PPB's 2021 Rising Stars

 

It’s human nature to look back at how things have been done in the past. But the future is about looking ahead, and these 12 PPB Rising Stars are among those who will light the way forward for the promo industry. 

Since 2010, PPB has been spotlighting exceptional up-and-coming leaders with the help of nominations from across the industry. 

Fearless, innovative and inspiring, this year’s class of Rising Stars brings originality and unstoppable enthusiasm for what the industry can and should be. 

Read on as they share their optimism and concerns for the industry, what most inspires them and their best advice for others who are just starting their careers.  

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Kirsten Elliott never dreamed she would have a career that combined wine and sales, but she found the perfect match when she joined supplier A+ Wine Designs in 2016. 

After graduating from Point Loma Nazarene University with a degree in business administration, Elliott went to work in advertising sales. When she was ready for her next move, she saw an A+ Wine Designs sales position while searching on Indeed.com. “Who knew that sales and wine could land me in the promo industry?” she says.

The company’s COO Jim Ristuccia, who nominated her as a Rising Star, saw something special in Elliott when he hired her as a salesperson five years ago. Not only did Elliott’s expertise earn her a promotion heading up the five-member sales and marketing teams, but Ristuccia also says Elliott has been instrumental in the company winning four PPAI Pyramid awards over the past year and 12 Pyramids over the past four years that recognize quality, collaboration and customer service. “Kirsten does an amazing job of managing all the diverse functions within her role, from publishing an outstanding catalog and keeping our website and databases current, to developing innovative ways to keep the sales force engaged and productive, to working with clients to solve their promotional product needs. She’s a phenomenal sales professional with the utmost respect and concern for the customer,” says Ristuccia.

He’s also impressed with how Elliott managed the sales team through the pandemic in which sales more than doubled in 2020 over 2019. “Kirsten did a really first-rate job dealing with all the issues associated with compressed growth including customer complaints, supply issues, price changes, partner relations and keeping good communication with customers. She’s a collaborative leader. I trust her judgement and always seek her counsel before making major changes. She has a good grasp of what is going on morale-wise and has great suggestions on how to make work fun and engaging.”

Biggest challenge in the past year: I would say inventory—across the board. Whether it was inventory on personal items (toilet paper, cleaning supplies, pantry items) or inventory in the supply chain, it was challenging. I found the best way to combat that was by planning ahead and being flexible and as transparent as possible. In the industry, it’s important to work as a team (suppliers and distributors) to reach the end goal.

Proudest career accomplishment: Honestly, being a PPB Rising Star. Being recognized in an industry of this size is an honor.

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: I’m excited to see how the industry embraces technology moving forward. The pandemic taught us a lot of things and there were some silver linings. I hope to see more virtual opportunities in the coming years with easier ways to connect with people across the country.

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: I would say the rise of end users being able to go direct. It all comes down to the end user. Sometimes you have more time than money, and sometimes you have more money than time. The beauty of the promo industry is that end users typically get “white glove treatment” [when using distributors] compared to going direct.

Inspiration: Brené Brown [renowned research professor and best-selling author]. I think living a life of authenticity and vulnerability can be truly rewarding.

To accomplish in the next 24 months: A+ Wine Designs is fortunate enough to be in a growth spurt. I’m excited to see what the growth will look like and how far I can push it.

Ideas to recruit and retain young pros to the industry: By adapting to the changing times. Our industry is all about networking, and this year has taught us to embrace technology and creativity.

Best advice for them: Welcome to the family! Once you enter into this world, the opportunities are endless.

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While working in her first job as an IT specialist, Kristen Filzer realized she was in the wrong career. The job seemed like the right choice after earning a degree in human resource management and information systems, and an MBA in information systems in 2015. But within a few years, she wasn’t getting the job satisfaction she desired. “I started looking for something that was a better fit, and I was introduced to The Image Group through a mutual connection,” she says. Filzer began at the distributor as assistant account manager in late 2018 and made an immediate impression on her clients and colleagues, including the company president, Zack Ottenstein, who nominated her for this honor. 

“Kristen quickly demonstrated Rising Star potential,” says Ottenstein, a PPB Rising Star himself in 2018. During Filzer’s tenure, she led the day-to-day activities that grew the distributor’s largest client from $250,000 in annual sales in 2018 to more than $10 million in 2020, making her No. 1 in sales for all account managers in 2020. She is also a graduate of the Leadership Toledo program, which balances community service with personal growth.

“Kristen is magnetic and fearless. There is no initiative too big and no challenge beyond her,” he says. “With only 10 months of time in the organization, Kristen worked on a major rebranding effort for a client with a total value of more than $1 million. Throughout the project, she faced challenges and tackled unfamiliar problems. She never backed down.”   

He adds, “Moreover, Kristen is beloved by her colleagues and her clients. I marvel at the relationships she has built in such a short period of time. Her clients go out of their way to share personally about their lives. They care about her and she cares about them. From associate-level buyers to senior executives, Kristen treats everyone the same. She is cheerful, adventurous and funny. And Kristen is smart—really smart.”  

Biggest challenge in the past year: The biggest challenge I faced this year was relearning all the many roles I play in my life. We all had to learn how to be great virtual team members while staying connected with our colleagues, customers and peers. Then we had to learn the same things in our personal lives: how to be a great family member, friend, partner, etc. The most important thing for me through all of it was to remember the importance of a positive attitude. How you approach a situation has a huge impact on the outcome. I learned the importance of giving others grace, remaining flexible even when it’s hard and supporting those around you the best you can while taking care of yourself.

Proudest career accomplishment: About two-and-a-half years ago, I was in a role I had no passion for with a company I saw no future with. I’m proud of myself for having the courage to leave both behind and start on a completely new path. While it was scary to start over, I am so grateful I did. Almost three short years in this industry and I see a bright future. I show up every day excited to help my customers accomplish their goals. I am passionate about the abundance of ways I can contribute to the growth and success of this company and the industry. I’m excited for the future.

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: I’m continually blown away by the people in this industry. I am optimistic about the incredible blend we have of young professionals who are passionate about innovating and the seasoned industry vets willing to take the time to mentor and further develop strategies. Together, this group will work to develop technical and nontechnical solutions that will allow us to better serve customers, expand our services and become indispensable partners.

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: My biggest concern is the ability for distributors and suppliers to work together efficiently as we continue to grow. We need to take steps to standardize our communications, processes and order management across the entire industry if we are all going to grow together and develop scalable solutions. We’ve taken huge steps, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Inspiration: I am inspired daily by an exceptional group of leaders and mentors in my life. Each demonstrates behaviors and skills that I strive to emulate. I’ve been blessed with their patience as I’ve learned, their unwavering support as I’ve grown and their selfless dedication to my success. Each has taught me valuable lessons about the type of leader I want to become and helped me to believe in myself and the impact I can have.

