It’s tough being a good boss but these 11 have found out how to keep it cool.

Aside from being a parent, being a boss is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet for a number of reasons. Bosses have to hire the right people (and be comfortable that they may be more experienced or just plain smarter), they have to make difficult decisions that some people won’t like, and when things go wrong it’s the boss who has to bear most of the blame.

On the flipside, if one does it right, being a boss has its perks—including loyal employees who openly praise their boss’s leadership, admire their abilities and truly value them as mentors, coaches and friends.

PPB seeks out and spotlights the industry’s best bosses annually, and in this issue we are pleased to reveal the latest lineup of top people managers.

Dan Edge

National Sales Manager

Peerless Umbrella, Newark, New Jersey

Number of direct reports: 15

Nominated by: Debra Amato


Debra Amato with her boss of 18 years, Dan Edge.

Dan’s cool factor: His ability to not micromanage his salespeople. “If he knows you are working and doing your job and the numbers are there, he empowers you to do whatever you need to do within reason to help increase sales in your territory,” says nominator Debra Amato, regional sales manager.

For the past 25 years, Dan Edge has been somebody’s boss—either at Peerless Umbrella, where he’s been for 19 years, or at a lighting company where he worked for seven years. In that time, he’s honed his people skills and learned some valuable lessons about leading others. His core conviction is that he trusts his direct reports to do what is best for their territory.

“Dan enables each regional sales manager to run their territory as if it was their own business,” says Debra Amato, who has reported to him for the past 18 years. “He doesn’t micromanage salespeople who report to him and he doesn’t require massive amounts of reports or paper work.” Instead, Amato says Edge focuses on what the team can do to improve their relationships with their customers and become better partners with them—and she credits him with much of the supplier company’s success.

“I have worked at Peerless for many years and feel that Dan Edge is a major reason that Peerless has had the success it has over the years. He allows each salesperson to do what is good for their territory within reason and will offer whatever support necessary to help accomplish your goals.”

One-On-One With Dan Edge

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

Work to earn everyone’s respect; this is critical. I can’t expect something from my reps if I’m not willing to do it as well. I can honestly say I am in the trenches with all of them. Second, listen to people; hear what they are saying. Accept and ask for their ideas on how to make things better. I certainly don’t always have the right answer. The people I manage are on the front lines; they hear what customers are asking for, need, etc. Listen to what they have to say—it’s a great way to grow your business.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

I don’t micromanage. I don’t ask for call reports, schedules, etc. I feel I have a close enough relationship to everyone I work with and typically know what their days and weeks consist of.  I’d rather my salespeople be selling and not spending an enormous amount of time filling out reports for me. I also believe in being respectful of the people you manage and understand who they are and what makes them tick. No two people can be managed the same way. I try to look for what motivates people best and play on that. Sometimes it’s talking to them about their kids and how their softball team did over the weekend. Sometimes it might be about working out and what the “diet of the month” is. I know it’s a fine line, but it’s one I don’t mind walking. When I need to be serious, it’s an easy transition. Last, I tell all of my salespeople to handle their territories like it’s their own business. Don’t be afraid to make educated decisions. If you treat your territory like you own it, good things happen.

To create a positive team culture:

Keep it fun. Work and travel is hard enough; let’s do everything we can to enjoy the time we have while with our work family. If people enjoy work, they will perform. All but one of my sales reps have been with me and Peerless for more than 12 years. That’s a good track record in this industry.

Best advice for other people managers:

Get off your high horse and don’t be afraid to work hand-in-hand with people. I see too many managers who think they are above it all. That’s really not the case. You need your team probably more than they need you. My door is always open; I know it is a cliché, but anyone in our company can walk into my office and ask me anything or just vent. Be a team player; it makes the whole dynamic that much easier. Engage with them; know who they are, what motivates them. Always offer words of encouragement, make them feel good and special. That too will make each of them better at what they do. I love sending random notes to my staff, acknowledging things they have done, accomplishments or just as a pick me up.

Best boss ever:

My father. I worked for him during high school and college. He taught me so much—most importantly being respectful of the people you manage and not to be afraid to get personal with them and get on their level. He also told me something that I do to this day: say good morning to everyone. It might seem silly, but it is a nice way to start the day and helps connect you with everyone in the office. Last, he taught me to write everything down—keep a list. If you do, you won’t forget to do anything. I assume this is why I am neurotic about getting back to people—in a good way, of course.

