PPB's 2020 Rising Stars

 

PPB's Rising Stars program is now in its 11th year, and never before has the future of the industry needed the vision and imagination of bold and fearless young leaders more than it does today.

This year’s 12 PPB Rising Stars have their work cut out for them as they help to guide the industry and their companies through these turbulent and uncertain times, and share their optimism for a brighter future. 

In these interviews, they reveal what they’ve learned about themselves in recent months, what they are most optimistic about and what inspires and concerns them, and they share their best advice for others just starting out or anyone looking to make a fresh start.

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Before landing his first promo industry job as a brand consultant for Maryland distributor Blue Chip, LLC in 2008, Jeff Franklin worked a series of uninspiring jobs as he tried to find his calling. “I went from outbound sales at Martin’s Potato Chips to a lawn technician for Scott’s Lawn Service. My brother-in-law owned a promotional products company, and he and my sister recruited me by offering me a free trip to Vegas for the PPAI Expo,” he says. “I was hooked after that.”

Franklin was nominated by Harold Wood at BIC Graphic NA, who has known him for the past 10 years and worked with him as a volunteer at Chesapeake Promotional Products Association (CPPA). Franklin has held various roles at CPPA and has served as president for the past two years. He’s also volunteered for the SPARK Work Group, participated in PPAI’s Legislative Education and Action Day for several years and is a key member of the Strategic Regional Foresight Committee. Wood says he’s impressed with Franklin’s ability to inspire and lead, to analyze issues and opportunities, and to exceed expectations. 

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? I tend to travel quite a bit. Being on lockdown due to COVID-19 has not been an easy adjustment personally or professionally. My wife, Eliana, is a saint for dealing with me and our two beautiful and sometimes mischievous little girls. Professionally, things were a bit difficult at first as the whole world around us changed and we were confronted with difficult decisions. I am incredibly proud of my team at Headwear for stepping up and kicking some serious tail. Due to this whole situation, I am being mentored by not only our CEO Nik Mirich, who is an absolute legend, but also our Global Director Peter Barblett, who is unequivocally unmatched at what he does. I’m fortunate to work for a company that adapted to the changes by shifting production to face masks but was smart enough to not just rush into it with any ol’ product or design. 

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I have learned how egotistical, arrogant, unorganized and undisciplined I have been my whole life. We are brought up being made to believe we are really good and that we are worth something, and over time that becomes a crutch and complacency creeps in. I am now working harder than I have ever worked before, and I’m continuing to find more cracks and failures than I ever would have thought possible if I just kept cruising along thinking I’m really good. Because I’m finding these failures, I’ve actually gotten an opportunity to fix them.

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? I do not think this industry is going anywhere. People love promotional products and as long as there are businesses trying to connect with communities, we’ll be here. The landscape that we currently know will continue to change though. Technology is shrinking the world, and, in turn, distribution channels are shrinking.

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? The resiliency of our industry, and how adaptive and flexible we are as a group of people. 

Who or what inspires you and why? My wife, my kids—my whole family. Nik Mirich, Peter Barblett, Paul Bellantone, Harold Wood, Cliff Quicksell, Bill Petrie, John R.B. Cudahy, Danny Rosin, Dana Geiger, Tiffany Kanak, Cindy Brown, Michael Valentini Jr., Cheryl Hokanson, Michele Reed, Bob Titelman Jr., Laird O’Cain. This list of people inspire me for myriad reasons, and I could go on and on.

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? My MAS first and foremost. I have lofty personal sales goals that I aim to achieve in the next 24 months as well.

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? Secure income. Commissioned sales roles are a very difficult thing to enter into as a young professional recently removed from college with a ton of debt. I also think education and creating awareness about our industry within the curriculum would be hugely beneficial for attracting and recruiting young professionals.

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Keep going! It can be overwhelming trying to learn all the ins and outs of the hundreds of thousands of products that are offered in our industry and the various decoration techniques. That education is probably the best springboard for success early on though. I would recommend PPAI’s online education portal as a huge resource. The TAS courses are great for beginners, so start there if you have not already. 

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Alyssa Inkrott found her way into the promo industry by responding to a LinkedIn job listing for a sales position at supplier 3M Promotional Markets in May 2016. She had recently graduated from Rasmussen College with a bachelor’s degree in human resources management and organization development. Inkrott spent three years at 3M as a business development rep and then as national account manager before accepting a new position with Raining Rose, Inc. in August 2019.

Inkrott was nominated by her boss, Lindsey Davis, MAS, at Raining Rose, Inc. and by former PPB Rising Star Taylor Borst at American Solutions for Business.

“Alyssa is a tough young lady who is quick-witted, sharp and clever,” says Davis. “But she also has a sense of patience and composure that can be rare in someone so early in their career.” 

Inkrott has served on the board for Upper Midwest Association of Promotional Professionals, was a speaker at PPAI’s SPARK and chaired the SPARK Work Group, and was a speaker at the PPAI Expo. 

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? The biggest impact it has had on my life professionally has been not being able to travel to visit my customers face-to-face and having to quickly learn how to better navigate virtual meetings instead. Personally, not spending time with my family really hit hard; distancing from my grandparents was especially tough. We are back to spending time together again, thankfully. 

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I am 100 percent not a homebody, and I absolutely love being surrounded by my family, friends and colleagues. 

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? I’m mostly just curious what the “new normal” is going to be for the industry, or if it will go back to normal. Prior to COVID-19, I was spending most of my time traveling to meetings or doing shows, which quickly moved into virtual meetings when the pandemic hit. Will we continue with the virtual style of things or will we move back into the face-to-face meetings and shows? If companies are doing fewer events, how will that impact the industry?