To accomplish in the next 24 months: Professionally, I intend to create a more efficient way to manage the accounts I oversee in order to become a better partner and continue to offer solutions that add tremendous value. As a leader, I am learning how to better understand others so I can work more cohesively across different teams. Personally, my focus will be on remaining present in order to maximize the time I am finally able to spend with friends and family. 

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: It blows my mind how many people, myself included, say they never heard of the promotional products industry until they started working in it. We should be offering internships, working with college recruiting offices and showcasing how fun promo is in our cities and communities. To retain great talent, companies will need to go beyond a competitive wage and great benefits. Young people entering all industries right now are looking for purpose, the ability to make an impact and opportunities for growth, connection and fun. 

Best advice for them: Dive in, be a sponge, ask a ton of questions and never stop learning. There are so many people in this industry who are excited to help you learn and grow. There are an abundance of opportunities to develop personally and professionally. Take the time to invest in yourself.

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Four years ago, Sabrina Franz, CAS, was working in liquor sales servicing on-premise accounts in the Twin Cities. In her six years of selling well-known brands such as Diageo, Bacardi USA and Red Bull, she became familiar with the promotional products industry, since half of her responsibilities entailed merchandising for large events in the area. When she saw a local job posting for an outside territory rep position at West Jordan, Utah-based supplier SnugZ USA, she was intrigued because it offered everything she loved about her current job without the required evening events. After an initial interview with Sydra Newell, business development manager at SnugZ, she was even more convinced it was the right move. “Sydra was really the person who sealed the deal for me,” says Franz. “I could not have asked for a more amazing woman to interview and chat with about the industry.”

Nominator Brittany David, MAS+, chief revenue officer and a 2014 PPB Rising Star, says, “I get to see Sabrina’s work firsthand since we work together at SnugZ and she impresses me every day. She is a true leader. Her humble demeaner does not seek out recognition for herself, but she leads with kindness and inspires others around her through her motivation and collaboration.” 

Franz is also deeply involved in the Upper Midwest Association of Promotional Professionals, and David explains that Franz's involvement helped UMAPP navigate in a virtual world by setting up UMAPP Friday Supplier Live, a program streamed on Facebook, to add value for UMAPP members and share creative solutions and stories. Franz is currently vice president and treasurer of UMAPP. “Sabrina has been in the industry around four years and almost immediately jumped in and got involved in her regional community and quickly was voted onto the board. She brought a fresh mind to their social media and member engagement," David adds. 

Biggest challenge in the past year: There have been a lot of challenges over the past year, to say the least. But I think the biggest was overcoming a fear of the future and my own self-doubt. Juggling a full-time sales job with two kids and a husband, who had to be at the jobsite every day through the whole pandemic, was stressful. I overcame it by taking it all day by day and giving myself grace if I had to order pizza for the family for the third day in a row instead of making dinner.

Proudest career accomplishment: Being nominated as a PPB Rising Star by such a well-respected industry rock star as Brittany David is pretty dang awesome!

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: The technology we are now forced to use is exciting. It is incredible that seeing a customer on the East Coast in the morning and a customer on the West Coast in the afternoon is the new norm—and I don’t even have to leave my house. 

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: This industry is built on relationships. I hope we do not lose touch of that as we move into this new technology-driven environment. I believe it is going to be a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings, but I hope we do not lose that personal touch of grabbing coffee and just chatting about life that brings us all closer.

Inspiration: Professionally, the entire sales team at SnugZ inspires me. Everyone gives 110 percent and they are genuinely awesome, honest people. They make you want to be the best you can. Personally, my two kids. I want my kids to grow up knowing that to work hard and be a good person is the key to success. You have to lead by example for your kids.

To accomplish in the next 24 months: One focus of mine is to have a positive impact on our outside team. I really want to be able to motivate and work side by side with them for a successful, positive next 24 months. 

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: More education to the public about the promotional product industry would be beneficial to recruit younger professionals, whether that is getting awareness at college fairs or young professional networking events. Once you are involved in the industry, there are so many opportunities for advancement and growth from all different kinds of perspectives—sales, supply chain, graphic design and marketing to the executive level.

Best advice for them: Don’t be afraid to jump in feet first and get involved outside of your day-to-day career. This was the best advice I received when I first got in the industry four years ago. I did not really know what I was doing, but I put my neck out there and made it known I was eager to help volunteer in ways that I knew I could.

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Ashley Grenell started her career as a corporate trainer for a Fortune 500 insurance company and had worked there for almost 10 years when she realized she wanted more. “I thought if I didn’t get out when I did, I would conform to working in a cube farm probably for the rest of my life and not being paid what I wanted to earn,” she says. “I did a job search for ‘travel’ and ‘fashion’ because that’s what I’m passionate about and I landed myself an interview in Augusta, Georgia.” She says she nailed the interview and joined supplier Augusta Sportswear in 2014 as an outside sales representative. A year later she moved on to business-to-business sales before coming back into the promotional products industry in 2017, when she joined supplier alphabroder/Prime Line. “I’m passionate for the industry and loving what I do,” she says.

Nominator Paul Kiewiet, MAS+, who is executive director of the Michigan Promotional Products Association (MiPPA), works with Grenell in her volunteer role on the MiPPA board of directors and as co-chair of the Events Committee and the Advocacy and Governance Committee. “When asked about board service, she didn’t hesitate to volunteer even though at the time she had only been in the industry for two years,” says Kiewiet. “She brings her A-game to everything she does and is passionate about her company, her job, the industry and her personal growth.” On the events committee, she helps produce a bi-monthly lunch-and-learn program and expanded its reach in collaboration with two other regional associations. On the board, she leads by example. Kiewiet adds, “Ashley carefully weighs the issues and challenges facing MiPPA and demonstrates reasoned thinking and ideas to advance our association and our industry.” About her sales role with alphabroder, Kieweit says, “She perceives herself not as in sales, but as an educator—she uses a consultative, solutions-based approach and her authenticity is instrumental in creating partnerships and building relationships.”  

Biggest challenge in the past year: This past year has challenged me a ton, more than I wanted at times. It’s definitely taught me to live in day-tight compartments. I am a dreamer, a doer and I am always looking to the future. Being stuck inside as an outside sales rep changed my perspective and created challenges of how to creatively sell from home. COVID-19 brought challenges into my day-to-day business, as I didn’t know what each day would bring. I pushed myself further outside my own box, was resilient to the ever-changing days and focused on the positive more so than ever. I created a “Zen Den” at my house, learned the practice of meditation and I am grateful for the quality family time that I got at home. I also relied on the relationships with my wonderful clients to overcome the unknown together. 

