PPAI Supplier Stars: The Best In Class
OrangeVector / Pirina / HorenkO / Shutterstock.com. Photo illustration by SPARK Publications.
Companies that enjoy a strong fan base of highly satisfied customers work extremely hard to get there and they never rest on their laurels. Instead, they continue to excel to be unsurpassed in every area of their business.
The PPAI Supplier Stars competition recognizes those companies that are masters at creating the complete package for distributors including top-quality products, excellent decorating and packaging, and superb communication and customer service. But what makes this award truly unique is that winners are determined solely by distributor votes.
The annual competition is open to all PPAI supplier members in good standing who update their sales volume every two years as required by PPAI and maintain a SAGE Supplier Rating of an A or higher. All suppliers that meet these qualifications are on the ballot that categorizes companies by their sales volume in promotional products.
In most categories, a Supplier Star and an Award of Merit winner are selected. PPB talked with this year’s 21 honorees in all 11 categories to learn about their philosophy for doing business in the promotional products industry and how they go about delivering top-shelf results time and time again.
St. Petersburg, Florida
Cannabis Promotions is a one-stop promotional product shop for cannabis accessories. It was the first of its kind in the promotional market, and it has grown to become the largest. Ryan Tickle, vice president of sales, says, “Cannabis Promotions’ mission is to help distributors rapidly grow their businesses by selling products in the rapidly growing cannabis industry. Unlike several parts of the industry that have one-time promotional giveaways, dispensaries have very large repeat orders. We help distributors get those orders with the highest quality and most relevant products that are approved for the industry’s regulations. As far as delivering top quality in every area to earn a Supplier Star, he cites the company’s expertise in the cannabis industry. “We only work with cannabis-related products and with distributors that sell or want to sell in the cannabis industry. We have the expertise to ensure compliance and the products dispensaries want and need. It’s important to purchase cannabis-related items from experts that know the cannabis regulations and not a toy store that also sells a few cannabis products.”
Custom Engraving Studio, LLC
Custom Engraving Studio, LLC is a family-owned and operated engraving and marking specialist. It offers laser engraving, marking and cutting, sandblasting, rotary engraving and diamond drag engraving on thousands of products, including awards, plaques, corporate gifts and promotional products.
The company focuses on combining the latest technologies in the engraving industry with highly trained artisans, providing outstanding engraving services on all available materials and name brand products at reasonable prices, while becoming a trusted partner in their clients’ success. “Our team is not happy with just meeting expectations but demonstrates an ‘above and beyond’ service to ensure that all orders exceed our clients’ expectations,” says CEO Darryl Wagner.
Soft Stuff Creations, Inc.
Surrey, British Columbia
Soft Stuff Creations is a custom plush toy supplier specializing in designing unique, fun and creative toys for retail, marketing and promotional purposes for customers worldwide. Sharon Griffith, vice president of marketing, explains the company’s goals with distributors. “As one of the industry leaders in premium plush toys and golf head covers, we want to partner with our customers to show how our products can contribute to their success by creating brand awareness. Whether stock or completely custom, we work with our customers to create innovative and quality promotional products that are cute, fun, useful and have a high rate of retention. We want to educate our customers on how our products will be kept for a long time and enjoyed.”
Even though the team is small, Griffith says they all pull together when it comes to communication. “We care about our customers (many are friends too) and understand that what we do reflects on them with their customers. We consider it a partnership with our customers, and our team works hard to ensure we deliver quality products every time. With our plush toys, the applications and the stories behind them are often so meaningful and moving, and the products so cute and huggable, that we all love what we do.”
San Diego, California
Overnight Tablecovers is a producer and supplier of table covers, banners, flags, tents and apparel, including face coverings. CEO Rodolfo Gonzalez says the company has a simple premise. “Disrupt an industry that has been an example of poor service and elevated prices,” he says. “Everything we do, every decision we make, keeps this statement as our guiding principle of why we exist.” He adds, “Our unique understanding of global supply chain allows us to enjoy distinct advantages designed to benefit our customers, through the use of top-quality service that’s woven into the company’s culture and operationally monitored; top-quality products through strict standard operating procedures and quality control and top-quality communication. [We have] an absolute obsession with enhancing the customer experience.”
