Corporate Specialty Insignia’s Bryan James credits an unexpected mentor for helping him realize the value he brings to clients.

Bryan James, co-owner of distributor Corporate Specialty Insignia (PPAI 671332) with his wife, Kelly, started his career in 1989 with high-end retail jeweler Bailey, Banks & Biddle, where he was a general manager. A large part of his business focused on selling C-suite level premium gifts, including brands such as Rolex and Waterford. But a meeting he landed with Atlanta businessman Gregory Baranco changed the course of his career.

James first became familiar with Baranco, an auto dealership owner, when he read an article about him in Black Enterprise magazine in the mid-1980s while a student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. “I remember he was on the cover standing with his hands in the air in front of his Atlanta dealership,” says James. “So when I moved [to Atlanta] in 1989, I knew he was here. The article had mentioned that Atlanta was an incubator for entrepreneurs and I was inspired [by Baranco].”

While working at Bailey, Banks & Biddle, James took a chance and reached out to Baranco. “I approached him requesting an appointment, with the pitch that I could help him solve problems in recognizing and retaining talent,” says James. “Some say to never meet your idol because you might be disappointed. That could have happened. The guy could have denied me. That happens every day in the sales experience.”

But Baranco didn’t disappoint James. During their meeting, he encouraged James to branch out on his own. “He showed me the value I bring to the market in my understanding of the value of recognition and creating a meaningful moment, of making the intangible tangible. I left his office inspired and about two months later I was resigning from my job,” says James. “Here we are 23 years later and I’m still in touch with him.”

Just as Baranco did for him, James makes a point of giving back to the community by mentoring others, and he supports educational organizations through fundraising and in kind donations. There’s an entire page on the Corporate Specialty Insignia website showcasing the company’s commitment to various educational causes. “We consistently raise over $150,000 per year to benefit teaching and learning,” James says. “[Kelly and I] are committed to the principle of Conscious Capitalism, which we pursue using our 3T strategy: our time, our treasure and our talent.”

How has your company evolved to the full-service marketing solutions

organization it is today?

Over the past 23 years in business, we have observed the trade evolve from tactical

to strategic as end buyers are demanding higher standards of performance. Two decades

ago, products, trends and innovation led the sales-call process. Decisions were more

focused and interested in the gadget, utility and perceived value or presentation of products.

Additionally, catalogs were hugely important in product selections. In-office visits were

the standard of practice in developing relationships. Today the combined competitive nature of the market, robust internet product options and the generational gap of

Millennial end buyers make for a more difficult opportunity to earn new business. Our solution to this dynamic is to first focus on value, then solve problems, and lastly provide sustainable and scalable solutions.

You went to your first PPAI Expo this year. How was your experience?

We were amazed at the many new products and innovations. However, our intent

was to engage in conversations around case studies and application of success. For

example, on our final day canvassing the trade-show floor, we crossed paths with Steve

[Levinson], the owner of Water Promotions. In that conversation, we shared a strategy that we practiced last year: introducing edibles in as many conversations as possible. This

practice increased sales that had not existed previously. Immediately upon our return

to Georgia, we introduced water into conversations, which yielded an immediate sizable

order. We are encouraged by our first attendance to The PPAI Expo. We believe that collaborations of SAGE technology, PPAI education, suppliers and decorators with

[distributor] consultants will offer great opportunities for meaningful, purposeful and

intentional programs.

How do you approach earning new business?

Our approach to earning new opportunities is a discovery process. As a practice, our team

visits potential clients with a sample case of successful projects explaining the application and measurement of each sample’s program. Using this strategy, the product becomes part of the concept; it is not a product-selling experience. Second, we spend more time listening and asking questions about barriers, budgets, vision, objective, history, and measurement

and forecast outcomes. But we also focus on developing the customer base we already have

by asking existing clients, “What are some of the barriers in yourbusiness? What can you improve on in your business? What metric would you like to impact in your business?” When I have the answers to those questions, I can start imagining a solution to

the problem.

Your business card showing a five-step diagram to planning branding solutions is a unique marketing tool. How did you come up with the concept?

Last year, we were invited to participate in a vendor exhibit with not much time to prepare. I brainstormed strategies to tell our why and how. We do find clients studying the card so that is encouraging. We are also using  this on self-promo journals, which offer utility. We are seeing results from this strategy. Stay tuned for our next version, which

we are currently drafting.

What advice do you have for new industry distributors?

The best advice I would share with new consultants is to read industry news, notice every business practice outside your domain and observe others’ strategies to repurpose those best practices in your business. Practices are usually transferable from industry to industry. The key to a sustainable and profitable business is also to change behaviors.

What are some keys to working together effectively with your spouse?

I’m confident most husband-and-wife teams would agree [talking about the business] is only secondary to [talking about] family. It’s extremely difficult not to talk about business 24/7. It’s always in the moment as to how you navigate [working together]. I don’t think there’s a playbook out yet. But I think one of the most important keys to a successful working relationship as a couple is patience. Decorum in difficult moments of the day is

critical, otherwise it can be rather challenging to overcome hard feelings that evening.

Another important key is the transfer of knowledge, as this impacts the sustainability of the business in the event of unforeseen circumstances. Also critical is to develop business processes which all follow.

Julie Richie is a former associate editor for PPB.