Proudest career accomplishment: I am very proud and grateful to have been named a PPB Rising Star. In addition, I am very proud of putting myself out there and taking a big risk at the time to leave a job where I was safe, sound and secure to find my real calling in sales. Had I not done that, I would not be the sales rep I am today. 

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: I am always optimistic to see new products and innovative ideas that come out. I am also optimistic to see where the promo industry takes sustainability and eco-friendly products. 

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: My optimism is also my concern. People really think that the promo industry is wasteful. 

Inspiration: I have to give this one to my parents. I told myself I wasn’t going to be like them, but here we are. More and more I act like them as I get older and as much as the realization might drive me crazy, they are a true inspiration. They are always setting an example for me and my siblings, whether it’s good or bad and that’s the best part. I get to learn from them and listen, but not always take, their advice. They’ve inspired me to be myself, always have provided support and have been my No. 1 fans since Day One. Nothing else motivates me more than being a great parent and working hard. 

To accomplish in the next 24 months: My goal is to win the President’s Club at alphabroder. This is how the company recognizes its top seven sales representatives and they will be honored at The PPAI Expo 2022. Viva Las Vegas! 

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: Explaining what I do for a living isn’t always easy. It’s more than “I sell t-shirts” but not exactly “sales rep.” I say that though because I like to think of myself as an educator. The more people know, the more they will buy or use a product. I feel the same for the industry; the more we can educate people, the more we can attract and retain individuals in the industry. Advocacy is also important. I will continue to be an advocate and educate every chance I get for this industry.

Best advice for them: Giving advice for this industry and for a sales role specifically, I would tell them not to compare themselves to the competition. I find this to be challenging at times, but this industry puts up a fierce competition. Be yourself, be confident and think outside the box. I believe in “breaking the mold” and that has put me where I am today. 

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Many will remember March 16, 2020 as the first day of stay-at-home orders as the U.S. tried to manage the spread of COVID-19. For Katie Kahler, CAS, it also has a special significance: it was her first day at distributor American Solutions for Business. Shortly after lunch on that Monday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey held a press conference, and the Tempe team went home thinking they would only be gone for a few weeks. Although it was an unexpected start to her career in the promo industry, she quickly learned to adapt as the most unprecedented year in recent history unfolded.

Fortunately, Kahler had a wealth of work experience to rely on. After graduating from University of Arizona in 2012 with a degree in marketing, she spent eight years with retail giant Macy’s in various roles throughout Arizona, California and Nevada. Her last position there was as a district merchant for San Diego and Orange County. “Retail taught me so much about interpersonal skills, business development and marketing,” Kahler says. “Much of the product knowledge carries over to promotional products and apparel, where we can help our clients develop meaningful marketing campaigns with inspiration from retail quality, presentation and trends.” 

When she was ready for her next career step, she listened to her father, Mike Kahler, a 40-year industry veteran with 10 years at ASB. “My dad suggested that I explore a sales role at ASB. He has always spoken so highly of the entire team, and we spent some time job-shadowing together to learn more,” she says. “When he showed me the ecommerce brand stores that he provides for his customers with a wide range of solutions, I knew it would be a good fit. The welcoming atmosphere from the entire team quickly confirmed that.”

Nominator Taylor Borst, director of marketing, events and public relations at ASB, has gotten to know Kahler through their involvement on the company’s Client Engagement Committee and shared presentations in company webinars. “Over the course of the last year, Katie hasn’t just caused a ripple within ASB, she is a force of nature inspiring waves of change within American. I’ve never seen someone enter our industry and hit the ground running so hard,” says Borst, who was a PPB Rising Star in 2019. 

“Many of our salespeople struggle with social media and some also discount it because they claim there is little or no ROI, but Katie is helping to prove them wrong. She has taken a very strategic, consistent approach to social media and is very good at engaging and educating her audience. She’s changing the narrative,” adds Borst. 

Nominator and ASB’s VP of Sales West Wayne Martin says, “Katie has established many ecommerce programs that have seen double-digit growth, even during COVID. She has done this by hosting virtual Teams meetings with each customer, reviewing activity on the site and introducing new products for consideration. These weekly meetings keep her and her customers connected and focused.” 

Biggest challenge in the past year: Over the course of my first year in the industry, I did not meet any of my clients in person, and it was exceedingly difficult to make connections in my local community. Just like many others, we quickly adapted to working together through video calls and learning the importance of a social media presence. Although this was challenging, it allowed me to create meaningful connections with customers, colleagues and supplier partners throughout the country.

Proudest career accomplishment: My biggest accomplishment has been helping my customers create a “swag-in-hand” experience for their virtual events. We have collaborated to tie together branded merchandise, key messaging, multimedia technology and custom packaging to create a personalized experience for each event ranging from pre-event kits, to customer thank-you gifts and pop-up stores for contest winners. In most cases, the end goal was to increase participation and improve attendee engagement before, during and after the event. One of our first key event kits was a sales rally event box used as an early-registration incentive for more than 1,200 employees. Ultimately, its use doubled the number of attendees who registered early compared to previous years. You could feel the excitement as their team members posted unboxing videos and selfies prior to the event.

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: I am most optimistic about the speed in which this industry continues to evolve. Who really knew that we would be selling personal protective equipment (PPE) and related products just 18 months ago? This product line helped me get my first large order (over $80,000) based on telephone cold-calling. During this time, we have been continuing to evolve and support our customers as business needs change. I am excited to be a part of that evolution and look forward to seeing how suppliers and distributors work together in the future to provide meaningful solutions to businesses.

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: I’m most concerned with online suppliers that push an aggressive price model and commoditization of our industry. I go to market by providing value to my customers and then charging accordingly. The plethora of discounted prices online brings some challenges to differentiating with value and custom solutions.

Inspiration: I am constantly inspired by my customers and their unique opportunities, along with the entire Mountain West Division team at ASB. I am fortunate to be a part of the Denver Hub, which is supported by incredible leadership, customer-centric account managers and a dedicated warehouse team. I’m also inspired by my father, Mike Kahler, who has been in the industry for nearly four decades. He is a wealth of knowledge and taught me from a young age to work hard, invest in people and take care of customers. Now that I have joined the team, he continues to mentor me, share his best practices, encourage new ideas and inspire excellent work. 

To accomplish in the next 24 months: I’m working to introduce current and new clients to our ACES ecommerce solutions to build programs that support their marketing needs, employee retention and multi-location fulfillment and distribution. We offer a wide variety of options, and I look forward to sharing best practices and building custom solutions for more clients in the future.