Henrik Johansson

Co-founder & CEO

Boundless, Austin, Texas

Number of direct reports: 7

Nominated by: Sarah Radin


Nominator Sarah Radin appreciates boss Henrik Johansson's easy-going style.

Henrik’s cool factor: He participates side-by-side with employees in outside company activities such as running in the Austin Statesman Cap 10k and Car2Go marathon relay. “How many employees can say they’ve run a 10k next to their CEO?” asks nominator Sarah Radin, marketing associate. “Henrik’s management style is unlike any boss or CEO I’ve ever known.  Approaching him feels like approaching any other team member.”

Johansson got his start managing small-project teams while working as a management consultant at Andersen Consulting in the early ’90s. Following his first venture as an entrepreneur in 1998, he was recruited from San Francisco to Austin to lead Everyday Wealth, a credit management company, and met Boundless co-founder Jason Black in 2004. They launched the distributor company the next year.

“Henrik is as eager and fun-loving as a new hire, and as determined and hard-working as you think a CEO should be,” says Radin, who has reported to him for the past four years. “When you hear ‘CEO,’ you may feel intimidated just from the title, but Henrik defies all negative stereotypes of the typical CEO. Whether we’re collaborating with Henrik on a project, reviewing work he’s written, or listening to him speak about the company’s progress at our quarterly analysis meetings, Henrik is always easygoing and open to hearing his team’s opinions and feedback.” Radin also appreciates her boss’s active recognition of the entire team at meetings and events. “He encourages staff development and understands the importance of rewarding good work,” she says, adding that Boundless has a robust awards program recognizing top sales performers, corporate staff and suppliers. “Henrik maintains personal relationships with his staff and sales team, is present at all company events and always makes himself available.”

One-On-One With Henrik Johansson

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

Steven Covey calls it ‘servant leadership,’ which basically means managing with the attitude that the primary job of a boss is to make his team successful. In the end, it’s typically not the boss that does the work, it’s the team members. It’s not the coach that plays the game, it’s the players. So the boss needs to do everything in their power to make sure their team is positioned for success. Make sure you hire the right person for the job, give them the proper training, and support them with resources they need to succeed because when each team member succeeds, then the team succeeds, and that is the measure of a successful boss.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

Set goals at the company level and let them cascade through each team and team member.  Allow everyone in the company to see how they contribute to the overall success of the company, then let each team member define how they will achieve their goals. Hold people accountable to their goals, not how they achieve them.

To create a positive team culture:

We try to hire people with shared values. We make sure everyone knows what our core values are and we recognize when people do great things in line with those values. One of our core values is “Embrace the Fun.” It’s not about happy hours or “work hard, play hard.” It’s about finding joy in what you do and the people you do it with every day. Life is too short to be miserable at work eight hours per day. Put a smile on someone’s face. Let someone know you appreciate them. Those little things can make all the difference.

Best advice for other people managers?

It’s pretty much what I already mentioned above: set goals, but let your people define how to achieve them. Hold them accountable but don’t be a jerk about it. You don’t have to be mean to be an effective manager, but you have to be firm and make sure you both agree on how to measure success in advance. Embrace the fun, smile, have a laugh—you don’t have to be serious all the time to get stuff done. Give your people the ability to grow and take on more stuff. Most people are capable of so much more than we may initially think. Give them a chance to prove it.  They may surprise both you and themselves.

Best boss ever:

Sheila Ferguson, president of Everyday Wealth. She held me accountable to a higher standard than I had been used to before. She gave me autonomy to define the way I wanted to achieve the goals we set together, and then she held my feet to the fire to ensure I did what I had committed to.

Deb Lerner

Senior Vice President of Sales

Axis Promotions, New York, New York

Number of direct reports: 2

Nominated by: Kylie Fitzgerald and Dana Cappabianca


Nominators Dana Cappabianca (left) and Kylie Fitzgerald say their boss, Deb Lerner (Center), is a friend and a mentor.

Deb’s cool factor: She does not micromanage others and is always open to new ideas.

