Inaugural SPARK Conference Hits Its Mark

PPAI’s inaugural SPARK conference for young professionals in the promotional products industry was a hands-down success. Held in July in Denver, Colorado, SPARK offered education and networking opportunities for more than 60 industry practitioners who are at the beginning stages of their careers in the promotional products industry.

“The SPARK conference was far from typical,” says Jeff Franklin, national accounts manager at Headwear USA and chair of the SPARK Work Group. “It’s actually difficult to put into words just how amazing this event was. All of the conferences that I’ve ever been to are rooted indoors; they’re stuffy, stale, and they don’t offer an interactive experience to facilitate networking.

"Even though some of them try, they fall short. Seth Barnett and Jody Mello, along with the SPARK Work Group, flipped that upside down. People fuse bonds through shared experiences, and that’s what the SPARK conference [offered]. The way it was structured created organic networking opportunities that people loved.”

SPARK attendees represented companies from every aspect of the promotional products industry, from distributors to suppliers to business service providers, and from across the U.S. Participants were between 22 and 37 years old and two-thirds had worked in the promotional products industry for six years or fewer.

“SPARK was a great concept to help engage with the future leaders of our industry,” says Seth Barnett, PPAI diversity development and engagement manager and staff liaison to the volunteer-led SPARK Work Group. “After witnessing the SPARK conference, I can say that this was an amazing concept that brought together a peer group that would have otherwise not had an avenue to connect in this way,” he says.

“This event exceeded my expectations and, as a young professional who has attended similar events in other industries, this is truly unique. The team at PPAI,
the SPARK work group and the attendees themselves created something that is unmatched in this or any industry.”

As high as the bar was set this year, next year’s conference is expected to be even better. SPARK isn’t just an annual conference, however. There was a micro event at The PPAI Expo in Vegas in January, and that pop-up event will be held again at Expo in 2018.

SPARK’s unique take on education in the industry was evident from the start, with participants taking a bicycle bar (an open-air, multi-seat pedal vehicle) from the hotel to the event’s opening general session. There, Mike Ligon, founder of concert promoter HomeVibe Presents, delivered a behind-the-scenes look at leadership in a shifting industry and staying relevant in a changing market.

The following day featured six hours of education, beginning with a session from career development expert Ian Harwick, who encouraged his audience to ask themselves what success meant to them and shared ideas on building a foundation to support that success. Later, Chris Sinclair, owner of St. Catharines, Ontario, distributor Brand Blvd., explored leadership, coaching and team building from a young professional’s perspective.

Attendees also had their choice of two breakout sessions: Mary Ellen Harden, president of supplier Wall Street Greetings and owner of Mellen Designs, shared her perspectives as a young professional and small-business owner; and multi-line rep Mike Eaton brought his audience up to date on a number of industry topics, including Amazon and Alibaba, quality over quantity and increasing ROI.

Over lunch, a panel discussion brought together SPARK Work Group members John Cudahy, CAS, Jeff Franklin and Kalie Herron on the voice of the young professional in the promotional products industry and why it is important that it be heard.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the event and the content,” says Alyssa Inkrott, a business development representative at 3M Promotional Markets. “Being new to the industry, it was really helpful to meet others around my age and talk to them about their journey within the industry. I hope to continue to grow my career within the industry and I feel that this event was exactly the motivation I needed to really push myself. I am hoping to attend next year’s event.”

Austin Moody, an account manager at distributor Grapevine Designs, notes, “It was such a cool experience, and what an honor being able to say I was among the first group in attendance.”

The day closed with SPARK participants splitting off to work on two community service projects. Some joined United Way to assemble hygiene kits for the Denver Rescue Mission Lawrence Street Shelter, while others participated in a river clean-up project with the City of Denver’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“The feedback and testimonials speak for themselves,” says Franklin. “SPARK isn’t a one-time thing or a flash in the pan, SPARK is a movement.”

SPARK returns with a networking reception at The PPAI Expo 2018 and the SPARK Conference 2018 will be held July 19-20, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. Registration will be available soon at


PPAI Board Election For Class Of 2022 Takes Place This Month

This month, PPAI member companies are casting their ballots for two of four candidates for the PPAI Board of Directors Class of 2022.