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: Mentorship is a key element to attracting, recruiting and retaining more young professionals. From the very start, I have received formal and informal mentoring that has made a huge impact on my career. Wayne Martin, ASB’s VP sales - West, saw my potential early on, shared best practices, connected me with colleagues and encouraged me to pursue big opportunities. He always helps me think bigger and better about what is possible when brainstorming new solutions. Taylor Borst, ASB’s director of marketing, events and PR, fosters relationships among young professionals across the industry, and she is always sharing the next trend, idea or partnership. These mentorship examples show the impact that these types of relationships can have on young professionals in our industry.

Best advice for them: There is so much to learn and many great resources to learn from (PPAI and ASI programs, PSDA Print Basics and Bella+Canvas FAM, for example). My advice is to jump in feet first and learn what your prospects and customers are trying to accomplish. Once you are comfortable in that vision, utilize all your resources to build them a program that will help them accomplish those goals. In addition, this industry is full of knowledgeable people who are more than willing to help mentor young professionals. They may be in your company, supplier companies or in your network, but these people are ready, willing and able to help—all you have to do is ask.

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Meeting the right person at the right time can completely change life’s direction. Just ask Kara Keister, MAS. After graduating from The Ohio State University in 2004 with a degree in consumer affairs, she worked as a legal assistant and thought about becoming a lawyer. When the economy tanked in 2008-2009, she was working as operations manager for a regional construction firm and decided it was time to go back to school—to get her MBA. She chose University of Findlay, and during her time in northwest Ohio, she says she was lucky enough to cross paths with the Kramer family, who owns companies City Uniforms and Linen, City Dry Cleaning and industry supplier City Apparel. “They gave me a shot at sales,” says Keister, who started as an outside sales rep in January 2010. “What I thought was going to be a steppingstone turned into a career that I absolutely love.”  

Nominator Roger Burnett, CAS, founder of Social Good Promotions, calls Keister a volunteer rock star. He got to know her in the fall of 2018 when he was invited to speak at two Ohio Promotional Products Association’s end-buyer events in Cleveland and Columbus. Keister was OPPA president at the time. “We realized how much we agreed on the ways promotional products should be elevated as a marketing medium in comparison to other ad spend that most companies commit to,” he says. In addition to leading OPPA, she’s played a key role in Midwest Promotional Products Association’s Midwest Leadership Conference, met with legislators on Capitol Hill during multiple PPAI L.E.A.D. events and was instrumental in a joint project involving Social Good Promotions, Special Olympics Ohio (where she’s been a volunteer for 24 years) and the Cleveland Browns. The project won a silver PPAI Pyramid award this year. She’s also is a current member of the Regional Association Council (RAC) board of directors. In her “spare” time, she’s served as an adjunct marketing professor at Tiffin University where she teaches the next generation about the importance of promotional products as a marketing medium and exposes those students to the ways the industry can make a lasting impression on clients and consumers alike. 

Biggest challenge in the past year: The pandemic affected us all in different ways. I am an extremely methodical person, so my process is to stop, assess, plan and execute. I realized quickly that not everyone in my bubble operated in that same manner. It forced me to take a longer pause and better understand how my inner circle was being affected emotionally and adjust processes accordingly. There was a solid two months where our distributorship saw zero dollars in sales. As a small business in its start-up phase without the financial stability or insurance required to break into the import game, it was a scary moment. We decided early on as a team that we would use our powers for good and help our friends who were not as familiar with importing and personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements, and create solid solutions for our existing client base that would assist them in converting or sustaining their marketing goals. This quick adjustment to our process and the re-focus on our mission resulted in an 86-percent revenue increase in 2020 over 2019. 

Proudest career accomplishment: There are plaques, articles and PPAI Pyramid awards that I am extremely proud of, but my greatest joy came last year watching our Michigan SummerWorks interns graduate and excel. SummerWorks is an amazing program that provides mentorship, internships and basic transitional skills for young adults in the Southwestern Michigan region, and we are an employee partner. Our first set of interns worked so hard, remotely, during the worldwide pandemic on projects that were integral to our success during that time. These young adults made me so proud, and both are already back as members of our staff. SummerWorks was so happy with our first-year employer progress that they asked me to speak to potential employers and mentors this year about the importance of the program and creating meaningful projects for interns to execute during their summer internships.  

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: I am excited to see change. Change in the faces around us, the addition of amazing talent, efficiencies and new technology enhancing the way we work, products with real purpose—now is the time. The past 18 months forced us onto a rollercoaster of surviving and thriving; now it is up to us to decide what this next chapter looks like. “Back to normal” needs to leave our vocabulary. It is time to be better. 

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: It is tough out there right now. Distributors are struggling to find their footing in the constantly changing terrain. Suppliers are dealing with everything from global supply chain drama and staffing shortages to basic logistical nightmares. I am on board with empathy, being kind and working together, but my concern is that we, as an industry, are relying too much on the excuse. Let’s start working together smarter and help each other with solutions that benefit the industry overall. 

Inspiration: So. Many. People. I do not even know where to start with my inspirational Wall of Fame. In the industry I have a list as long as my wingspan including PPAI staff, regional leaders, co-workers that I get to call friends and, of course, my partner in crime, Roger Burnett. But when it comes down to it, the people who create the “why” behind me getting up and putting in the work and trudging through a small-business startup are my family.  My husband, my parents, my brother, my six-year-old niece—the whole darn, crazy Ward/Keister/Howard crew. They are the reason I never give up.

To accomplish in the next 24 months: We have some tricks up our sleeve here at Social Good Promotions, but overall, I would like to see continued growth in revenue and the addition of team members. I would also like to continue my service to the industry after my RAC board term concludes. Oh, and I really want to add a gold PPAI Pyramid to my shelf.

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: Get out there and just do it! Advocate for the industry, tell young professionals how much you love your job, learn the statistics behind what drives our industry and share the knowledge. There are high school and college programs all over the country that want professionals to come in and speak to their students about opportunities. Participate in a mentoring or internship program in your region. Have your nephew print t-shirts or run your social media. The list is endless, but the answer is that we must start somewhere, so get out there and advocate.

Best advice for them: There is no substitution for hard work.

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In 2016, Connor Matthews graduated from University of South Carolina where he earned a degree in business. He took a job in the IT staffing industry but wanted to move into software development and kept his eye open for the right opportunity. In March 2020, he found it. Just as the pandemic was causing havoc in companies around the globe, he joined industry business services provider BrightStores.

“Since Day One, Connor’s commitment to learning and understanding our industry and our technology has been impressive,” says VP Tanya Ignacek-Sutton, one of 10 nominators. “Connor started with us the day before we unexpectedly left the office for remote working. He was so resilient to shift gears, acclimate to working from home, and go through training and onboarding from a distance.” 