“Axis Promotions has been my work home for almost 14 years,” says Deb Lerner proudly. Prior to that, she worked for distributor CYRK but in an earlier life before promotional products, she was in restaurant management. It was fertile training ground to learn about managing people. While majoring in hotel/restaurant management in college, she was hired as a restaurant manager trainee while waiting tables and tending bar at Houlihan’s, a restaurant chain with a location at Faneuil Hall in Boston. She was responsible for the front of the house which included hiring the wait staff of 40 (“They were called waitrons,” she says). Because the management team would switch responsibilities, she also frequently managed the bartenders and the door men (“My favorite group,” she laughs).

Lerner has made a lasting impression on her team at Axis by truly caring about them. “Since day one she has made me feel comfortable working here,” says nominator Kylie Fitzgerald, branding associate. “She is my biggest cheerleader and is constantly motivating the team to go out there and work harder to grow our business. She has taught me so much about this crazy business—Not only about products, but how to grow relationships and to treat all people with respect.”

Her colleague, Dana Cappabianca, who also nominated Lerner for the honor, agrees. “Deb Lerner is a wonderful person. She has a huge heart and has taught me so much about business and personal relationships. She is a friend, a great mentor and then a boss. I respect and value her opinion and appreciate all I have learned from her,” she says.

One-On-One With Deb Lerner

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

Not being “the boss” is the important lesson for me. Yes, I always own final responsibility, but I am part of the team. My team allows me to use my strengths, and I encourage them to build their own. We really help each other accomplish the tasks at hand. Also, I feel it is important that Dana and Kylie know that I always have their backs and their best interests at heart!

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

My philosophy in life is also my work philosophy. “Don’t mess with my family, my friends or my money.” My team is all three.

To create a positive team culture:

Unfortunately, I have experienced great loss of loved ones in the past two years. My feeling now, more than ever, is if it ain’t a body part, it’s all good! Drama and negative energy are just a waste of time. Let's keep it real, prioritize our tasks and try not to overthink too much.

Best advice for other people managers:

Every team lead has his or her own style. I described what works for me. Axis Promotions has great people and that's what makes us special. On my team, we work hard, we play with enthusiasm, we laugh a lot and I am full of surprises.

Best boss ever:

He’s also a close friend today—Hank Miller, my boss when I worked at Houlihan’s in 1979.

Hank knew he was on the fast track with the company. Delegating was his best skill, and his second-best skill was recognizing a good team and taking the team with him whenever possible. I've built my team according to the principles I learned from Hank.

Tom LeTourneau

General Manager

Gill Bebco, LLC, Lenexa, Kansas

Number of direct reports: 41

Nominated by: Beth Suter, Kenny Weiland, Cheryl Becker, MAS, Amber Wiles, Melissa Fitkin, Ann White and Jennifer Gomez


Tom LeTourneau (center) is all smiles shown here with five of his nominators. From left: Melissa Fitkin, Ann White, Beth Suter, Amber Wiles and Kenny Wieland.

Tom’s cool factor: Tom’s mind never shuts down. “You can see his mechanical mind always working,” says nominator Cheryl Becker, MAS. “He has a quiet side to him that makes you want to make him talk. We have shared the bad with the good and still stayed friends.”

Tom LeTourneau, who will soon retire, built his career for the past 34 years at supplier Gill Studios, Inc. and then moved to Bebco two years ago when his employer acquired the supplier. It was an ideal opportunity to use his people management skills to help guide and support the growing company. While his new reports praise LeTourneau’s abilities (and a number of them nominated him for this honor), he’s also retained longtime devotees such as nominator Cheryl Becker, who reported to him at Gill for 30 years. “Tom is responsible for teaching me the print and technical side of manufacturing,” she says. “He remained my mentor when he left Gill and moved to take on the challenge of rebuilding Bebco. He has always been that person in the background that made us what we are today. He has a ‘never say no’ attitude.”