Selected by the PPAI Elected Directors Nominating Committee, the candidates are distributors Steve Levschuk, president of Talbot Marketing (PPAI 100789), and Todd Pottebaum, MAS+, president of Quality Resource Group (PPAI 159353); and suppliers Dan Frailey, president of RuMe, Inc. (PPAI 159353), and Lori Kates, president of IMAGEN Brands, parent company of suppliers Crown Products (PPAI 113430) and Vitronic (PPAI 114197).

One candidate from each member category will be elected by the membership and will begin a four-year board term immediately following The PPAI Expo 2018. The PPAI board election is taking place from September 8 through September 29, with results available in early October.

Steve Levschuk is president and CEO of London, Ontario, distributor Talbot Marketing. He has worked in the promotional products industry for more than 35 years, and has served on the PPPC Board of Directors as both the chair and a member, as a PPAI International Committee member and as a member of the Promotional Products Education Foundation (PPEF) Board of Trustees.

He is the current president of the World Advertising Gift Exchange (WAGE) Board of Directors. Prior to joining Talbot Marketing, Levschuk worked in the direct mail industry as well as with supplier King Craft—a division of AUI, which was later purchased by Norwood Promotional Products. Levschuk earned his Honors diploma in Business: Advertising from St. Clair College.

Outside the industry, Levschuk participates in his community as a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau and Canada’s Best Managed Companies program. He is also a member of McKay CEO Forums. In his spare time, he enjoys golfing, running and reading.

When asked how PPAI can best use its limited resources to fulfill the Association’s mission of protecting and growing the industry, while simultaneously ensuring the success of a diverse and sometimes disparate constituency, Levschuk said:

“I think PPAI can fulfill its overall mission of protecting and growing the industry by continuing to look for new and innovative ways to engage and excite its current membership of over 14,000 member companies. If these members feel they belong to something meaningful and relevant they will become passionate members who care about the professional association they belong to. They will be excited to talk positively about ‘their’ association, thereby acting as ambassadors for PPAI.

“In addition, I believe PPAI should continue to look for new markets to expand its membership and reach. rade associations around the world are struggling; PPAI is not following this trend. While associations are becoming insolvent and less relevant, PPAI is growing and flourishing. There is a void for good, solid industry leadership around the world. PPAI should look for a way to fill this void, thereby growing its membership base and fulfilling its overall mission.”


Todd Pottebaum, MAS+, is president of distributor Quality Resource Group, Inc., in Plymouth, Minnesota. He has spent 17 years working in promotional products, and in that time, has served as committee member and chair of the PPAI Market Research Committee, and as a speaker at several PPAI Expo education events.

Pottebaum is also a member of Upper Midwest Association of Promotional Professionals, for which he has served as president, vice president, treasurer and secretary as well as a board member, volunteer chair and co-chair for the End Buyer Expo. In 2015 he was named UMAPP Volunteer of the Year. He also has spoken at regional education events and panels, and served as a panelist at a national industry conference.

Outside the industry, Pottebaum is a member of Meeting Professionals International’s marketing and membership committees and has been named an MPI Volunteer of the Year for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Chapter. Prior to working at Quality Resource Group, Pottebaum worked for Carlson Marketing Group. He studied at the University of Northern Colorado.

In his free time, Pottebaum enjoys spending time with his family and carrying out his personal mission statement, which is “to grow and serve as a leader, live a balanced life, enrich the lives of others around me, create sustained comfort for our special needs child, and to make an enduring difference in this world.”

When asked how PPAI can best use its limited resources to fulfill the Association’s mission of protecting and growing the industry, while simultaneously ensuring the success of a diverse and sometimes disparate constituency, Pottebaum said:
“PPAI’s board works in concert with PPAI staff and an engaged pool of talented volunteers to own and execute the overall mission by way of the Strategic Plan. This process creates a valuable feedback loop that’s used to hone the Strategic Plan in the best interest of the industry and for the PPAI membership.

“I’ve been a student of this process for years and believe that it creates the highest and best use of limited resources while maintaining a laser focus on:

1. Driving meaningful member value
2. Advocating for the industry
3. Developing and leveraging strategic foresight to fuel member innovation
4. Managing a progressive and efficient member organization

“Each goal is critically important. However, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of goal No. 3, Developing and Leveraging Strategic Foresight. It would be my ambition to curate information, tools, trends, data and examples of success so that a disparate constituency may filter and determine how to best innovate for the future of a rapidly changing and digitally focused marketplace.”