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? I’m optimistic that eventually we will get back to a place where we are doing business as usual again and in-person events will start happening more and more. I’m looking forward to when things start to feel a little more normal. 

Who or what inspires you and why? My mom is easily my biggest inspiration. She has always been a great example of a strong, hardworking and kind woman, and has taught me and continues to teach me so much. In addition to the things I just mentioned, she is also a two-time breast cancer survivor. Through all of her surgeries and treatments, she still demonstrated patience and positivity to those around her. I am thankful for her each and every day. 

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? I am hoping to develop more organization and standards around the accounts that I oversee. I’m hoping this will help us to partner better with these accounts, and help our entire team work more efficiently and effectively with them. 

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? I think that we first need to educate more people about the industry, what it is and what it has to offer. I know personally, before stumbling upon a random ad on LinkedIn for a sales position, I had no idea this industry even existed. Now that I am in it and know what it is, I feel it would easily attract other young professionals if they knew more about it. 

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Get involved and expand your network. One of the best things I did when first starting out in this industry was to involve myself in anything and everything I could find that was of interest to me. You meet some great people who can teach you a lot, both personally and professionally.  

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Sam Kabert learned early on how to leave a lasting impression. While he was finishing up his degree in recreation administration at California State University-Chico in 2011, he got the idea for beach sandals that pressed the phrase, Chico Feet, into the sand. Before he graduated, Kabert had launched his company to sell the sandals to fellow students, alumni and like-minded Chico fans. Growing up in the business—his parents own distributor Value Business Products in the San Francisco Bay area—he was exposed to the power and influence of promo products in building brand awareness. In 2012 he merged his company with his family’s business. He has since developed a podcast about mindfulness called “Soul Seekr” and is founder of WhatUp! Silicon Valley, a media network for news in business, sports, networking and innovation. In 2019, he was named to Silicon Valley’s 40 Under 40 List.

Kabert was nominated by former PPB Rising Stars Kenny Ved, MAS, at Goldstar and Kirby Hasseman at Hasseman Marketing. “Sam has been making a name for himself in recent years through his personal brand, SwagSam, both inside and outside of our industry,” says Ved. “In 2020, he emerged as a thought leader relating to all topics of running a lean, efficient and freedom-based distributorship. Sam’s breakout session at the PPAI Expo was met with such enthusiasm that PPAI scheduled him for future sessions, webinars and guest articles in PPB magazine. His flagship podcast "The Sam & Serg Show" was named to Silicon Valley’s top 25 podcasts placing No. 2 on the list. Sam has been on the Santa Clara Chamber Board of Directors for four years and chaired the Silicon Valley’s most influential networking group (The Silicon Valley Young Professionals) for three years.”

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? COVID-19 has given all of us an opportunity to breathe and reflect on what we want in life and business. For me, I want to help more people pursue the business of their dreams through my coaching. 

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I learned that I am fit for service and ready to answer the call to help others new in the entrepreneurial game.

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? I think our industry is bright—we have a lot of progressive companies popping up, especially with the emergence of commonsku.

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? I’m optimistic about the future of how we look at work. I see the outdated model of “work/life balance” shifting to what I call “soul/life balance.” I see us having a greater focus on how we are living our lives and coming to the realization that too much of an emphasis has been on work.

Who or what inspires you and why? Aubrey Marcus and my fellow homies in Fit For Service inspire me. I’m extremely passionate about surrounding myself with like-minded people who are on a mission to help more people pursue their highest excitement and cross the threshold that is the hero’s journey.

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? I see myself helping hundreds of entrepreneurs launch their business by building out intentional road maps that include the use of working with virtual assistants to support their efforts.

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? The industry can continue to be mindful about the products we use and source items that are actually useful to the recipients. Young professionals have always been very cognizant of waste and they recognize wasteful items as quickly as they love seeing swag that is tasteful and serves a purpose. 

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Done is better than perfect. We can plan ourselves to the extent of exhaustion. I recommend taking bold action and, through doing so, you will realize what works and what you need to tweak. 

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Jason Loui joined online distributor AnyPromo.com in early 2016 as an SEO consultant at the recommendation of a former mentor and boss. Previously, Loui had worked in digital marketing for in-house marketing departments and agencies after earning a degree in business marketing from Cal State University Northridge in 2008. 

Loui received 21 nominations for Rising Star, all from industry suppliers, including Larry Baida at Ariel Premium Supply. “Jason and his marketing team are always forward-thinking and on the cutting edge of technology and online sales,” Baida says. “Jason continues to be the go-to contact for anything relating to online sales. He’s years ahead of the industry as a whole. What impresses me is his creativity—like when he developed the first ecommerce distributor membership program as well as cutting-edge ad tracking and data mining. Always thinking [of] the big picture, innovative and forward-thinking.” 

Nominator Marco Indrio at Alpi International says, “With no management background, he grew his department from one to six people and in turn has grown double-digit sales annually.” 

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? Luckily, COVID-19 and the lockdown hasn’t affected me in too harsh of a way. Yes, I miss going out with friends, eating at restaurants and going to the movies. I’ve had to make some hard decisions and adjust to working remotely. But all these seem trivial compared to what others are experiencing and facing right now. On the other hand, I get to spend a lot more time with my two-year-old daughter who is the most consistent source of fun I have ever had. Also, having some extra time to catch up on some TV and exercise isn’t hurting either. 