Nominator and purchasing manager Beth Suter, who was at Bebco when it was acquired, praises LeTourneau—and for good reason. “He helped save about 35 people’s jobs after Gill Studios bought Bebco,” she says. “He came in and let everyone continue doing the jobs they were used to doing, and got to know the employees, equipment, products and processes before making any changes.” Her colleague, customer service manager Kenny Wieland, shares her admiration for their boss. “Tom has instilled a high standard of integrity and honesty in the company since Bebco opened,” he says. “He is dedicated to providing a quality product, excellent service and prompt delivery to our customers—and his dry sense of humor will brighten up the day.”

One-On-One With Tom LeTourneau

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

As a boss you are always being watched by your associates for what you do and say. Set a good example.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

Hold associates accountable for their actions in the company. Set goals and prioritize them. Do not micromanage.

To create a positive team culture:

Praise in public and discipline in private. Every day, make the rounds and say hello to the associates. Listen and share information. Have fun and be happy.

Best advice for other people managers?

When something goes wrong do not quickly assume it is a people issue. Look at the process first.

Best boss ever:

My best boss was the one who hired me at Gill Studios—Jim Westendorff. He had a mild-mannered style of managing that was still effective. When the right people were placed in the right positions he trusted them to do a good job.

Michael Lovern


Brandito, LLC, Henrico, Virginia

Number of direct reports: 6

Nominated by: Nick Raible, Alex Palmer, Krissy Keener, Margaret Worten, Kevin Mullaney


Nominators Alex Palmer, Victoria Kellam, Nick Raible and Kevin Mullaney celebrate their boss, Michael Lovern (far right).

Michael’s cool factor: “Mike has a phenomenal way of building culture,” says nominator Nick Raible, an account executive. “Mike wants to celebrate the work that goes into each project, win or lose. We all support each other inside and outside the four walls of Brandito—it’s a special place. That type of culture absolutely starts at the top.”

After working in the staffing and consulting industry for six years, Michael Lovern founded distributor Brandito in 2009. His employees credit him with creating a thriving business that attracts high-quality talent, and they consistently praise his leadership, values and interest in them as people first. “Michael is an awesome leader,” says nominator Krissy Keener, director of operations. “He always considers what is best for his employees before making a decision. Not only is he an advocate for achieving professional goals but he also challenges us to think about our personal goals too. He values a healthy balance between work and home life and that is very important.”

Her colleague, account executive Margaret Worten, says Lovern made her feel valuable again by hiring her and giving her the most responsibility and freedom she had ever experienced. “Mike’s confidence in me continues to play a critical role in my growth. He is able to pinpoint fundamentals that I can improve upon without ever making me feel inadequate. Mike works hard and plays hard and allows us to do the same.”

One-On-One With Michael Lovern

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

You have to be patient and transparency is always the best policy.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

You have to stay true to your core principles, but realize that each person has to be managed in their own way. Everyone has their own personality and will respond to positive and negative feedback differently. If you use a blanket approach, you will never be able to make a positive impact and motivate everyone. As a manager, your goal can’t be to always make everyone happy but you can strive to develop people professionally so they feel challenged and successful in their roles. That will naturally create a solid culture.

To create a positive team culture:

A positive culture is built with a combination of all the things I previously mentioned. It shouldn’t only be about managing people but also about challenging everyone to be their best professionally. I encourage my employees to learn from each other, from me and from the people they respect outside of the organization. I like to set clear expectations with each of them but encourage them to make their own decisions. When employees are effectively managed and challenged, when they work well together, and understand your core principles, then you will have a positive and contagious culture.

Best advice for other people managers:

Be transparent, set expectations, challenge them, develop them and listen.

Best boss ever:

I have had a number of great bosses and mentors in my career. I have always believed in learning from others and there are a number of people whom I can credit with my success. Some helped me early in my career and some continue to be mentors today. I believe that the most successful people in the world are willing to listen and adapt based on what they learn from other successful people.

Sandy Poster

Sales Lead/Account Executive

Axis Promotions, New York, New York

Number of direct reports: 2

Nominated by: Susan Paredes and Meghan Albohn


Sandy Poster (left) enjoys time outside the office with her direct reports Meghan Albohn and Susan Paredes.

Sandy’s cool factor: “When we go to meetings together she doesn’t refer to me as her assistant or support staff,” says nominator Susan Paredes. “She tells clients I'm her colleague or her ‘other half.’ Both of our initials are SP and so she'll say, ‘We're the same person.’ I think that's pretty cool and makes me feel like I'm an asset to her team and not just her assistant.”