She says none of these challenges slowed him down in his growth to learn about the industry and his new position. “He has embraced the promo industry and has worked diligently to understand the complex needs and nuances of our distributor clients.” Despite the challenges brought on by business closures, inventory shortages and quarantines, she explains that Matthews brought his enthusiasm and a positive, energetic attitude to work each day, always eager to learn and take on more. Even though he was the team’s newest member, he took ownership of ensuring that every client who reached out to BrightStores received a quick and helpful response. “He has quickly created relationships with clients, honed his industry knowledge and provided a consistent and competent frontline for our sales team,” she adds. 

Biggest challenge in the past year: The biggest challenge I faced was learning our software and the technical capabilities it offers—it was more or less wrapping my head around concepts that I have never been exposed to.

Proudest career accomplishment: Being named a 2021 PPB Rising Star.

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: Since BrightStores is a technology company, I would say the most exciting aspect would be the increased need and interest for ecommerce solutions.

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: Keeping up with technology.

Inspiration: Family, friends and my work colleagues. I am very extroverted and I’m always in contact with these people. They push me to succeed.

To accomplish in the next 24 months: In the next couple of years, I want to continue to grow my technical knowledge when working with our systems. Personally, I would love to own a home/townhome in the future. 

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: Have flexible, remote capabilities; stay competitive in pay and offer great benefits. 

Best advice for them: Maintain a positive mindset because you will experience peaks and valleys. Don’t give up! 

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Austin Hayford-Moody has always known the value of hard work. He started working as a lifeguard at age 14 and during college managed 23 employees and ran three local businesses. After graduating from Iowa State University in 2013 with a double major in marketing and management and a minor in advertising, he envisioned getting a corporate marketing job and working his way up the corporate ladder, but a different opportunity presented itself. He moved to Kansas City and took an account coordinator position with a start-up distributor company. “I had no idea this industry existed,” he says, “and as you typically do in our industry, I heard about the position from a family member who knew someone looking to hire their first employee. I had to interview for the position five times, which is insane, but I’m so glad I did and have zero regrets about it.” He and the team built the company up over a two-year period and then sold it to distributor Grapevine Designs. He became part of the company during that transition in 2016.

President Janie Gaunce, who nominated her employee for this honor, says Hayford-Moody is an impressive thought leader who is extremely well spoken and knowledgeable about supplier products and services as well as distributor operations, and a born leader with an amazing sense of humility and humor. She’s equally impressed by his uncanny knack for coming up with the perfect idea for clients as well as ideas for Grapevine’s overall marketing. “Besides being creative, Austin is also analytical and accepts technology challenges with ease,” she adds.

Aside from work, Hayford-Moody is a trained election poll volunteer, leads his neighborhood HOA and is working on local leadership/governmental opportunities. He’s also a volunteer within the promo industry, serving two years on the PPAI Professional Development Committee and two years on the PPAI SPARK board of directors. He’s a regular at Promotional Products Association of the Midwest events and has been involved with creating social media campaigns for supplier alphabroder.  

Biggest challenge in the past year: Being the first employee to test positive for COVID was scary and challenging on a personal level. Not knowing how I would feel every morning and if I could crank out the work I needed to get done was stressful. Having to wait and wonder if I spread the virus to any of my co-workers was even more nerve-wracking, and the idea of our company potentially having to freeze all operations for two weeks because of me was something I never hope to experience again. Trying to plan a wedding during the pandemic was a real treat as well. After three date changes, two venue changes and a lot of wine, we were so happy to finally be able to say our “I do’s” in front of family and friends this past May. 

Professionally, I would have to say inventory and supply-chain logistics. Trying to generate business in a global pandemic is tough and not having inventory available has made it even harder. As sales professionals, we have really been challenged this past year to think outside of the box on how we can educate and sell our clients on the “pivot.” It’s frustrating and while our supplier teams are working hard to resolve these issues, I don’t foresee it getting any easier within the next six to nine months. I’m #Grapeful to have a team who is quick to jump in and help navigate these uncharted territories so we can continue to bring ideas and products to the table that exceed our clients’ expectations.

Proudest career accomplishment: Truly being able to say that I love what I do and having a deep passion for helping my clients makes me proud. Starting in the industry fresh out of college meant that I had nothing to compare our work to. I was recruited by an agency outside of our industry in 2018 and briefly left thinking I was moving on to greener pastures. I quickly realized after 90 days away that Grapevine Designs is my home, and the promotional products industry is where I can thrive. I love being able to bring strategic solutions to solve my clients’ problems and creating out-of-this-world branding programs that make them look like rock stars.

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: I’m very excited to see how we evolve as an industry post-pandemic. While there has been so much uncertainty the past year, I think it has forced us all to change the way we do business in some way or another. I’m optimistic that, as a community, we can learn from each other and grow exponentially as we embrace these changes and move forward. 

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: We are at a crossroads in terms of how we move forward as an industry post-pandemic. Do we revert to the old ways of doing business, or do we continue to push the limits and use this as an opportunity to really change the way our industry is perceived and how it operates? I hope everyone can come together and get on board to make those changes happen instead of continuing to operate in some of the outdated ways that we are growing away from as a society. We have to think and explore outside of our little industry bubble to see how businesses are operating in other industries. What’s working for them and how do we implement similar changes to the promotional products industry, so we are always evolving and staying on the forefront of our ever-changing world? We have to start thinking about some of these things in a different way and step outside of our comfort zones in order for change to happen so that our industry can continue to be successful over the next 50 years.

Inspiration: My Grapevine team inspires me every day. We have so many different projects going on at any given time and the work that we all produce is truly incredible. When you create a collaborative environment like we have here, showing up to work is fun and challenges you in an exciting way. 

To accomplish in the next 24 months: I am so excited about this next decade in my life. Professionally our business is growing and it’s extremely rewarding to see all that hard work pay off. Ideally, I would like for my personal block of business to double in revenue during this time. In my personal life, I hope to start a family and build our dream home.

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: Continue to educate and empower young professionals within our industry through programs like SPARK and regional boards. Providing leadership opportunities within our industry creates a sense of community, self-worth and extreme pride that brings a powerful energy that’s needed to move our industry forward. 

Best advice for them: There is room in this industry for you to grow and be successful. It takes time and a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. You have an entire group of people here who want to see you accomplish your goals and are willing to help you along the way.

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Danielle Olszewski was introduced to the promo industry in an unexpected way. “When I was eight years old, my godmother and I were shopping for holiday presents and I asked her what she does at work. She pointed to a jacket and said she sewed logos and labels on jackets every day. I instantly envisioned my godmother working at Santa’s Workshop with clothes and machines everywhere, and thought she was the coolest person in the world.” When Olszewski started work as a project manager at Vantage Apparel in March 2018, she learned that her godmother used to work at the same factory. Although the woman has since retired and moved back to Poland, she still has good friends who work at Vantage. “Now, so does her goddaughter!” says Olszewski. “The universe speaks to us in many ways.” 