What have you learned about yourself during this time? With all of the downtime we have with the stay-at-home orders, you can’t help reflecting and rediscovering who you are and what matters most. I learned that all of the little luxuries in life can be gone. We all work hard to be able to travel, experience new things and spend time with friends and family, but whether it’s a pandemic or natural disaster, tomorrow and its freedoms are not guaranteed. So, make the most of today, live it to the fullest and enjoy as much as you can. I also realized it’s easy to get caught up in life and make yourself busy. Once that all stops, you realize what you miss and love the most.

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? I think we are all concerned about the number of in-person events which will happen in the short term. Historically, we have always worked through pandemics and they eventually go away, but the amount of rebuilding which has to happen for us to reach “normal” again can feel daunting. However, I am proud to be part of an industry that was able to pivot so quickly and fulfill the needs of customers and clients in their time of need with PPE products.

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? At the time of writing this, it looks like countries that encountered the virus (before us) are reopening and their economy is returning back to pre-COVID levels pretty quickly. I am also noticing a shift in the quality and level of products being offered. A lot more brands and retail quality items are available. Additionally, cause marketing and giveback programs are also quickly making their way into our industry. 

Who or what inspires you and why? The late Kobe Bryant inspires me. His pursuit of excellence, work ethic, perseverance, ability to lead by example, holding his teammates accountable, being a great dad and his passion for storytelling are all things that I admire and will continue to strive to emulate. Rest in peace, Kobe. 

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? We always have aggressive growth goals every year but, outside of that, I want to work on my storytelling and branding skills. At AnyPromo I think we do a good job at testing new concepts, optimizing our internal processes and having a good online presence, but those things can only take you so far. We can’t continue to grow unless we begin to leave a more profound and lasting impact on our customers. In addition to this, I would also like to give back to the industry which has given me so much.

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? One huge advantage our industry has is the ability to leave a lasting impression and tell a compelling story through experiences. Before starting to work in this industry roughly four years ago, I didn’t know it even existed. Yes, I had exhibited at trade shows and been to some car shows, but had no idea there was this huge industry behind it all. I think as more brands and influencers continue to stand for ideas, causes, etc. and push their own merch, this will help bring more awareness to our industry. Maybe for younger folks, instead of the promotional product industry, it will appeal to them if we spin it as the “merch and swag” industry. Going back to what I mentioned about experiences, I think more awareness and recruitment efforts can be put forth by simply inviting college students (focusing on relevant majors) to events like those hosted by Specialty Advertising Association of California and the other regional associations. Also inviting and throwing more parties wouldn’t hurt either. This industry is fun, and we just need to invite more people.

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Have fun! Collaborate with your peers, customers and vendors. Learn from the previous generation, but also look to blaze your own path. Invest in sharpening your digital marketing skills. You will eventually conclude that there is a special kind of magical feeling you get when you help create a client’s event and it goes perfectly. Help shape and seek to create these moments as much as you can.

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William Lovelace grew up with two different career paths in mind, and after completing a certificate in firefighting at South Plains College in 2010, he became a professional firefighter in Artesia, New Mexico. But eventually a passion for his side business—one he’d had since he was 15, engraving high-quality pens—drew him back and in 2012, he left firefighting and he and his wife moved to Austin to expand the business to include tumblers, dog tags and other products under the name Diamondback Branding. In 2015, he brought the company into the promotional products industry. Six years ago, he was working out of his garage; now he’s just moved the company into a 27,000-square-foot space, and sales in 2019 exceeded $10 million.

“During the beginning of the pandemic, William fought long and hard to figure out how to keep every single one of his employees while continuing to give standard paychecks,” says employee Stephanie Macpherson, one of his nominators. “He had planned this before there was ever talk about a stimulus from the government. The solution was to invest a good amount of money into turning Diamondback Branding into a PPE manufacturing facility within just days.” 

Nominator and employee Kaitlin Kurtz says, “Last year, Diamondback Branding, LLC hit its best year in sales, decorating a massive number of products—so much so that we had a hard time keeping up with all the orders coming in. We had to double our staff.” 

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? Overall, I think COVID-19 has had a pretty significant negative impact on both my personal and professional life. The biggest impact for me was having to work three or four times as much to keep our company afloat through this all. Before the lockdown, Diamondback was on its third consecutive million-dollar month. I am hopeful that the industry and the world will be able to get through this and move forward into the new world, however that may look.

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I learned that the resilience of my team and the family atmosphere that we built was key in getting through the rough time. 

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? Data and fear. I think that the promotional industry, as a whole, is behind in technical data transmission. There are too many manual steps between suppliers and distributors that need to be removed. Fear itself, I see as the most dangerous aspect facing the promo world right now. Most of this industry was built on handshakes and networking relationships. We must be careful not to let COVID-19 scare us from being people and doing business. 

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? The way I look at it, the world will still be spinning tomorrow. It’s unfortunate the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on small businesses. We, as a team, will just look for other companies. As one fails, another is launched or grows larger. There are plenty of opportunities for growth in the promotional products industry.

Who or what inspires you and why? I am inspired to be different. I feel the need to prove that anyone can do anything. I did not need a degree to start a successful company. We did not need strict corporate policies to run a successful company.

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? I want to improve myself as a solid leader. From leading my family to leading Diamondback. I want to embrace some of the fears I do have, to help myself grow—things like public speaking, attending more networking events and being more outgoing. 

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? [The industry needs] more technology and more young people in general. It was very frightening going to our first PPAI Expo. I still remember several encounters with people who would not talk to me at the booth because we did not look like a big, established company. It’s almost like we had to claw our way up the ladder of old habits and old companies. Embrace new companies, embrace new people and get young speakers at events.