Sandy Poster recently celebrated her 11th year at distributor Axis Promotions but started her career in the garment industry as a buyer, then moved to the sales side of the business. Her final position in that industry was in the handbag market where she was responsible for sales/product development for Target, Kohl’s and May Company stores, now part of Macy’s.

Perhaps it’s her experience in the whirlwind garment industry that has helped her to learn to keep calm and carry on. It’s a quality both of her nominators greatly admire. “No matter the situation, Sandy always remains calm,” says nominator Meghan Albohn, who has reported to Poster for the past year, and calls her a great teacher and mentor. “Even in her moments of stress, she remains more calm than I ever could. I admire that about her, and hope to one day learn her ways.”

Paredes, who has reported to Poster for nine years, is likewise appreciative of her boss’s unruffled demeanor. “It makes talking to her about tough projects easy—I know she won't scold or micromanage me,” she says. The pair also look up to their boss to set examples they can follow to improve their own business aptitude. “Her communications skills with clients are a learning experience and so are her sales pitches,” says Paredes. “She knows how to work a crowd and is able to ask the right questions to find solutions or connections with people. I admire the way she builds relationships and re-connects with relationships she’s had in the past. Not only is she my work mom but I consider her a friend.”

One-On-One With Sandy Poster

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

I am always learning and trying to improve our team balance, communication and growth. My latest lesson, which I try to practice every day and improve, is to listen.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, constant training and fun.

To create a positive team culture:

Lead by example. I like to start each day in a positive manner. It’s as simple as saying ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’ with a smile. I also try to set an example by sharing the same work ethic and respect for my team as I do for our vendors and clients.

Additionally, I am very involved in the ongoing development of the Axis culture and our core values program. I urge my team to follow their passions at Axis. We are a company where, after due diligence and demonstrated commitment, employees can create new initiatives, programs, one-time events, etc. I urge my team to get involved and take on responsibilities in areas where they feel comfortable and have interest.

Best advice for other people managers:

I am only as good as my team, our office and our company. Without complete understanding of this, and mutual respect, I could not have built the business I have. I am grateful every day for Susan, Meghan, our Rye Brook [New York] team and everyone at Axis.

Best boss ever:

My best boss is my current boss, Larry Cohen [president of Axis Promotions]. I have always worked best forging my own path. At Axis we each have our own sales team. I know Larry is available for me when needed and will supply guidance when requested. He has a very calm manner which is helpful when stressful situations arise as they often do in this industry.

Stephanie Preston

Director of Marketing

HALO Branded Solutions, Sterling, Illinois

Number of direct reports: 9

Nominated by: Tara Francke, Carrie Wolf, Brenda Vos, Philip Peden, Katie Whitehead, Marc Book


Stephanie Preston (second from right) with team members (from left) Katie Whitehead, Brenda Vos, Carrie Wolf, Tara Francke and (front row) Marc Book. Not pictured is Phil Peden.

Stephanie’s cool factor: “She has never used her power against us,” says nominator Brenda Vos. “She is simply one of us and is here to help us all excel.”

It’s a well-known fact that people learn what they live. For Stephanie Preston, that’s how to manage others by creating an open and collaborative environment where camaraderie is baked into the team culture. For the past 12 years she’s worked at HALO, reporting to Terry McGuire, senior vice president of marketing and supplier relations (whom she calls the best boss ever—see below). Prior to joining the industry, she spent two years at Great West Financial and five years at National Manufacturing Co. But HALO is where she’s been able to spend the most time honing her skills as an effective and respected people manager—and those she supervises are glad to work alongside her.

“Stephanie is absolutely wonderful to work for,” says nominator Marc Book, a marketing consultant who has reported to Preston for almost four years. “She is focused on achieving our tasks and leads with purpose. Her vision is clear and easily shared while also very open to our ideas. We all feel as though we have a guiding hand in our company's future. All of these qualities leave us feeling needed and part of something bigger.”