Sterling Heights, Michigan
Stahls’ has built a global business servicing every aspect of the garment personalization industry, from heat transfer vinyl to full-color digital graphics and more. Its team of experts strive to provide customers with the most innovative decorating techniques available. “The promotional products world has a need for on-demand, shorter-run custom printing—especially when it comes to full-color logos—and Stahls’ has multiple solutions for this challenge,” says CEO Carleen Gray. “We help companies realize it is possible to profitably customize apparel and soft goods of all shapes and sizes with the right heat-printing equipment, products and services.” To accomplish that, the company continuously strives to make it easier to do business. “Currently this means building a more structured technology process to seamlessly port client ordering data between our divisions, enhancing quality and speed-to-market for all our heat-printing products and custom logo services,” says Gray.
North Mankato, Minnesota
Label Works is a custom label printing company specializing in stickers, decals, water bottle labels, window decals and bumper stickers using their Label Works’ FreeForm™ technology to create labels of any size and shape, including foil-stamped and blind-embossed labels. Mike T. Brown, marketing coordinator, explains the company’s mission is to simplify the process of selling print. “We want to expand distributors’ minds into print as a viable option to promote their customers' businesses. We send the message that we are the label experts, so they don’t have to be,” he says. He cites his team’s communication skills as key to the company earning a Supplier Star. “We believe that customer service is the epicenter of our business—the ability to effectively communicate between internal teams and customers is what allows us to serve at the highest level. Relaying messages and detail from customers on to our production teams allows us to offer the highest quality and satisfaction.”
Hadrus Vinyl Graphics
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Hadrus Vinyl Graphics is a large-format graphics manufacturer with the singular goal of being the go-to source for all large-format graphics in the promotional products industry.
“At Hadrus Vinyl Graphics, our mission is to provide promotional product distributors unique ways to capture attention or communicate a message,” says President John Moore. “Our line of specialty graphics supports this vision by offering creative, yet practical, cost-effective products that deliver innovative and alternative marketing solutions.”
Moore credits the company’s success for winning a Supplier Star with the quality of its team. “A top-quality company must be filled with top-quality people,” he says. “Hadrus Vinyl Graphics prides itself on the employee morale and team spirit that flows through all departments because, in the promotional products industry, success only comes from doing thousands and thousands of little things with perfection. How we accomplish this is a bit complicated, but it is based on simple principles—treat everyone fairly, respect others’ views and conduct business in an upfront, ethical manner. And that is where attention to quality, caring service and thoughtful communication just become second nature. It’s genuine.”
Toddy Gear was founded in 2010 as an innovative retail brand in the world of fashion-forward and premium-quality tech accessories. It moved into the promotional space in 2011 with customizable tech accessories and innovative imprinting capabilities. Vice President Jason Emery says Toddy Gear's mission is simple: to provide an enjoyable, productive place of employment for employees, one that supports a happy and healthy lifestyle while allowing the opportunity for those who contribute to continue to grow both professionally and creatively. “Our philosophy is that if we achieve this sort of culture within the company, the marketing, products and services we offer will mirror the pride our team has in working together as we build this thing called Toddy Gear,” he says. About winning a Supplier Star, he’s grateful for the recognition. “We are very fortunate to be consistently recognized and are thankful to learn that our customers consistently appreciate what we bring to the promotional market. All the ideas that make Toddy Gear what it is, either through our unique marketing, product development, decoration capabilities and, most importantly, service, are the result of the combined efforts of our team.” Before any product launch or marketing initiative, he says the team has the opportunity to build on the concept, add to improve it and to contribute in every area possible. They also host “think tank” meetings, which help the team build together from concept to creation. “Regardless of your role at Toddy Gear, you have a say in the final outcome. This is our formula for success,” says Emery.
Pacesetter Awards Co.
