Leadership In Motion
Photo: Gilley rides in a helicopter as part of her training while working for the CIA.
Behind JoAnn Gilley’s soft smile and warm laugh lies a richness of marketing experience and leadership expertise. As the CEO of Waukegan, Illinois-based distributor Overture Promotions, and having held many managerial roles over her 28-year career, Gilley is accustomed to taking the reins, exploring uncharted territories and leading her team toward and through change. Gilley has perfected her craft over the years though some describe her as a natural-born leader.
Relatively new to promotional products, Gilley started working at Overture Promotions in 2017 as a consultant and replaced its original CEO, Heather Sanderson, 10 months later, preserving the company’s status as a woman-owned business. She is an original investor with Overture Promotions, which was founded in 2001. In her first two years as CEO, Gilley led the now 150-employee company—which provides end-to-end services for promotional products solutions, including webstores and ecommerce, embroidery, screen print, graphic design, and picking, packing and shipping—to expand organically, growing annual revenue from $47 million to $127 million in her first three years. She also led the company’s move from its original headquarters in Vernon Hills, Illinois, to its current location in a new, state-of-the-art headquarters which includes 150,000 square feet of warehouse space.
And recently, Gilley, together with Lou Weisbach, founder and former CEO of the distributor that is now HALO Branded Solutions, led Overture through its March 1 acquisition by Westbridge Capital Ltd, a private equity company. Gilley remains CEO of Overture Promotions and maintains the same responsibilities. The acquisition is a move to establish a global branding company, and Gilley, who also sits on Overture Promotions' board of directors with Weisbach, will be responsible for integrating newly-acquired businesses into Overture Promotions’ operations.
“I was so fortunate to inherit a crazy-smart and capable management team,” says Gilley. “Much of my early focus was on making ways for them to concentrate on high-value things, moving people around to take things off their plates, and investing in operations and training. We also invested more in marketing and tested some new ways to generate leads. Together, we created strategic planning and collaborative problem-solving processes, and improved internal communications. I picture my role as the lead on a curling team, who sweeps for her team members, clearing the path of the stone as it travels down the ice, making a way for them to succeed.”
Gilley also led her team through the unforeseeable past year, and faced the challenges of the pandemic head-on. In 2020, the company grew 54 percent, which was done by focusing on sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE), a diverse customer base and adhering to strict safety precautions for workers. “Our sales team was quick to pivot to sourcing PPE, leveraging our relationships in Asia for sourcing, with a second pivot to employee and customer engagement kits.” She adds, “We also were fortunate to have several customers who are in essential services and/or pandemic-proof, so our distribution center staff stayed busy; in fact, in the first couple months, we had front-of-house staff come in and work shifts in the distribution center to help keep up. We took extensive safety precautions early and had full participation by staff reporting exposure and symptoms, and quarantining as required, so we were able to prevent COVID-19 spread with a fully staffed distribution center.”
But long before joining Overture Promotions, Gilley’s innate desire to lead started taking shape during summer breaks from Wake Forest University—where she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Spanish—when she worked in the White House correspondence pool. It was here that Gilley reviewed and responded to letters received by the White House, and she also worked on one summer-long assignment in VIP Correspondence—letters prepared for the President’s written signature. During her first summer there she witnessed history, standing in the same room as President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974, as he gave his resignation speech to White House staff following the Watergate scandal. She also spent one summer in the Bicentennial Office, during which she catalogued the gifts sent from civilians to President Gerald Ford.
What followed was a varied career spent in managerial roles in a myriad of industries, beginning as an imagery analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, where she watched Soviet forces in Cuba and Africa, and researched and monitored international terrorism. She entered the marketing world at a high-tech specialty public relations agency three years later. When asked how she made the jump from the CIA to marketing, Gilley says that it was prompted by a move to Boston and the need to find employment, but she knew she wanted to work in marketing. Her 20-year high-tech marketing career includes stints at IBM’s Software Group, where she directed a 50-person team and managed a $10 million budget, and nearly six years as EVP for Miller/Shandwick, where she managed half of the $8 million-dollar company. She has also held managerial and marketing roles for the Chicago Sky; The Cradle, the largest adoption agency in the Midwest; Tunes.com/RollingStone.com, right as online music was emerging; Midwest Young Arts Conservatory, a private, nonprofit youth music ensemble program; and Cognitive Concepts, an early literacy technology company.
Left: Overture Promotions' new facility includes 15,000 square feet of warehouse space. Right: Overture Promotions employees give back to the community by volunteering as meal-packers for Feed My Starving Children, a nonprofit that packages and ships food to people in developing countries. Gilley is pictured in the third row, third seat from the right.
“My timing [in technology marketing] was such that I had a front-row seat to many breakthroughs and opportunities to learn from history-making entrepreneurs and leaders,” Gilley says. “I had an early experience turning around the struggling LA office of an agency—my first lessons in being nimble and transparent in crisis. My stint at IBM was about driving change, doing things differently, in what was a sclerotic communications environment; sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But I won a Telly [Award] for a product announcement that generated worldwide press coverage, a first for an IBM software product.” She adds, “Post-motherhood [she is a mom of two], I did a few non-technology marketing gigs … all of which taught me the importance of listening, of problem-solving and process, and of being a leader who encourages and makes ways for her team to fly.”
It’s safe to say that Gilley has done a lot—but she’s also been to a lot of places, too. Growing up, her father served in the U.S. Army, so she moved often, spending her childhood in Washington, Kansas, Texas, Massachusetts and Virginia, and also living in Germany. Gilley relocated a few times during her adult life too, living in Boston, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Austin and Washington, D.C., before settling in Chicago, where she currently resides. “I’m an Army brat, so I grew up all over the place,” she says. “I went to high school in Northern Virginia, college at Wake Forest University [in Winston-Salem, North Carolina], with a semester of study at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota (Colombia), grad school at University of Texas, then on to my first career kind of job at the CIA, where I monitored the Soviet presence in Cuba.”
In addition to her business, volunteerism is also something that Gilley holds close to her heart. Overture Promotions is a partner of A Safe Place, a nonprofit domestic violence shelter in the distributor’s same community, and has assisted with designing t-shirts and giveaways for the organization’s events, and supports its services. The distributorship also takes care of its own with its “Overture Family Fund,” which allows employees to donate to a fund that provides grants to team members in need. In her personal life, Gilley has served on the board of directors for RISE International from 2007-2012, a nonprofit that builds schools in post-civil war, rural Angola, Africa, and she volunteers as an administrator for The Moms Group, a support group for more than 120 mothers of children with special needs, which she co-founded and has been involved with for the past 12 years.
Gilley has many strategies in place to continue growing the business and is also continuously focused on improving its customer service. “We obsess about customer service,” she says. “We have invested in technology to improve our responsiveness. We keep asking, ‘How can we do this better?’ While our baseline is responding quickly and communicating efficiently, the goal is anticipating what customers need before they tell us.”
When asked as a leader and the CEO of a distributor, how she approaches challenge and change, Gilley says, “Head on. Get smart people together and lay out all the options and risks. Get more information so you reduce risk. Make a plan and start to execute. Regroup to see if your assumptions are holding. If not, pivot. Be willing to have difficult conversations, which can sometimes mean owning your failures or bad decisions. If the challenge is a broken process, get stakeholders together to walk through the process and figure out ways to make it work better. Keep your eye on the big-picture things—it’s easy to get so focused on the day-to-day that you miss big things that aren’t working or are looming in the future. We start our weekly management meeting with a ‘forest, not trees’ conversation.”
Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.