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Don’t give up. If you had told me 10 years ago I would be leading a multi-million-dollar company with nearly 40 employees, I simply would not have believed it. Time moves fast, so move faster. Rope your dreams in and make them happen.

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Sometimes you find what you are looking for, even if you don’t know you are looking. After graduating from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in sociology, Kate Masewich was working at a small boutique insurance company as a marketing coordinator. Her roommate at the time, who was working for an industry supplier, heard commonsku President Mark Graham speak at an industry event, connected with him later on LinkedIn and saw his job posting for a marketing manager. The roommate relayed the news to Masewich who interviewed and landed the job. Three years later, in 2018, she was promoted to her current position. 

Nominators and co-workers Gabriella Asenjo and Alyson Brunton describe Masewich as one of the most adaptive people they know. “Among all the challenges of her current position, we decided as a company to launch a ‘commonsku sessions’ event, a four-city sales workshop tour. Kate never batted an eye and began researching and becoming an expert in each city. With the branding, software, content, swag and marketing campaign for the event under her supervision, we were able to turn the idea around from ideation to launch in under one month.”

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? commonsku is a cloud-based software and we practice what we preach, so to speak. The team is set up to work remotely with everything accessible from anywhere. The transition from office to home wasn’t difficult, but I miss seeing my team every day in the office. The biggest challenge was managing projects as COVID was unfolding. It has been a very unique time to be a marketer, especially since marketing budgets are typically the first to be slashed in a time of crisis. It’s been a lot of learning on my feet. But I am fortunate that I have a job to keep me busy. Not being able to see the people that I love, or know when that time will be, has been the worst part about COVID.

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I’ve learned to be more flexible, which I’ve always struggled with. I manage a lot of different projects for different departments and a lot of those projects came to a grinding halt when COVID hit. I had to learn to sift through all of the ideas our team was throwing out and pick the ones that would yield long-term success and not just cater to short-term trends, especially since the world was changing so rapidly around us. I also learned that it is OK to lean on people for support. I like to think of myself as Wonder Woman, but even Wonder Woman needs some help conquering the universe. 

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? I’m excited about the future of the promo industry. I’ve always had concerns about the environmental impact of this industry, and I think that this crisis has really helped it remember that every product ordered is intended to serve a purpose. With more products shipping directly to clients’ homes, our distributors and suppliers are considering the entire experience from packaging to the items themselves. I hope this conscientiousness continues post-COVID.

Who or what inspires you and why? I’m inspired by our co-founders Catherine and Mark Graham and their vision for the future of this industry. They are focused and passionate, and have assembled a team of truly diverse and wonderful people. It’s an honor to be a part of their journey. I’m also inspired by the resiliency and persistence of the human spirit that we’ve witnessed during this time. It brings me hope that men and women around the world can prevail in response to this extraordinary challenge. 

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? I would like to grow our marketing team so we can focus on producing even more educational resources for this industry through events, online education and written content.

How can the industry attract, recruit, and retain more young professionals? By changing their priorities to being more inclusive, more environmentally conscious and embracing technology.

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Find a company with goals that align with what you’re passionate about. Work hard. Understand your strengths and weaknesses and ask for help when you need it. Most importantly, have fun!

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Like many, Rachel Minogue wasn’t aware of the promotional products industry until she saw Chicago-based distributor Monarch & Company’s job post for an account coordinator in 2017. Minogue was fresh out of the University of Kentucky with a degree in integrated strategic communications and was ready for her next challenge. 

Although she lacked experience, the company principals saw something special in Minogue and offered her the job. “She’s a rare blend of creative and analytical and has a tremendous ability to always take the next hard step,” says nominator and Chief Operating Officer Anna Nguyen. “She is always pushing for feedback to make her better and expand her mindset to see possibilities rather than obstacles. In her first two years, she started running custom kits and projects for brands like Malibu, Jameson, Continental Tire, Absolut, Corona and Maker’s Mark, and last year her sales exceeded $1 million.” 

Nguyen adds, “She’s so bubbly and insightful, and has a knack for sourcing, creativity and client service that is miles ahead of her years of experience. She truly embodies the future of our industry and I believe has the ability to inspire all generations with her story.”

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? Personally, my fiancé and I had to make the tough decision to postpone our wedding twice. It has been the right move for us, and we look forward to May 13, 2021. In addition, we live in a 700 square-foot apartment with our 70-pound black lab, Booker, so it has been an adventure of walks, new card games, Netflix and trying out new beers and hard seltzers.

Professionally, my normal, unpredictable day is even more unpredictable now. We are flexing and developing different muscles while continuing to do what we do best: unleashing creativity. As a team, we are focusing on what we can control, how we can best support our event-based clients and generating ahead-of-the-curve ideas, all while working from separate homes. 

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I have learned to remind myself to focus on the things we can control and adapt from there while staying true to myself and who Monarch is. I love what I do, and if I can take this time to slow down and reprioritize a little while still creating and staying true to Monarch’s values and brand, then this time, while unplanned and far from ideal, was valuable. I know there are several things I have had the time to discover during the lockdown that I look forward to bringing forward.

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? What concerns me the most is the possibility that we may not get to see our colleagues, partners and industry friends in person for a long time. There is always a book of new learnings coming back from the PPAI Expo and all of the surrounding events that week, many of them stemming from face-to-face conversations and interactions: new perspectives, new product ideas, new selling techniques, new platforms or plugins, etc. It is such a reinvigorating time and I hope that we can find a way to come together and still have a week of learning and networking. 