Pacesetter Awards is a third-generation family-owned and operated company that believes in the importance of high-quality service. The line includes a large variety of crystal, glass and Lucite awards, plaques and gifts, plus acrylic barriers, sneeze guards and signage of all kinds. Kamil Dys, national sales manager, says the company’s philosophy for doing business is simple: Treat customers like you want to be treated and provide a quality product with excellent customer service. Pacesetter accomplishes this in several ways. “When working with any distributor, whether they’re a top customer of ours or first-time customer, we want them to have a great experience,” he says. “We know distributors have to be experienced in a lot of different product lines and often awards have a perceived idea of being a difficult sell or buy. We work with our staff to make sure they walk every customer through the process and make it as easy as possible, so in the future they feel like they have a team member at Pacesetter they can call with any questions.”
Dys believes staff training is the key to helping Pacesetter achieve Supplier Star status.
“We train our staff on our product line so that they become experts. Whether it’s a CSR or someone in manufacturing, we want them to know all the details of our product,” he says. “We cross-train our staff so that if someone is out sick or on vacation, we can fill in roles to meet deadlines and not slow down the production process. We also encourage our staff to speak up if they see any quality issues with a product or feel that we can create efficiencies in production. We consider everyone family, and if we succeed, we all reap the benefits. If we fail, we pick each other up and work together to see how we can improve so it doesn’t happen again.”
Salt Lake City, Utah
Since 1983, HandStands has been a high-quality and innovative source for promotional products, especially tech accessories. Its motto is, “Inspired by you, engineered by us, delivered to your client.”
“Our goal has always been to design, develop and market truly innovative solutions for the promotional products market,” says CEO Rodd Steuart. “Beyond that, we remain highly invested in the success of our customers. We’re always asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to serve our customers better?’—and we’re pretty relentless in that pursuit. While we take orders seriously, we try not to take ourselves too seriously.”
He says the company places value in every point of contact with the customer. “Regardless of the size of your order or the nature of your call, we will treat you like you’re one of our own. Because we are a professional and principles-based organization, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of innovation, efficiency and customer care.” He adds, “Now that we’re a part of the HPG family, we’re able to do even more for our customers, leveraging the best practices from our other HPG sister companies to make every experience remarkable.”
Raining Rose, Inc.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Raining Rose is a full-service manufacturer of personal care products. The company has built its strong presence and reputation through the production of high-quality lip balms, sunscreens and hand sanitizers. With third-party audits conducted regularly, their facility is FDA-registered and is one of the few manufacturers certified as a provider of USDA- organic products. Raining Rose is also a Certified B Corporation meeting the highest standards of accountability, transparency and social and environmental performance.
“We focus on service, expertise and integrity with an eye on the future and a love for our community and our planet,” says Lindsey Davis, MAS, director of promotional sales. “When we put all these things together and get to work with amazing customers, the end result is nothing short of remarkable.”
She attributes the company’s ability to consistently deliver the top-quality service, products, communication and decorating required to earn a Supplier Star to the employees at Raining Rose. “I know I am biased, but we have the best employees. They truly love our products, care about our customers and live the values described above,” she says.
CPS / Keystone Line
CPS/Keystone has supported the promotional products industry for more than 25 years, providing value-priced, bestselling items ranging from water bottles and keytags to kitchen items and those for golf events. CPS has a robust product safety compliance program and delivers first-class service, free rush and has a team dedicated to the industry. Kippie Helzel, MAS, vice president of sales, shares its key to success. “We have always believed that you can deliver the ‘holy three’ tenets of a great promotional products company: quality, price and service. An early tenet from our founder was, ‘You don’t need to be greedy; work on a fair profit margin and keep your costs in line in the back end and you will have a winning formula.’ Our purchasing and quality assurance teams work hard to assure we have the best quality on every item, even on our least expensive products.” Helzel says it took the company 24 years to earn its first Supplier Star award. “We are working hard to ensure we have every opportunity to continue to earn that recognition every year moving forward.” She adds, “We always remind ourselves that we are only as good as our last order; in other words, loyalty is earned by not doing one order well, but by delivering consistently with every order, every day. We rarely miss a ship date thanks to our outstanding production and customer service teams, who understand that going above and beyond for standard ship or free rush orders is the hallmark of our reputation. Our excellent management and supervisory teams are hands-on, overseeing their respective areas to make sure all order details are accounted for.”
Hirsch Gift, Inc.
