The Best Multi-Line Reps In The Business


They are known as some of the hardest-working people in the industry, and some of the most dedicated.

Being a multi-line rep is a big commitment—one with responsibilities that frequently seep into their personal time, take them away from their homes and families for days and demand top-notch creativity along with a genuine commitment to the supplier and distributor. But those who do it say they wouldn’t do anything else (although we asked them about an alternative career—see their answers in the profiles below).

Our annual search for some of the best MLRs in the business turned up 29 nominations from across the U.S. and Canada. The eight selected for this year’s honor talk candidly about what they do that works, their biggest challenges and what they wish more distributors knew about working with them. Each multi-line rep received a custom, silver-plated lapel pin generously donated by PPAI supplier member Gempire/gwi (PPAI 113471). PPB sincerely thanks Gempire President Harvey Mackler, MAS, who has donated the pins for this program since its start in 2011.

Nominators: Scot A. Schreiber and Chris Brooks, Logospeed Promotional Products; Christine Kleiler, Ironmark USA

After graduating with a business degree from University of South Carolina, Fields went to work for Pepsi Bottling Group in a management training position. After a year there, his father, K.C., asked him to join the company in 2005. He says his dad was the best mentor he could have asked for. He started traveling with him and watched how he did everything. From packing his car with catalogs and samples to setting up sales meetings—he says preparation and attention to detail were some of the reasons why his dad is so successful. Fields says he continues to learn from his father today, and is grateful for the opportunity he was given to join his company.

Secret to success:

I think the key to developing quality relationships on both the distributor and supplier sides is to be honest and treat people with respect. It is a simple rule to follow but can go a long way in our business. When you create an environment of trust and responsibility, the measure for success really has no limits.

How distributors can help.

Communication is important. Let me know what I can do to help you promote my supplier lines to your clients. Reach out to me for product information, virtuals, samples and spec samples to start the process. My responsibility is to provide the distributor with the tools needed to secure the business, and I want to be involved every step of the way.

Biggest challenge.

The landscape of the industry is changing … and the announcement of several company mergers and acquisitions within the past year has been challenging and has impacted us as multi-line reps. Change can sometimes be uncomfortable. We need to remember that this is a business and some of these decisions are out of our control. What you can control is how hard you work and how you do your own job. If you do your job to the best of your ability, then you can be proud of who you are, and what you represent as a professional in this industry.

What he wants distributors to know.

We care about our distributors and will do anything to help them be successful. I like to think of it as a partnership. If both sides work together and communicate, the chances of overall success are much greater in the long run. As multi-line reps, we realize that without the accomplishments of our distributor partners, we are not able to succeed ourselves. It’s important that we clearly communicate our common goals and objectives, and support each other. 

Alternate career.

Management job. I have always enjoyed the idea of putting a group of people together with different personalities and talents and providing then with leadership to achieve a common goal.

About Michael.

He is by far the most involved outside sales rep I have ever worked with over the past 10-plus years. That includes both multi-line reps and factory reps. He says ‘thank you’ for pretty much every order or sometimes even just a quote and is genuinely appreciative. Very few outside reps actually take the time to personally write you and thank you for an order. But Michael does—no matter how big or small. It is nice to hear and if it comes down to me choosing between two vendors with comparable products, I will go with one of his lines.” – Christine Kleiler

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Nominators: Jess Hammond and Julian Hall, Tugboat, Inc.

When a distributor has an opportunity, we can be a big resource providing suggestions from multiple suppliers that meet that project’s parameters. Lean on us more.

— Mark Fulwider

Fulwider was in sales and management at UPS when a friend in the promotional products industry convinced him to give it a go—saying this was the best industry. Thirteen years later Fulwider still says his friend was right.

Secret to success.

I focus on attention to detail and I follow up on everything—even the small things. Hence, I have built a lot of trust with my customers and the suppliers I represent. I love that suppliers and distributors are partners in our business. We rely on each other and our success is predicated on each party doing their job well. When you do your job well and better than your competition, a true partnership is the result.

How distributors can help.

Most distributors welcome reps and want to see what’s new and hot. We know our lines best and what are the hot items. Some distributors don’t see the need to meet with reps, and I think they are missing sales opportunities.

Biggest challenge.

Our job is to be on the road and knock on doors. Travel expenses have gone up every year and hotels are high in the Bay Area, so the cost of doing business is a challenge. Also, traffic is horrendous, so too much time in the car and less in front of customers. We just need to be smart when planning trips to make the best of a challenging situation.