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? I am most optimistic about Monarch moving forward with a whole new toolbox of ideas and strategies that we have developed and refined during the lockdown. In addition, we have taken this time to reflect and determine how we can revise our mission and vision based on some of our shutdown discoveries. As an industry, we have all been forced to adapt and grow in ways that are not natural, which brings the industry as a whole to a new level. I always knew this industry was a force to be reckoned with, but I never imagined us taking on a pandemic and coming out on top.

Who or what inspires you and why? I am inspired by the way our CEO Yvonne Zeman and COO Anna Nguyen have led Monarch to lean into the pandemic and push ourselves to new heights, individually and as a team. We are truly learning, adapting and growing every day by asking our clients (and ourselves) curious and hard questions, positioning ourselves in a way that we think will have the greatest impact (with social, blogs and clients) and taking chances that are nerve-wracking and uncomfortable at times. The way my team shows up every day inspires me to keep pushing myself to lean into the uncomfortable because uncomfortable equals growth.    

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? One thing at the top of my list for the next 24 months is a Mastermind group for account-level industry professionals. I think there is a huge need for account-level team members to be able to learn, share and grow from talking with others going through similar scenarios. From sharing projects and finds or requesting advice for anything from a vendor recommendation to problem-solving with a client, others’ perspectives can be some of the best learning out there. 

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? Continuing to talk, share and engage with up-and-coming talent is huge in my opinion. If I am telling someone on the hunt for a job about what I do, even if they weren’t previously interested in the industry, they are now. Too often we hear (I am also a culprit) that you had never even heard of the industry until you were in it—why is that? This industry is huge, and people interact daily with promo products. The more we talk and position ourselves as experts and problem solvers for our clients, the more people will know and want to be a part of the best industry out there. 

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Scrape a knee! There is a lot to learn and some of my most valuable lessons have been from making a mistake (some larger than others) and reflecting and growing. Also, take advantage of the openness you find throughout the industry. From my experience, everyone is willing to share, have a conversation and support you—especially when you are just starting out. Ask questions, absorb the answers, practice, practice, practice, request feedback and be confident in the moves you make. It won’t always be glamorous, and it may never be easy, but it will all pay off. 

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Kate Plummer officially started working at supplier Clearmount as office manager in 2007—but unofficially she’s been working at her family’s company since she was six years old. In those days, she stuffed catalogs, assembled boxes, took inventory and similar tasks. Like some who grow up in family-owned companies, Plummer was willing to work there temporarily but was adamantly opposed to making it her career. After earning a degree in English from the University of Western Ontario in 2007, she filled in as office manager at Clearmount until she could find another job. “I was only going to work temporarily for my family and then go off and never work for my parents again. I ended up moving into a customer service role, then a sales role and then, as we grew, my role and responsibilities grew,” she says. “I’ve loved (almost) every minute of it. They’ve encouraged and motivated me so much.”

“Kate came into the family business with no expectation of anything being given to her—she expected to earn it from the ground up and on her own terms,” says nominator Kippie Helzel, MAS, of Keystone/CPS. “When she agreed to lead the sales of Clearmount’s new line/division, SIGG—a very specific and high-end line that was very different from their core products—Kate saw no boundaries, just opportunity.” Plummer has also made a name for herself as an active industry volunteer for PPAI committees, Promotional Product Professionals of Canada's Women’s Empowerment Event Committee, the PPAI Women’s Leadership Conference Work Group and as a PromoKitchen chef. 

“Kate is someone I admire tremendously, and someone I turn to regularly for inspiration or sometimes just a good laugh—and technically speaking, we are competitors,” says nominator Kate Kailik at Spector & Co., who has known Plummer for the past seven years.

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? It’s been incredibly tough. We were mandated by the Ontario government to shut down operations in March and only reopened in June. Being closed and having the massive uncertainty of “what’s next?” has been stressful. We chose not to pivot to PPE and I questioned myself every week about that. It was a great chance as a company to take a breath and reevaluate what we were doing. We have redone websites, changed accounting systems and reworked order processes. Would I have preferred being busy writing up orders? Of course! But I took the statement of “you can’t use ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse not to do something big during the pandemic” to heart. I mean, I ended up being busier than ever, but the goal was always that when we were allowed to re-open, we would hit the ground running. 

Personally, it’s been tough time, too. I have a lot of friends and family members who are in the high-risk category. It’s incredibly frustrating to see the debate over wearing a mask. We need to think about masks as an act of kindness to others—making not only yourself safe but those who need an extra layer of protection.

What have you learned about yourself during this time? There is a lot of talk that the pandemic has exposed the flaws in systems and people that were hidden by easier times. While I think that we truly can’t be reflective when we’re still in the thick of it, I do think that it’s made me better. With a lot of clutter and “busy” brushed away, I’ve had to focus on what’s important to me—what energizes me and what steals that energy away. 

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? I’m worried that we’re going to step back from sustainability. The nature of COVID-19 is that it’s put fear in us for reusable items. Some grocery stores are not allowing you to bring your own bags, and gloves and masks get thrown out after one use. We went from thinking of the multiple uses for an item to thinking of single-use items. The promo industry is already fighting against the perception of trinkets and trash, so we need to put more intention into our product development and functionality. We can’t move backwards on sustainability. 

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? We have such interesting and creative people entering the industry. There is still an old guard who thinks “this is the way we’ve always done things,” but we have creative thinkers reinventing collaboration, product use and design. 

Who or what inspires you and why? My mom has always been a driving force for me. Losing her four years ago was such a shock to my system. Her values live on, though. She always had the mindset that if you have it to give, you give. That can be time, talent or treasure. So many people have come to me over the years telling me of the impact she had on their lives and careers. This is what I want to aim for. Your impact doesn’t have to be a big gesture to have long-lasting ripples. Being kind, listening and being supportive can be so powerful.