Hirsch Gift is a family-owned premier supplier offering more than 750 products—including tech items, executive gifts, drinkware, crystal awards and premiums—and brings more than 25 retail brands into the industry. President Peter Hirsch says the company’s focus on retail trends, product safety and quality assurance form the principal strategy: to provide the most innovative, highest quality and safest products available to the promotional products industry. When asked about the key attribute that contributed to winning the Supplier Star award, he says it’s likely the company’s customer-first focus.
“When distributors do business with us, they are trusting us with their hard-earned client relationships,” he says. “At every communication, we do our best to not only help distributors maintain client relationships but improve them. We pride ourselves with a wide variety of quality imprinting techniques and on-time delivery.”
Starline USA, Inc.
Grand Island, New York
Starline specializes in quality, high-end gifts, including trusted name brands JanSport, Black Clover, Oneida, Stanley, Pelican, Urban Peak and more. Brian Porter, senior vice president of sales and marketing, describes the company’s philosophy of doing business. “Starline is focused on quality and innovation driven by technology,” he says. “That focus encompasses the quality of our product, our award-winning decoration and delivering a seamless experience to both our distributor partners and their end users.” He says the key to consistently delivering the top-quality service, products, communication and decorating required to earn a Supplier Star rests largely in technology and is closely tied to the dedicated team of employees.
“Starline is heavily invested in the continued development and industry implementation of PromoStandards. The technology plays a key role in our success, from the very start of the process with real-time inventory and accurate information to the distributor, all the way to the end of the process with error-free inbound orders and reduced supply chain friction. In addition, we have an in-house team of developers constantly innovating new technology to allow our clients to react quickly to requests and present cutting-edge presentations.”
The employee element is also critical to success. “We all consider each other an extension of our own family, and we consider our distributor partners an extension of our sales team,” he says. “We know that our success is dependent on our customer success, and we strive to produce an end product that they will be proud to present to their end users. We know a distributor’s experience on every order will determine if they’ll want to continue to partner with us in the future. We take that very seriously, and it’s reflected in our long-lasting and rich distributor relationships.”
Beacon Promotions, Inc.
New Ulm, Minnesota
Service and dependability are at the top of Beacon’s core values, with a tagline that reads: “On Time. Done Right.” Beacon Promotions offers a wide selection of products in more than 20 brand names, from high-tech to personal care including name badges, table covers, calendars and planners, and premium leather executive gifts and incentive products. Brett Olsen, vice president, says being part of HPG is definitely an advantage that helps the company with resources for new technologies, including printing. “I don’t want to share too much of the secret sauce, but I will tell you that being part of the HPG family of companies has allowed us to share information across North America, in a huge variety of categories, which allows us to gather intel quickly and leverage the resources across the organization to react faster to trends, pricing, marketing and supply chain challenges,” he adds.
West Jordan, Utah
From its humble beginnings in a Utah attic in 1989, SnugZ USA has grown from five to more than 500 employees and is a leader in the manufacturing of lanyards, health and beauty products and corporate gifts. The company’s mission is, “Do what is right, think big, work like crazy and care passionately.” “This has been our mission and will always be our core of what makes us tick every single day,” says President Brandon Mackay, MAS, adding that it’s through this mission that the company consistently delivers top-quality products and service. “It’s what we believe in. We want the end user to get exactly what they expected and our distributor partner to have a pain-free experience with SnugZ. We’re not always perfect but I can tell you firsthand that when we fail, we take it very seriously and look for ways to learn from it and incorporate a solution. So, I guess we’re always looking for ways to get better.”
Gold Bond, Inc.
Gold Bond started in 1947 as a small pencil company and has grown into a top supplier, operating on two continents with the U.S. office centrally located in Tennessee. Gold Bond says it’s large enough to handle demanding orders, but small enough to be flexible in accommodating customers’ requests. Britney Godsey, chief marketing and sales officer, asks, “If you’re standing at a crossroads between customer service or quality, which would you choose? Imagine a partner that believed there could be both. At Gold Bond that is our mission. In that same mission, we constantly strive for new ways to bring brands to life through innovative item selections and imprinting methods. We perpetually prowl for ways to be industry-leading and give our customers more than they expect through elevated customer service, strategic partnerships and creative solutions much like our gift with purchase and loyalty reward points program.”