Another nominator, Carrie Wolf, a marketing coordinator who has reported to Preston for 12 years, says, “She trusts in her employees and trusts in our integrity to accomplish our responsibilities for the company.” Marketing consultant Katie Whitehead, a two-year team member, adds, “Stephanie has created an environment in our department that makes us continue to look for ways to improve. She is the best boss that I have had because of her passion for this company and her management skills. She cares about her employees, wants to see us succeed and inspires us to do so.”

One-On-One With Stephanie Preston

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

Everyone brings a unique voice and perspective that should be heard. Encouraging your team to contribute their thoughts and energy always leads to a better idea, a better outcome and boosts team morale.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

Create a collaborative environment where people feel they have a stake in the outcome. Communicate the big picture and long-term vision so the group feels they are contributing to the overall growth and strategy of your company. As long as a staff member is engaged and successfully contributing, allow them flexibility so they can maintain a positive work-family balance.

To create a positive team culture:

  • We have a casual work environment which helps to create a relaxed atmosphere.
  • Communication is key. Ensuring that everyone is aware of what is going on within the department and within the organization creates transparency.
  • Jump in and do the work. Participate in both the little and the big things; it shows you are one of the team. Lead by example.
  • Treats are a good way to keep things light. I bring in themed cookies from a local bakery every holiday. If I forget, my staff reminds me. It’s the little things that are fun, anticipated and appreciated. Little things make big differences.

Best advice for other people managers:

Surround yourself with people who complement the areas where you are not as strong to create a well-rounded team. It’s not necessary to be the expert in every aspect of your job. Allowing people to take ownership and become the expert with a skill, process or project gives them a sense of empowerment and keeps them more engaged. Be open to new ideas and innovation and allow your employees to pursue those things that might be a great benefit to the company. Spend time with each team member to reinforce their relevance and importance. Even if they are just 15 minutes, face-to-face meetings help manage conflict and build trust.

Best boss ever:

My best boss is my current one, Terry McGuire, senior vice president of marketing and supplier relations. His fun and laidback approach creates a creative and collaborative environment for our team. He’s open to new ideas and innovation, and provides me latitude to do the things I strongly believe in.

Amy Spychalla

Director of Strategic Operations Support

American Solutions for Business, Glenwood, Minnesota

Number of direct reports: 8

Nominated by: Taylor Smith


Amy Spychalla (front row, far right) shows off her team. Back row from left: Brady Johnson, Nancy Roering, Becky Thesing, Stephanie Hall, Rob Whitman. Front row: Greg Nelson, Taylor Smith, Wayne Martin.

Amy’s cool factor: “While many managers struggle with whether they want to be feared or loved, Amy is simply a fearless leader who is loved by all,” says nominator Taylor Smith.

Amy Spychalla joined the distributor in January 2003 after working for Securian Financial Group in St. Paul. She’s managed others for about 12 years.

“Amy gives immediate, helpful feedback with genuine kindness,” says nominator Taylor Smith, a promotional products specialist who has reported to Spychalla for almost two years. “She also understands that in order to achieve our creative potential, our workload must be manageable, yet challenging.” Smith says her boss is also incredibly respectful of a work-life balance. “She understands that everyone has interests and responsibilities outside of work. Because she remains so approachable and invested in our team’s professional and personal lives, we trust that she always has our best interests at heart.”

One-On-One With Amy Spychalla

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

To listen. To look at each employee as an individual, capitalizing on their specific skills.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

Regular, uninterrupted one-on-one meetings are helpful to ensure that employees are happy in their work and are receiving the support they need. During our one-on-ones we typically cover victories, challenges and what needs action, and discuss how recent projects tie into American’s mission statement and values. This keeps American’s mission and our purpose on the forefront of the work we do every single day.

To create a positive team culture:

I hold regular meetings to check in on progress and ensure positive morale within the team. I also believe in celebrating victories with kind words.

Best advice for other people managers:

Make time to meet one-on-one with direct reports and encourage your supervisors and managers to do the same. Independent employees will often try to manage everything on their own and not ask for help. Working together to strategize ways to most effectively tackle a situation or project is rewarding for everyone involved and improves morale. We’re all in this together.

Best boss ever:

Wayne Martin, VP-sales resource group at American Solutions for Business. He is an effective leader as he is approachable, reliable and always has my back. He brings humor into the workplace and is very calm during stressful situations, which is highly contagious.