Olszewski graduated from Monmouth University in 2015 with a degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing and a Certificate in Information Technology (CIT). Her first job was account manager for a fragrance manufacturer. “I loved building relationships with international distributors, online retailers and sample box companies,” she says. “At the time, I was looking for a new career path and was hired at Vantage because of my background with a new CRM software.” 

Marci Newsom, western regional sales director at Vantage and one of three nominators, notes that Olszewski was voted Project Manager of the Year during her first year with Vantage. That’s likely because of how swiftly Olszewski learned and exceled at her new responsibilities. As a result, she’s moved up quickly in the company. Newsom also gives her co-worker credit for her valuable contributions to Vantage’s bottom line over the past year. “Not only is she great with apparel, decoration and helping distributors on the creative side, but her patience in working with distributors on webstores has been outstanding. We call her our Webstore Guru,” says Newsom. “Our webstore sales have grown 82 percent since last year. COVID has had a big impact on how we are selling these days, and Danielle has had a big role in keeping Vantage sales strong.” 

Chief Experience Officer Rob Watson, another nominator, is Olszewski’s supervisor, and reiterates how quickly she has become the company’s go-to for webstore programs. “Danielle was originally a project manager for Vantage and took the initiative to get involved in the early creation of our webstore and digital strategies. We started to carve out her five-year career goals, which centered around ecommerce and digital engagement. Fast-forward two years later, she’s been promoted to digital revenue manager,” he says. “She has a passion for the industry, for her team and most importantly, to see her customers thrive. She pushes our development team to release new features that benefit our customers’ success. In just a short time, she’s become one of the industry’s most dynamic shining stars and so well-deserved of this honor.” He adds that she’s also an industry spokesperson for webstores and the digital sales channel, having built more than 200 stores and helping distributors generate over $10 million in annual sales in the past 12 months. 

When not at Vantage, she runs a social media page for her cocktail pudding dessert shot business. 

Biggest challenge in the past year: My biggest challenge in 2020 was gaining the confidence to convince our industry peers that on-demand, one-off decorated orders will grow their business and generate additional revenue. This was an opportunity I noticed in the industry within my first few months at Vantage but needed the courage to speak up about it. Initiating conversations with experienced industry leaders or gathering senior department managers to discuss changing one bulk order to 4,000 individual orders is not an easy task. There were so many days where I would feel like a nuisance for disrupting everyone’s processes. However, with transparency and vulnerability, I quickly learned that I could inspire others to look at the system from another point of view. I went from being a person who never spoke up to hosting webinars and leading team meetings. This past year I was able to “e-meet” more industry leaders than ever before and instead of being nervous, I am excited for each new opportunity to connect. Being an advocate of change is not easy but collaborating with your peers and showing you care about their day-to-day makes all the difference.  

Proudest career accomplishment: I am honored to have the opportunity to spearhead the new webstore team at Vantage Apparel and I am proud to be working alongside forward-thinking peers every day. During all the uncertainty last year, we established a core offering for Vantage Webstore and integration options, and grew our on-demand apparel and decoration business exponentially. Not having a playbook made me think less about my exact job description and more about how I can break boundaries to build a system that generates more revenue. It makes me so proud seeing our partners and their clients thriving because they chose Vantage as their one-stop-shop. In one short year, our partners are launching webstores for multiple clients, re-opening pop-up stores with repeat business and most importantly, building their ecommerce portfolio with Vantage. I love that we offer end users the freedom to shop a wide variety of decorated apparel and we are giving our partners the opportunity to do business efficiently. I would like to take a moment to say thank you to all the partners that trusted us to take their business to the next level during uncertain times. 

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: It is a revolutionary time for the promo industry. Technology is providing the promo industry with the drive to progress into a new era of digital revenue and drop-ship fulfillment. Webstores, on-demand decorating and drop shipping are no longer just an option for your business model: they are a necessity. Vantage is not a technology company, but we have strategically embraced a digital landscape to create a sustainable, long-term business model. I am excited to see how suppliers and distributors use technology to provide a new level of personalization and service to their clients.

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: If we continue conducting business with the same processes, our outcomes will always be the same. We are not moving as quickly as customers need us to and we need to put a priority on our operational efficiencies. We need to shift from being reactive to proactive in sales and production. This question should always be top of mind: How are we working together to efficiently communicate product data, collect order details and process multiple drop shipments? I challenge all of us to focus on becoming better partners through technology and standardizing the order process.

Inspiration: I am grateful to be surrounded by inspirational women in every aspect of my life—family, friends and co-workers. Collectively, the ambitious women in my network are showing me that you can break records no matter your age or background and proving that women can be leaders at home and work. The woman who continues to inspire me every single day is my older sister, Sandra. She taught me to always be resilient and she has set an incredible example of what it means to be a successful businesswoman. When we are not at work, we are always creating new projects on our Cricut cutting machines and coordinating together for a special event. I am so lucky to call her my sister, role model and best friend. 

To accomplish in the next 24 months: When I started presenting webstores in 2020, I dedicated my time to convincing industry peers to give webstores a try. Within one year, the dialogue has completely shifted to meaningful, strategic discussions about integrations and ecommerce with our top partners because the way we shop and buy is changing. For the next two years, my focus will be on building a Vantage 2.0 with peers who share the same forward-thinking vision. I will be working with the webstore team to automate the steps involved in managing on-demand programs and launching new features to provide the best digital experience for all parties involved. I strongly believe that growth is fueled by continuously implementing small changes and changing our daily habits. Each day brings new opportunity and having an open mindset has ensured me that I am prepared for any challenge that comes my way. 

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: My advice is to empower the next generation with training and new tech tools so we can drive the business forward. The promo products industry is a perfect place for young, creative professionals to thrive because creativity is in our DNA. As we re-think the way we do business, there are so many new opportunities for the next generation to collaborate and make improvements. It all starts by welcoming another point of view, promoting junior talent and investing in new tools. The young workforce wants to feel like they are making an impact and are part of a team where they can grow the company and themselves. It is our responsibility to support their career path. 

Best advice for them: The only way to grow is to accept vulnerability and embrace every moment that pushes you out of your comfort zone. Take on the projects that everyone else thinks are too complicated and join conversations where your opinion is outnumbered so you can uncover challenges and advocate for change. Always choose courage over fear.

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Brandon Pecharich first learned about the promo industry in early 2002. While living in Greeley, Colorado, and working the front desk at an assisted living facility, a friend suggested he come to work at a new distributor company the friend was opening. Pecharich was hired to run the company’s four- and six-head Tajima embroidery machines and he was hooked on the industry. Later, he segued into sales for a supplier in Fort Collins, Colorado, before moving to Austin where he worked in sales for several promo companies before joining digital marketing services provider, PromoCorner, in October 2017. 