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? If anything, I’ve learned during this time to not forecast farther than a few months. You need to remain nimble and adaptive to change. I want to continue to grow Clearmount. I think the need to recognize and reward employees is going to be greater than ever. I want to push for change of more inclusive and connected cultures. I also love the work that I am doing as co-chair of the nonprofit PromoKitchen. It’s focused on education, mentorship and community in the promotional products industry and we’re having amazing conversations about diversity and growth. I want us to be able to enact real change in the industry and be a starting point for people just joining the industry. A rising tide raises all boats and we want to be moving that tide towards inclusion and excellence. 

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? We need to start looking [for people] in non-traditional ways. This industry can be very white and very male so it’s important that we make changes where we can. When you’re looking to hire, advertise in new spaces, think hard about what you’re lacking and hire for that. Think about internships and scholarships at historically Black colleges and universities, expand out from the usual and look for people who don’t think like you. They’re the ones who will keep innovating when you might be stuck. Look for a counterpoint instead of a “yes” person. By being a more dynamic and creative space, we will be able to attract and retain young professionals. We don’t want to age ourselves out of relevance. 

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Ask for help. Don’t always waste your time trying to figure it out on your own. Ask for help and learn what was done before. Then you take that knowledge, take what works for you and do your own thing. Don’t dismiss guidance and wisdom from others. You don’t have to always follow what they say, but it’s given because people think it’s valuable and at some point, they wished they had followed it. 

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Alicia Skipper was a stay-at-home mom who was ready to return to the workforce when a high school friend pointed out a job opening at distributor PromoPros/Incent Pros, Inc. The position was order specialist and Skipper began work in March 2016. “I had no prior knowledge of the industry,” says Skipper, who has a degree in theater from Texas State University, “but now I cannot imagine working anywhere else.”

Nominator Leslie Roark, president of PromoPros/Incent Pros, describes Skipper as a jack of all trades and a master of several. “She handles many things for us, and in her four years of employment with us, has become an invaluable member of our team. It was clear soon after we hired her that she had what it takes to be very successful in our business, our industry, our little company. She’s a resourceful, hard-working woman and able to wear many hats on a daily/hourly basis.” 

Roark adds that Skipper handles pricing for clients, all of the promotional products orders and order tracking, and has become the company’s resident promo guru. “She can tell you who carries what, who to deal with in that company, what new products they have, etc. Because of this knowledge, she is the one I like to have with me at all client meetings. And she does all the client voiceovers for client videos.” 

Skipper believes in getting involved and has served on the PPAI SPARK Work Group for the past two years. 

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? Personally, as a single mother, it gave me the opportunity to spend more quality time with my two beautiful sons (ages six and eight). Professionally, I feel I was able to prove to myself; my organizational skills came in great use while attempting to work from home during the crisis and homeschooling my sons.

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I learned that time is just a construct, and that I was most productive at night while my boys were sleeping.

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? How we will continue to prove the necessity of our industry (with the associated costs that come along with our advertising medium)? Also, the necessity of no-contact events has affected the way we, as a whole, create, process and deliver the highest-quality orders to our clients. 

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? I feel this time has given my company a chance to show our clients how to best utilize our services, and how we are able to come up with creative solutions to their new problems.

Who or what inspires you and why? My good friend and boss, Leslie Roark. The level at which she insists on treating the importance of every order, no matter how small, is awe-inspiring. I hope to one day be able emulate her grace and care that she so successfully gives every client.

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? I would like to build our client portfolio on both sides of the business (promo and incentives), while still giving the same level of care to every client. I would also like to continue to stay involved in volunteering with PPAI, if they will have me.

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? I think we are already doing as much as we can with our outreach but continuing to push our industry in conjunction with advertising to schools to get awareness for our industry is a must.

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Get involved, think outside the box and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The ability we have to learn from those more experienced than us is unprecedented within our industry. But also, don’t be afraid to make your thoughts and experiences known to those around you. And get involved with SPARK!

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When Justin Washburn entered Kent State University in 2000, he wanted to pursue a career in business management and logistics. Fast forward five years and he was following a different path selling commercial cabinetry and countertops. But when the company had to scale back, Washburn’s position was eliminated. Looking for a fresh start, he approached a friend about the promo industry and went to work as a sales rep for another Proforma company in 2010 before becoming a company owner himself three years later.

Fellow Proforma owner and nominator Anthony Carpenter of distributor The Branded Creation has known and volunteered alongside Washburn for the past two years. “Justin was a founding member of the Proforma NEXT Under 40 group. He and his wife chaired the Membership committee and he now serves as vice president of the group. Justin is a mentor and a speaker at a local college business entrepreneurship program to educate the next generation about promotional products,” he says, adding that Washburn has also shared his expertise by serving on several panels at Proforma events.

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? COVID-19 has affected me, but mostly early on. Being that I started in this industry during a financial crisis, I unintentionally found myself selling predominantly to higher education facilities. On top of that, COVID-19 hit right at the same time my schools typically clear out their budget for the end of the fiscal year. We took an early-onset hit due to this. The silver lining is that it really helped me realign my time with my family. I also learned that I do not much care for assembling large jigsaw puzzles. 

What have you learned about yourself during this time? More diversification. I had been slowly working to diversify my client list more into the private sector before COVID-19. The pandemic has just expedited the process. After starting/surviving the mid-2000s, I never would have thought I would be hurting my business by focusing on federally funded entities, such as universities. 