Dan Frailey is president of supplier RuMe, Inc., in Centennial, Colorado. As a member of the promotional products industry for more than three years, Frailey has served on several industry advisory committees and panels.

Outside the industry, Frailey has served as chair of the board for Heartland Alliance, as committee chair for the Big Shoulders Fund, and is the founder of Booth Social Impact. In his free time he enjoys skiing, snowboarding, designing and building furniture, and participating in CrossFit. He is a fan of the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco 49ers, as well as Notre Dame football.

Prior to joining the promotional products industry, Frailey worked with Groupon, Roland Berger Strategy Consultants and Susquehanna International Group. He holds an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame.

When asked how PPAI can best use its limited resources to fulfill the Association’s mission of protecting and growing the industry, while simultaneously ensuring the success of a diverse and sometimes disparate constituency, Frailey said:
“Our industry is a web of 14,000 diverse collaborators. This interconnected web makes possible an incredible variety of business models, and products and services for corporate marketers. With so much diversity, only PPAI can speak and ‘think’ for the whole industry on the macro-level issues that are bigger than any single company. In a time of unprecedented demographic, technological and economic change, key questions abound.

“For example: If politicians implement a carbon tax, how would that impact
our reliance on global supply chains? Millennials spend more money for fewer goods and prefer experiences to things; how will we adapt? Artificial intelligence, drones and virtual reality, formerly just punchlines, are becoming commercial realities—will they complement our roles or replace them? Amazon Amazon Amazon?

“Every company leader needs actionable answers to these questions. PPAI needs to be the forum for finding those answers.”


Lori Kates is president of Mason, Ohio-based supplier IMAGEN Brands, parent company of Crown Products and Vitronic. She has worked in the promotional products industry for more than 21 years, and has served on the PPAI Professional Development Committee, PPAI Market Research Committee and has been involved in the Promotional Products Education Foundation (PPEF).

Kates has also devoted her time to participating in professional development events including the North American Leadership Conference, Women’s Leadership Conference, the PromoKitchen Mentor Program and the ASI Power Summit. She is a 2013 recipient of the ASI Supplier Woman of Distinction honor and has been recognized by the ASI Power 50 program four years in a row.

Prior to joining IMAGEN, Kates worked with Crystal Tissue Company, a manufacturer and importer of specialty paper and gift bags serving North American retailers. She holds a degree in accounting from Ohio Northern University.

Outside the industry, Kate participates in the Female Integrators Mastermind program, which helps women integrators of entrepreneurial operating systems share ideas and contribute to one another’s professional growth. She is also a volunteer with Matthew 25: Ministries. In her free time she enjoys watching baseball, and hiking and biking. 

When asked how PPAI can best use its limited resources to fulfill the Association’s mission of protecting and growing the industry, while simultaneously ensuring the success of a diverse and sometimes disparate constituency, Kates said:
“PPAI should continue to focus resources to foster education within and beyond the industry. These efforts will ensure a strong future by continuing to advocate for the industry, share research and technology trends/tools, educate the buyer community on the power of promotional products and the importance of product safety, and promote efforts to attract the next generation of talent.

“While we are a diverse group, we have a common need for a strong, healthy industry. If we keep our minds open, discuss the difficult issues and truly listen to each other, we can achieve what could never be done by any single member. The smartest person in the room, is the room.”

The board election will be administered electronically by a third-party election administrator and by paper ballot as required. Each PPAI member company’s designated voter will receive an email from PPAI with information to learn more about the candidates and cast a vote.


Product Responsibility Summit Arrives In Newport Beach This Month 

PPAI invites industry leaders to Newport Beach, California, for the PPAI Product Responsibility Summit, September 17-19, with an optional boat tour of the Port of Long Beach on September 20.

The annual event brings industry thought leaders, representatives from product safety labs and leaders in compliance for the latest developments and best practices. The 2017 Summit agenda includes insights from experts in California’s Prop 65, a discussion on import surveillance and a panel of end-buyer representatives sharing their perspectives and experiences.

Attendees will take home a sourcing and compliance manual that will serve as a guide for industry companies to get their compliance programs up and running quickly and efficiently. This year’s binder has been comprehensively reimagined, with a shift in focus from corporate responsibility to risk management. Its best practices, worksheet samples, templates and checklists are focused on mitigating risk.

The binder also includes dozens of flow charts that illustrate the pillars of a robust compliance program, and all of the documentation has been updated to reflect current developments affecting the industry. Find the complete schedule and register at