Jim Stewart


BMP Partners, Inc., Houston, Texas

Number of direct reports: 38

Nominated by: Paula Porter


Nominator Paula Porter appreciates the fact that her boss, Jim Stewart, rolls up his sleeves and gets to work with the rest of the team.

Jim’s cool factor: He goes on the road with his sales staff, says nominator Paula Porter, who recently traveled with him to Austin, Texas. “This allowed me to get one-on-one time with him while being myself. It’s fun, educational and a time to get to know something about one another other than work. We laughed—that was the highlight of this trip.”

Jim Stewart founded the Houston, Texas-based distributor 27 years ago after working for Moore Paper Company for eight years. He’s been managing others for about a decade and has clearly learned what works. The key to success for Stewart is that he doesn’t sit in a lofty office but rolls up his sleeves and gets to work with the rest of the team.

“Jim hits the streets and works harder than anyone I have ever known,” says Porter, a corporate brand specialist who has reported to Stewart for the past six years. “He asks nothing from the sales team that he does not do himself. His willingness to see that each of us are successful is phenomenal. One could not ask for a better mentor.” Stewart’s strong work ethic sets the pace for all employees, and Porter continues to be impressed with her boss’s passion to get new products and ideas in front of clients. “He’s a hard worker,” she adds, “and has taught me many things that have assisted me in becoming successful.”

One On One With Jim Stewart

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

I’ve learned to listen to people and try to be empathetic to their issues.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

My philosophy is to encourage people to do their best and don’t micro-manage.

To create a positive team culture:

I try to make the office a fun environment and praise people on jobs well done.

Best advice for other managers:

I really don’t feel I can give other managers advice as I still struggle every day to be a good manager. Being a good manager is a climb that is never over. The best advice for anyone is to continue to strive to learn how to do it better, never being content because people and the world are always changing.

Best boss ever:

My best boss was John Mott back in the early ’70s because he encouraged me to learn how to do more things than required and to reach for the next rung. He helped me get from pumping gas to sales to management in two years.

Michael Stoll

President & CEO

Freestyle Marketing, Scottsdale, Arizona

Number of direct reports: 10

Nominated by: Linda Blum and Andrea Stoll


Nominator Andrea Stoll likes the energy her father-in-law and boss, Michael Stoll, brings to the business. Also pictured is Andrea’s son and Michael’s grandson, Indy.

Michael’s cool factor: “Michael is an avid learner,” says nominator Andrea Stoll, his daughter-in-law, who handles sales and business development for the company. “He is always seeking and open to new ideas, technologies, partners, etc. Despite his 40 years in the industry, every day is new and every project an adventure.”

Michael Stoll learned the promotional products business under the tutelage of his father, David Stoll, who owned Lees/Keystone, Inc. He joined the business 1971 and helped grow it to become one of the largest distributors in the Northeast. He then spent five years as vice president, eastern region for HALO Branded Solutions before continuing the family business by opening Freestyle Marketing in 2001. Fifteen years later he keeps busy by running the thriving family business using the management experience he’s gleaned over nearly 50 years.

When managing others, experience counts and employees appreciate what Stoll brings to the table. “Michael has knowledge from years of working in every facet of the industry and shares them with us from firsthand experience,” says nominator Linda Blum, an account executive who has reported to Stoll for 15 years. “He has led the company through many interesting and successful evolutions over the years—all the while creating and maintaining a family environment and keeping us moving in a forward-thinking direction. We have a great relationship. He provides what I have needed to remain successful and motivated for all these years.”

Blum adds that another way Stoll creates a cohesive and motivated team is by always celebrating company and personal successes. For example, he set a big sales goal for the team in 2015. “Once we conquered our sales target, he took us to an all-expense-paid trip to Cancun, Mexico.  It was incredible!” she says.

But her admiration for him goes far beyond material things. “What I like the most about Michael’s management style is that you always know where you stand with him,” she explains. “If you are a person who needs a lot of hands-on management and constant feedback, he is able to provide that for you. If you are like me, and appreciate more of a laid-back management style, we work great together as long as I am staying on top of my targets. Michael has a great understanding of people in general, but the pulse he has on his employees is what makes him such a great boss.