Eleven Pecharich fans nominated him for the honor, including PromoCorner’s Laurie Moore, client services director, who is amazed at the influence he’s had since joining the industry. Pecharich hosts a daily video series called PromoErrday where he talks about a different promotional product, as well as a live weekly show, Express Training Bites, where a guest joins him to share industry knowledge. Most recently he has become the host for PromoShow’s live virtual events which require him to juggle multiple platforms in a live format. “I’m most impressed by his abilities as a host and to make guests feel at ease. He’s not afraid to put himself out there and is always willing to help out anyone who’s looking for advice or help with video or content,” says Moore. “He brings incredible energy and passion to all of his projects.” 

This year Pecharich also served on the PPAI SPARK Workgroup to help plan and produce the virtual event held in July, and he was also a speaker.

Nominator Sam Kabert, owner of distributor SwagWorx and a PPB 2020 Rising Star, says he’s known Pecharich almost as long as he’s been in the industry and credits his colleague with helping him in his own success as a content creator. “The fact he’s done a daily video featuring a different promotional product says it all. That sort of consistency is hard to achieve. He never stops. He’s as determined as anyone I’ve seen (in or out of the industry).”

Biggest challenge in the past year: When the nation was put on lockdown, the whole world went virtual. The biggest challenge for me was self-imposed. I was building a name for myself in video production. There is a major difference in the gear needed for in-person video production vs. virtual meetings. I did a lot of research on what other people had done with video capture cards to use their quality cameras for online meetings. I ended up overcoming the new virtual video challenge with a pretty awesome mobile virtual setup that has fantastic sound with a quality picture.

Proudest career accomplishment: Not going to lie; I’m pretty proud of myself for always going with my gut feeling and never being afraid to make a huge change. I had done production, sales, traveling, trade shows—you name it, in the industry. The thing I am most proud of is PromoErrday [a daily video series available through PromoCorner]. Creating those influencer-style videos helped me show everyone that promotional products are used literally every day. That show is not easy to make, but I made the choice to change my schedule to allow me to pull the trigger and start making those videos. I am so proud that there are over 950 episodes and counting.

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: We, as an industry, had to make a major shift as a result of 2020. Things were not going to go back to how they had been. Our industry is now closer to being on par with other industries in terms of technology. We should be able to leverage that and see major innovations and social initiatives that will continue to bring apparel and promo to the front of the marketing hierarchy.

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: Humans love the way things used to be. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. 2020 allowed us to all get on the same technology playground with other industries, as we were all learning together. However, I am concerned that there will be a large part of our industry that will not continue with the move forward and will slide right back to how it used to be.

Inspiration: My 2021 New Year’s resolution was, “If it doesn’t make me money or make me happy, I’m not going to do it.” Wanting to keep up with the Joneses is always going to have an influence on a person’s drive whether they admit it or not. So, with that out of the way, I am inspired by “happy.” I want to make everyone I can happy, at some level. I was raised by two amazing parents who came from very different walks of life, but they had the same core values. Respect yourself and respect others. When you show anyone at any age respect, they take their guard down. As those guards fall, they become more comfortable with you and pure happiness starts to show through. I love to smile and really enjoy seeing others smile. That’s how you know they are truly happy.

To accomplish in the next 24 months: Professionally, I am looking to complete my certifications for the CAS and MAS. Those have been long-standing goals of mine and in the next 24 months I can make it happen. Also, I would like to become more of a resource for the industry. I got the speaking bug at skucon 2020 and then being live on everyone’s computer screen for just under two years—y’all can tell I am never at a loss for words or opinions. PromoCorner has offered me a fantastic platform to broadcast from, but it’s time to take the show on the road. Over the next 24 months, I am sure I can lock down some gigs speaking to awesome folks.

Ideas to recruit and retain young talent: Keep up this trend of being trendy. I know that if you are still reading this, I am sounding like a broken record. Our industry was in a great technology spot. Let’s make sure that we stay up to date with virtual events and incorporate them into our in-person events. That’s going to help showcase how fun our industry is on the apps and programs the young professionals are on and will be on.

Best advice for them: Have fun! This is a fun industry. No one ever says, “Oh man, here comes those promo people.” No, when we show up, we are there because there is an event, a run, a happy hour, a celebration. People use promotional products all day, err-day.

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Kaylee Shields, CAS, was a client-turned-intern who went to work for Image Masters in October 2016 during her senior year at University of the Pacific. There, she was completing her degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing and working as the marketing manager for the school’s New Student and Family Programs. In that role, she had ordered some promotional products from Image Masters’ owner, Tim O’Neill, MAS. When she heard the company was looking for an intern to work with the university upon graduation, she applied and was accepted. “Thankfully, Tim saw potential in me, and chose me for the internship and offered me a full-time role after graduating in 2017,” Shields says.  

For O’Neill, hiring a college intern was part of his personal project to earn his MAS (Master Advertising Specialist). “I had designed a two-semester curriculum for a college senior who had an interest in the promotional products world,” he says. “Kaylee applied and was selected as that intern in the fall of 2016.” The internship covered important industry knowledge and coaching on being a sales professional in the industry. “Kaylee is the consummate sales professional,” says O’Neill, who nominated her for this honor. “She prospects aggressively, both on the phone and at trade shows, and has shown steady sales growth. In 2018, her first full year of sales, she booked over $400,000, rising to over $600,000 in 2019 and, despite COVID, grew her sales to over $1 million in 2020. This year she’s already up by more than 60 percent.” Kaylee, like all Image Masters reps, is Product Safety Aware and she completed her CAS in 2018. She is also a graduate of the Facilis 360 Program and a regular participant with the Facilis Women’s Empower group. 

Biggest challenge in the past year: Like most people, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic was my biggest hurdle. I went into 2020 so excited for everything that I had planned and all the opportunities for new business development. Then in March, when everything shut down, including most of the clients I work with, I thought it was going to be my worst sales year since starting in the industry. Nevertheless, I worked harder than ever before. I continuously prospected for new clients, engaged with existing clients, educated myself on personal protective equipment (PPE) and what my clients would need, and provided outstanding service so that I could sell an entirely new product category. It may have been a lot of work, but it was so rewarding in the end as it was my best year since starting in the industry.

Proudest career accomplishment: Despite COVID-19 shutting down so many businesses, with the support from the Image Masters team and my boss, I had my best year to date in the industry and became a Facilis [industry business service provider Facilisgroup] achiever for selling at least $1 million worth of products. I was hopeful I would become an achiever when 2020 started; however, as the world quickly changed with COVID-19, I did not think it would be realistic. Making that goal come to fruition felt incredible. 

