learn to share it, it comes back to you—always.” 

From the hospital to the office, Wells still works with an unwavering, get-the-job-done attitude. “I think my experience is a driver in me,” she says. “Because I had that ‘everything is on fire’ feeling, it meshed with how I run things now. Not that ‘everything was on fire’ here, but I had to learn to tell myself, ‘Okay, Karesa, everything is not on fire and I don’t need everything done now.’” 

Wells also took from her experience as a nurse the ability to keep fighting. “When everything wasn’t going so well, I had to pick up the pieces and move forward,” she says. “It didn’t matter what challenges we had in the office—I still had to move forward.” 

Wells is looking ahead to the new year. “I am excited for 2021,” she says. “I think there is going to be a new energy. I plan to focus more on my clients. This year has been a year of operations, making sure procedures, systems and policies are in place. My goal next year is to reach out to more prospects.”

At the start of the pandemic, Wells created the “Never Give Up” campaign, sending at-home kits to her clients.

PPB spoke with Wells to learn more about how she leads her business and connects with clients. 

PPB How would you describe yourself as a leader and how do you stay motivated? 

Wells As a leader, I would say I have lots of energy. I am driven by my team. I want to make sure that my team is happy and that they are motivated. I try to be understanding when situations come up. I am always pushing my team to learn more and give them opportunities to do that. It can be challenging, especially being a sole entrepreneur because you’re the one driving everybody’s enthusiasm. I listen to podcasts; I think that helps me with motivation. I read a ton of books but because I have kids, I don’t have a lot of personal time. In my downtime, I read books that are either sales- or industry-focused, or even reading about what other entrepreneurs have done keeps me motivated. 

PPB How has living and working through a pandemic affected you? 

Wells When the pandemic hit, my clients shut down and the world kind of just stopped. But I think the thing to learn through a pandemic is that even though things are falling apart around you, there are still some things you can do. For your business or your goals, there’s still something you can work on. That’s what we did here at Cross Country. When everything shut down, clients were scrambling, trying to make everything virtual. They didn’t have time to send out promo products; they didn’t even know if they were going to have a budget for promo products. But we did not go away. 

PPB How have you connected with clients during this time?

Wells In the very beginning of the pandemic, we put together a kit for all our clients and this was before they even started talking about at-home kits. I said, ‘I know all of my clients are at home—let’s put together a campaign.’ We ended up doing a whole campaign called, ‘Never Give Up.’ I sent them a blanket, because I knew they were going to be at home, and it says #NeverGiveUp. We tried to get hand sanitizer, but it was all gone so we ended up getting some soap and a tumbler. It was a package to say, ‘We care about you’, and ‘Don’t give up, we’ll get through this.’ One of my clients said this came at the perfect time. In the middle of a pandemic, you can still reach out. You just have to find a way. A lot of our clients had stopped ordering, but I said, ‘Let’s think about what they’re going through.’ I think caring is a big key for getting through this time.  


Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.