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? Other than the fact that life as we know it will most likely never return, as long as we pivot to the industry’s needs, I think we will be fine. Staying malleable is going to be key. 

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? My optimism stems from the tools and support I have received from my Proforma family and support center. Early on, Proforma took the necessary steps to make certain their owners were able to provide their communities with proper and certified PPE products, along with focusing on the areas of businesses that were still making purchases during these trying times. 

Who or what inspires you and why? I think there are two factors here worth mentioning. The local community’s resilience and whether it is post-hurricane or during a health pandemic, the fabric of our community is so tightly knit. It amazes me how everyone comes together in a time of need. There is a core group of Proforma franchise owners, including my fellow NEXT Under 40 members, with whom I speak regularly. I am inspired by their individual accomplishments, willingness to share knowledge and unyielding mindset to succeed.  

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? Continue a steady growth model, the addition of one to two quality sales representatives and self-sustainability, so I could rest easy if I wanted to step away from the business and take a vacation.

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? As a current member of Proforma’s NEXT Under 40, our group focus is exactly that. As a newly founded group, we are mostly focused on networking and education, shedding light on the opportunities our industry can provide.  

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? Considering the current challenges at hand, if I could offer any advice I would say that diversification would be at the top of my list: client diversity, product diversity and vendor diversity. It gives us the ability to survive and even thrive in most any situation. It naturally instills a backup plan into your book of business and could make pivoting your focus for success a little easier. 

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Tiffany Wu grew up in the promo industry as the daughter of supplier Bagworld owner Danny Wu. He founded the Los Angeles-based family-owned bag supplier when she was five years old. Over the years, she helped with administrative tasks in the summers but never expected to join the company full time—her interests were wedding photography (she had her own business while at the University of Southern California) and was a marketing intern at Lionsgate, a major film studio. After graduating from USC in 2016 with a degree in business administration, she joined Bagworld’s sales team part-time while continuing her photography business. “I found myself loving the promotional products industry, and in 2018, I officially joined Bagworld full-time in the sales and marketing department,” she says.   

Molly Neises at Maple Ridge Farms, one of five nominators, explains why Wu impresses her as a Rising Star. “Tiffany’s thirst for knowledge is unmatched. She seeks out opportunities for both networking and knowledge building. At the 2020 PPAI Expo, she attended the PromoKitchen mixer and spent a large amount of time engaging in thought-provoking questions, and enlisted in the PK Mentorship program. She now comes to each of those meetings with a long list of questions on varied topics (from marketing to operations to sales), eager to learn and ask the tough questions. I learn from her during each meeting as well—as she forces me to think about ‘why’ we do something, not just how. She is continually looking for any and all opportunities to grow her company’s exposure, clientele and business.”

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? From a personal level, COVID-19 has brought my family closer since my younger siblings have been home from school. We’ve been watching more movies together and trying to motivate each other to stay healthy by swimming and running together. On a professional level, Bagworld has recently switched into PPE products including masks, thermometers and sanitizers. These products are new to our industry, but I’m happy that suppliers are responding to COVID-19 by pivoting to provide these essential items. I’m also thankful to see that our bags have found new uses during COVID-19. While I knew that our clear bags would be used as security bags for employees, I didn’t expect to see them used as bags for medical supplies. With many restaurants delivering, we have also seen an increase in our grocery and cooler bags. We have seen so many changes over the past few months, and I appreciate our marketing team for adapting so quickly to provide relevant sales tools for our distributors. It’s a great feeling being able to provide essential items during this time.

What have you learned about yourself during this time? I learned that I’m able to adapt more quickly than I expected. Our company has never added in so many new products over the course of a few days, and we have been busier than ever. My dad has been in charge of sourcing all the new PPE products, and I have had to take over in implementing the new products into our line. It’s been a challenge, but I’m excited to see so many opportunities for Bagworld to answer the need for these products during this time.

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? My concern is the drop in large events. The promotional products industry thrives on events, so it’s going to take some time for us to recover as events continue to get cancelled or postponed. A lot of stock items will stay in the warehouse and it may be difficult to find a use for them without those events. 

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? I am optimistic seeing how both suppliers and distributors have responded to COVID-19. None of us have really been involved in the PPE business, but it’s amazing seeing our industry respond to the need and providing those services. 

Who or what inspires you and why? My dad has been a huge inspiration to me during this time. As many companies went through huge layoffs, our staff was scared they were next. He reminded them that in 2008, during the recession, he was able to take Bagworld to the next level and this time would be no different. Since most of the staff has been with the company for 10-plus years and experienced that with him, it restored their confidence. I am thankful we have not had to lay-off anyone, and I’m proud of the team for working even harder now to grow the business. I’m also amazed watching my dad aggressively source the PPE products for our line. He recognized the need and immediately jumped in. It’s an inspiration being able to watch him respond in a time of crisis, and it will be a growing experience for me to go through this with him.  

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? At the beginning of the year, I was working with our sales team to increase our sales by about 10 percent. With the growth that we’ve been seeing with the PPE products, I’m targeting a 15-20-percent increase. It’s been a challenge since everything is moving so quickly, but I’m proud of the staff and my goal is to work with them to continue to grow the company. Our priority is being able to have all of our staff keep their jobs and provide a need in the industry for the essential products.    

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? I think a lot of young people don’t know about the industry since it’s backend marketing. They can be recruited through college job boards, internship positions and postings on places like LinkedIn, Indeed, Monster, etc. Promotional products positions need to be marketed as creative jobs. We are more than just putting logos on products—we are here to provide solutions and needed goods. 