Godsey says that people are the passion within the leadership team, and the company takes great pride in its family atmosphere environment. “The climate we collaborate in allows us to truly look at how to service our clients in the best way possible without sacrificing quality. We try to instill a specific mindset for all things that we do: do everything to the best of your ability the way that you would if the customer was standing right next to you. If you keep that philosophy, you will always be extraordinary,” she says.
Hub Pen Company
Hub Pen dates back to 1954, when its founders sold pens door to door. The company has since grown to include 300 employees and sells more than 250 million pens annually. Trina Bicknell, senior vice president of sales, says Hub’s mission is to deliver a high-quality product that customers are proud to put their logos on, while providing exceptional, fast service and wonderful customer support. “Hub puts the customer first,” she says. “We take our reputation as being a Supplier Star very seriously but it is our people who set us apart—that can mean our sales and customer service team that suggest products and answer questions, or our creative team that is creating great content for our distributors to share and win business; our product development team that keeps its finger on the pulse of trends to help develop the next best product, or our operations team, which is always ready to find a way to make a customer happy and get orders out quickly.”
BAG MAKERS, Inc.
BAG MAKERS, Inc. is a supplier of printed bags specializing in non-woven, PET non-woven, paper, plastic, polyester, laminated, cotton/jute and mesh bags. The company sells more than 97 million printed bags annually and is a Certified Women’s Business Enterprise and a Quality Certification Alliance Accredited Supplier. CEO Maribeth Sandford, CAS, explains her philosophy for doing business in this industry. “For 40 years, our mission at BAG MAKERS has been to provide exceptional service and the highest-quality bags and printing capabilities to the promotional products industry. Ultimately, our goal is to help our distributor partners succeed.” When asked what qualities helped contribute to the company winning a Supplier Star Award of Merit, she says, “Distributors often tell us we are their supplier of choice because of our strong focus on customer service. Every day, customers come to us with unique challenges, and our team has a reputation for jumping through hoops to get even the most difficult orders done.” Product safety is another of the company’s strong attributes. “Distributors also appreciate our commitment to product safety and quality,” Sandford says. “The last thing they want to worry about is a product-related injury or recall. Our rigorous quality control program gives distributors buying confidence, and we regularly test our inks, plastics and more to ensure our products won’t harm anyone.”
She says distributors know they can count on BAG MAKERS to provide innovative products and decorating abilities. “We are proud to have originated some of the most recognizable bags in the industry, like our Big Thunder Grocery Totes and Therm-O Totes. We continually introduce cutting-edge products and print technologies to stay fresh and current.”
The t-shirt, an iconic symbol of American style, was the product on which founder Marty Lott built his business when he launched it in 1971. Today, SanMar employs more than 4,000 people nationwide, with eight national distribution centers, and offers 21 retail, mill and private label brands—and counting. “We strive to deliver a Canvas for Good,” says President Jeremy Lott. “We follow our mission statement to serve with care and integrity, positively impacting lives and inspiring pride and belonging. This gets to the heart of our company belief that ‘business is personal." Lott recognizes that winning a Supplier Star is the epitome of achievement but getting there is just the way SanMar does business. “It is an honor to earn a PPAI Supplier Star. We are guided every day by our family values including be nice, do the right thing, make a difference, deliver quality, invest in each other and, of course, to passionately serve the customer.”
New Kensington, Pennsylvania
Leed’s is a globally-operated supplier of high-quality promotional products, with goods ranging from pens and drinkware to bags and mobile tech. Equipped with an in-house product development team and dozens of leading retail brands, its high-quality customer service and cutting-edge decoration capabilities provide a seamless experience from start to finish. As a founding member of the former Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), Leed’s also promotes quality, safety and integrity among suppliers. President David Nicholson further explains the company’s mission, “We seek to ‘deliver confidence with every brand impression.’ That mission speaks to our focus on trusted service, high-quality products and a relentless commitment to creating value for our distributors and their clients.” For more than 30 years, the company has been honing its competencies to deliver on its promises. “We have never been afraid to change and to evolve,” Nicholson says. “We recognize that we can always do better and that success is only as good as your last order. We know we have to earn our business with every order, every day.”
Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.