“Anytime I struggle, he always is there for encouragement. He’ll always say, ‘Just be yourself, that is why I hired you.’ Having a boss that has confidence in me gives me the motivation to run through a wall to deliver for the company.”

One-On-One With Michael Stoll

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

Don’t micromanage; allow people on your team the room and flexibility to set goals, make suggestions, decisions and, yes, even mistakes.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

Work with the team you have in understanding our goals and then get out of their way and let them succeed.

To create a positive team culture:

Our entire staff knows that no matter how many years I have been in this business, no one has all the answers and things are changing too fast for experience to be the end-all. Everyone has input on our decision-making, and their ideas, thoughts and suggestions are valued—and they know that.

Best advice for other people managers:  

Listen more, talk less; it’s amazing how much others know.

Best boss ever:

My first boss out of college was at AT&T. He taught me not to come to him with a problem unless I had suggestions for fixing the matter. He said, “If I have to come up with all the answers, why do we need you?” Now, that makes you think—and grow.

Sharon Zarter, CAS

Senior Business Analyst

AIA Corporation, Neenah, Wisconsin

Number of direct reports: 4

Nominated by: Jim Wolff


Nominator Jim Wolff admires his boss, Sharon Zarter, for her broad expertise and knowledge across the company.

Sharon’s cool factor: “She manages AIA’s Help Desk, and the cool thing is she’s been there and remembers what it can be like,” says nominator Jim Wolff. “Because of that she trusts us to do the right things without checking things out with her before. This helps us deal with issues more quickly and saves all of us a bunch of needless stress.”

Ask Sharon Zarter how long she’s been at AIA and she’ll laugh and say, “Too long!” But for those who report to her, they can’t imagine the organization without Zarter, who will celebrate 14 years on October 28. She joined AIA in 2002 after working with 4imprint as its Help Desk technician for two years and has held supervisory roles for almost eight years.

“Sharon is on top of everything all the time for everyone,” says Wolff, who has reported to her for the past 11 years. “She is an expert in just about every aspect of our business.” He says she has worked to understand all of the company’s systems and procedures, not just because she needs to, but because she knows it helps her better lead her team. He also describes Zarter as a kindhearted resource, not only to the IT department, but to accounting, marketing and a number of other departments. “If you need the right answer she has it. However, there is a price to pay for being that valuable,” he says. “That price is that she is in high demand—even when she doesn’t have time to be here. But she always has been here and I’m pretty sure she’ll continue to be.”

One-On-One With Sharon Zarter, CAS

Most important lesson learned as a boss:

You need to love what you do and believe that you are helping to make a difference.

Philosophy for successfully managing people:

My management philosophy is fluid, but at my core I believe leadership (innovation, integrity and personal development), fairness (treating employees honestly and fairly), and enablement (positioning my team for success) are key.

To create a positive team culture:

I use positive reinforcement with clear communication (setting expectations) and I try to give my employees the freedom to get the job done. These are all factors that have fostered a positive culture on my team and help us work together more cohesively.

Best advice for other people managers:

Learn how to empower your employees. Know that every employee can use more training to excel in their roles; provide timely recognition of employee efforts, and share positive motivation (but maintain balance for poor behavior or failure to perform). Last, you should work to remove roadblocks that prevent the employee from succeeding in their role.

Best boss ever:

Paul Weller, current director of IT at AIA (he was named a PPB Best Boss in 2015). He manages with courtesy and respect. He is also willing to roll up his sleeves to help all of us achieve our goals.

Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.

20 Things The Best Bosses Say:

  1. How can I help you?
  2. I’d like to hear your ideas.
  3. What can I do to make this better?
  4. Good morning!
  5. You did a great job because …
  6. That was my fault; I should have explained it better.
  7. I trust you to make the right decision.
  8. We are in this together.
  9. I appreciate you.
  10. I want to hear your ideas.
  11. I know you can do it.
  12. Thank you.
  13. I believe in you.
  14. Let’s give it a try.
  15. What do you think?
  16. Here’s why we’re doing this.
  17. How’s everything going this week?
  18. I’m listening.
  19. How are your kids, parents, dog, etc.?
  20. I’m glad you are part of our team.