Young professionals can be retained with a fair salary and engaging them beyond day-to-day mundane tasks. I see high turnover when they are hired just for tasks like order entry. It’s important to be open to hearing their ideas or letting them try new positions if they are interested. Being able to retain employees is a huge value-add to the company. 

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? The best advice I can give is not being afraid of talking to people and being open to making friends. I’ve made so many friends simply from saying “hi” to the person next to me while waiting for a class to start at SAAC and PPAI events. These professional friends have become the best mentors and personal friends, too. 

The other advice I have is being open to making supplier and distributor friends. I see people hesitating, thinking they don’t want to befriend their “competition,” but that’s not the case at all in our industry. Many of the professionals you meet in promotional products are the nicest people you’ll ever know. Having friends on the same supplier or distributor level as you is also great since they can provide advice and their experiences when you need it.

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When Colton Young was in his senior year at the University of Minnesota in 2015, he came across supplier Storm Creek while searching for post-graduation job opportunities. He contacted the owners Doug Jackson and Teresa Fudenberg but no positions were open at the time. Young kept the relationship going, checking back frequently, and when a position became available a few months later, as he was about to graduate, he interviewed and was hired as account manager. Based on his performance, Young was promoted to assistant sales manager and then to his current position. Always one to pursue personal growth, Young is currently working to earn his MBA at the Carlson School of Business Management at the University of Minnesota and plans to graduate in 2021.

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on your life both personally and professionally? Personally, my girlfriend and I have spent more time in our apartment than I ever thought possible, and let me be the first to say that an 800-square-foot apartment is not meant for 24-hour living for weeks at a time. During COVID-19, my travel plans were cancelled, and my spring and summer plans switched from traveling to spending most of my free time golfing as an excuse to be outside. Like many others during this time, I also found new ways to connect and reconnect with friends and family members. 

Professionally, the COVID-19 lockdown has changed how I communicate with our customers. Storm Creek has had to come up with new ways to work with customers and deliver messages that are relevant and beneficial to distributors and their customers during this time. It has also impacted working relationships; people who used to be within a shouting distance to ask a quick question are now out of sight, so it has led to an increased planning of meetings and check-ins. Communication has been tested, but as a whole, I feel like the expectations and directions have become clearer and more concise.  

What did you learn about yourself during this time? I have learned to be an empathetic leader. Work/life balance is important in any position and now, more than ever, that balance is out of whack and every individual has a different situation to deal with at home. Understanding and making sure everyone feels comfortable so that they can express their challenges during this time has led to mutual understanding and productive conversations on adaptability and priority-setting that works for all parties involved. 

During COVID-19, I have also learned that it’s alright to not have the right answer. No one during this time knows exactly what to do, what to say or how to react to everything that is going on and I have learned to be OK with not knowing exactly what to do, and have even relayed that to my team. This has allowed for more discussions on the problems that we are facing throughout all levels of the company and has also led to solutions from all members of the Storm Creek team.  

What concerns you most about the future of the promo products industry? One of my concerns with the future of the industry is how we can transform the perception of being a wasteful industry and become leaders in pushing sustainable items. As a whole, how do we transition from pushing single-use items at low price points to pushing items that have a sustainability factor to them and can be reused? This industry has the power to transform consumer expectations with our products, and it starts with us making the change, not waiting for the consumer demand to change. 

What are you most optimistic about moving forward? I’m optimistic about the continued opportunities to personalize the services that are offered for customers. Suppliers are all continuing to move and invest in an on-demand fulfillment model, which is leading to deeper relationships and more communication between suppliers and distributors, and stronger relationships for distributors and their clients. This model allows for a custom experience for consumers with quicker lead times and lower minimums that are expected by consumers. This model also continues to push the envelope with technology capabilities that are strengthening the industry.

Who or what inspires you and why? I am inspired and energized by being part of growing a company. One of the things that drew me to Storm Creek and continues to excite me is where the company can go and the impact that I can make along the way. The sky’s the limit. Being part of a smaller company has allowed me to have experiences that some people will never have. On a daily basis, I get to be a part of making decisions that change how the company interacts with our customers and get to strategize about how we can position ourselves best for the future. To me, the changes that we are making are exciting because they allow us to grow and become stronger as a company. From a personal side of things, it allows me to grow as an individual, too.  

What would you like to accomplish over the next 24 months? Personally, I would like to graduate from my MBA program, become involved with a charity organization and travel to two countries that I have never been to before. Professionally, I would like to continue to grow the Storm Creek brand, hit our sales numbers, become more involved in the national organizations within the promotional products industry and work on delegating tasks to my team so that I can focus on what is most important for my role and our business. 

How can the industry attract, recruit and retain more young professionals? I believe that in general, to attract and recruit young professionals the industry needs to step out of the shadows and that applies to distributors and suppliers. The industry flies under the radar and most people don’t stop to think about where their logoed products come from. The more exposure the industry can get, the better suited it will be to attract young talent (although that is easier said than done). I also believe that there needs to be more young professionals brought in as salespeople by distributors. This gives distributors an opportunity to mentor young professionals, grow their business and can even provide a transition strategy for distributors once they decide to make the move into retirement or scale back on their workload.  

What’s the best advice you can give others who are just starting out? The biggest piece of advice I would give is to listen. As a young professional in the promotional products industry, people genuinely want to help you and want to see you succeed. Ask questions and actively listen to the answers and advice that people share with you. This will allow you to gain insight into the industry, learn some of the issues the industry is facing and give you the opportunity to recommend changes based on what you know and are hearing. 

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Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB. 

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Comments (1)
Heather Comerford
September 1, 2020
Amazing line up this year! So excited to work with all of you in the years to come!
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