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: The promo industry does an amazing job at adapting, and I am very optimistic that as the world continues to change, the promo industry will evolve to match it, just as it did in 2020 when we started selling PPE. I love seeing the new products that come out to match trends and social movements, and the focus on becoming more inclusive. No matter what happens, I think we can continue to grow and develop the industry. 

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: As AI becomes more sophisticated, there may be less need to hire individual sales reps to work with clients to help with ideas, so it is important to maintain personal relationships with your clients so that sales representatives are not easily replaceable. Additionally, with the cost of cargo containers increasing and production delays, I am concerned items will start to become more expensive than clients’ budgets allow, and they will decide to reduce orders or quantities, or find replacements to using branded items. 

Inspiration: My little family that currently consists of my dog, Rylee, and my husband, Zach. I want to make sure that I am doing the best I can do for us, so that we can get a nice house for Rylee with a large backyard, and welcome our friends and family to it. 

To accomplish in the next 24 months: Professionally, I want to continue increasing my sales while maintaining my business retention ratio at 95 percent or higher and increasing my new business development ratio by at least 20 percent. I would also like to complete my MAS, so that I can continue to learn more about the industry and better serve my clients. Personally, I would love to own a house and make sure that I am creating work-life harmony—working hard but still taking time for my loved ones and myself. 

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: Younger individuals want to know that ours is an industry that supports its workers and cares about the longevity of our planet. It is important to focus on making our industry eco-friendlier so that our products are used even longer and that they are recyclable or made from recycled materials. Plus, we must also establish the value of promotional marketing as a platform to reach clients, appreciate employees and create integrated marketing plans. As a marketing major, I love this industry, as it provides a tangible and impactful form of advertising that can have an extensive amount of reach. However, the value of promotional marketing can be lost in all of the noise around us, and younger individuals can be caught up in digital marketing, so we need to regain their focus on why having tangible items matters. 

Best advice for them: No matter what happens, focus on the positives. You might receive a bunch of “no’s” from people not interested in what you do or in working with a new company. However, when you receive a “no,” it makes it easier to focus on the clients and individuals who actually want to work with you. You cannot let a “no” stop you from reaching out to additional prospects. Plus, if you stay informed about what is happening with the industry and trends as a whole, then you can become an invaluable resource for your clients as their trusted promotional marketing representative. 

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Michael Williams’ planned career in accounting took an unexpected but welcomed turn. After graduating from McMaster University in 2010 with a business degree in marketing and accounting, he took an accounting job but quickly realized that line of work was not for him. Williams began searching for a position related to marketing and promotions and responded to a job posting for a customer service position at supplier AZX. This year he celebrates his 10th year with the company.

One of Williams’ clients and nominators, Lorie Stanley, account executive at Ad Clarity powered by HALO, explains why he’s a Rising Star: he consistently exceeds expectations. “He is always learning, growing and making himself and his company better,” she says. “He goes above and beyond and has saved me on many occasions. He rises to the top and solves problems, provides terrific customer service and helps me grow my business.”

Williams gives the same care and attention to suppliers. Nominator Nikki Sgro, business development rep at supplier Debco, says Williams has not only grown his own sales territory exponentially but has helped his colleagues to grow theirs through his guidance and hands-on approach. “He has worked diligently to push his company and fellow colleagues through the COVID crisis and keep not only their sales, but their attitudes, positive,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you are a direct competitor, he will be right there to help you or provide guidance when you are in need. He is the most genuine and kind-hearted person. For him, it’s not about going the extra mile, it’s about making others genuinely happy. He isn’t content until everyone around him is happy and comfortable.”

Biggest challenge in the past year: As an extrovert who thrives off the energy of others, the multiple lockdowns throughout this past year have made it difficult to stay energized. I live by the motto “work hard, play hard,” and this pandemic tipped the scale with everything centered around work. With traveling and social gatherings no longer an option, I needed to find a way to fill the void. I created and hosted a nightly game show via Instagram called Quarantime. The show gave me the ability to interact with friends and provide others a platform to have fun and stay positive during these unprecedented times. Quarantime also allowed me the opportunity to support local businesses and give back to my community through prizes and fundraisers. We raised $3,000 and donated 5,000 masks to a local hospital, and together we created an impact of more than $12,000 to benefit SickKids Foundation. The show not only gave me a sense of purpose, but also helped to keep me busy.

Proudest career accomplishment: Since I joined the sales team in 2015, I envisioned developing a new position targeting the largest distributors and buying groups in the industry. Since this would be a newly curated position, I had to justify its creation. During the lead-up, I spent my time researching, building foundational relationships, finding windows of opportunity to expand sales and strategizing in building long-lasting partnerships. In 2020, my idea came to fruition and I was named AZX’s director of national accounts.

Most optimistic about for the industry’s future: I am optimistic to see the continued recovery of the industry and return of in-person events. Although it’s been a challenging year, I believe the pandemic has helped to revive the creativity of the industry. It cultivated new ideas centralized around creating experiences in new environments, reengineered the importance of quality and value, and taught us branding beyond a logo. The pandemic forced us out of our comfort zone, helped us break bad habits and taught us to embrace change. Moving forward, I think that product diversification and digital acceleration will continue to grow and push the industry forward. 

Biggest concern for the industry’s future: I am most concerned about the potential risks of ordering direct and causing a major shift in the established rule of business. This will disrupt the strong, reliable supply chain currently in place. As increased pressures and heightened expectations impact the day-to-day work of suppliers, it is important to rely on the collaborative nature of the industry.

Inspiration: Whether friends, family members or new acquaintances, I am inspired by hearing personal stories and learning about the experiences of others. Whether it’s a story of success or failure, engaging with individuals on a personal level often offers insight and reminds us that anything is possible. As Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

To accomplish in the next 24 months: I would like to visit five new states with the end goal of visiting all 50 states by the age of 50. Professionally, I would like to lead AZX in becoming a top-50 supplier through innovation, technology and updating AZX’s full offering with a fresh perspective. Additionally, I hope to work on my public speaking skills and be invited to speak at an industry-related event in the future. 

Ideas to recruit and retain more young talent: The best way to attract more young professionals is through education. Generating awareness about the power of promotional products will initiate the dialogue to formulate a deeper understanding of the industry. More in-depth conversations will combat the common misconception that promotional products solely revolve around an inexpensive giveaway. It is also important to understand the factors which attract young professionals and how they have evolved. Young professionals are looking to work for companies centralized around quality, sustainability, strong ethical foundations and flexible working hours, as well as opportunities for career advancement. 

Best advice for them: My advice is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Always remember that things that come easy won’t last and things that last, won’t come easy. Don’t stick with the status quo to resist the unknown.   

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Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.

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