What he wants distributors to know.

We have the help of representing multiple suppliers. When a distributor has an opportunity, we can be a big resource providing suggestions from multiple suppliers that meet that project’s parameters. Lean on us more.

Alternate career.

Flipping homes. My parents were builders and I do my own home renovations. I like seeing the finished result of my efforts.

About Mark.

I’ve never come across anyone who is more tuned in to the promotional apparel industry and the needs of his clients and mine. I’ve also never worked with someone who works as hard as me for my client—every time.” – Julian Hall

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Nominators: Marcella Carrizosa, Terry Town; Tom Flippo, Dunbrooke; Steven Meyer, MAS, Riteline

I’ve always loved this business, so I guess that sort of gave me a head start, making it easy to develop relationships.

— Bill McDonald

McDonald started his career in the promotional industry 39 years ago, when he sold college bumper stickers and t-shirts door-to-door to businesses in Georgia. In 1984 he joined Brown & Bigelow as Atlanta district sales manager. In 1988 he accepted a position as vice president of sales, mid- south region at Forrester-Smith, Inc., working with one of his industry mentors, Wing Hughes. He founded McDonald Marketing Group in 1989 and formed a multi-line rep partnership with Doug Terry of Terrytorry Marketing a few years ago.

Secret to success.

I’ve always loved this business so I guess that sort of gave me a head start, making it easy to develop relationships. And in our promotional products world, great relationships have always been extremely important to success. I’m lucky because I can call on my friends and succeed in business at the same time.

How distributors can help.

I can make distributors’ jobs easier if they will give me more information about their projects and clients.

Biggest challenge.

Distributors don’t realize the value multi-line reps can bring to their business.

What he wants distributors to know.

Multi-reps have so many new product ideas and can help create new opportunities for distributors to help them stand out to their clients. We can also help save distributors money, which can often result in a larger profit margin.

Alternate career.

I’m not sure but musician in a band stands out—if I had just not sold my Gibson Chet Atkins Mosrite guitar in 1970.

About Bill.

The industry is still about relationships and Billy Mac is the king of relationships.  He’s always cheerful and presents the product with energy. There isn’t anything Billy wouldn’t do to help a customer, a supplier or just anyone. There is a reason why he’s has been around for such a long time—he has good follow-up and is motivated to find new ways to promote his lines. He is successful and creates a situation where distributors want to buy from him.” – Tom Flippo

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Nominators: Kippie Helzel, MAS, Keystone Line; Dan Edge, Peerless Umbrella

One big value we bring is a relatively unbiased opinion of the popularity and success of items.

— Neil Mihan

Mihan got into the industry by seeing the light—literally. After studying marketing in college, he had great success selling a clever squeeze flashlight (Pressalite) to retail stores and later became the Canadian rep for the product. Later, he added other products before transitioning the company into a multi-line rep firm in 1998. The company has grown over the past 20 years with long-standing, strong supplier partnerships and continues to increase coverage across Canada. It currently employs five people, four in sales roles.

Secret to success.

Honesty, hard work and out-of-the-box thinking. I’m always trying to do things differently, better and faster. If we say we are going to do something, we do it. We decided long ago to be a national multi-line service provider and built it over time to include bilingual representation inside Quebec. We wanted our eight product lines on one accurate search engine and did this with the help of SAGE. To our amazement, distributors actually use this tool and often.

How distributors can help.

A lot has to do with having knowledge of their client base. That’s a tricky topic. It’s also helpful to have a Dropbox or cloud-based system of logo storage that is only accessible to people they trust. This way  we can easily make up samples for their clients.

Biggest challenge.

Being a multi-line rep is a tough gig. It's long hours, travel and lots of follow-up. Suppliers understandably expand their product categories and this can create overlap with other lines.

What he wants distributors to know.

We can bridge the gap. One big value we bring is a relatively unbiased opinion of the popularity and success of items. We have sales data from suppliers and will recommend the products we know are strong or items we feel will be. We can help with product sampling, special pricing based on our knowledge of their business, suggest program opportunities/pricing and other helpful and profitable tidbits. We also collect and post video content, flyers and other social campaigns that can be easily shared in print, via email or reposted onto various social platforms.

Alternate career.

Inventor. I’ve always liked inventing products and I have a couple of patents on products. I would be in a marketing role with some company bringing new products to life.

About Neil.

Neil is outstanding in his comprehensive commitment to his supplier lines. He not only reps the product, but he counsels us on sales and marketing strategy, key account development and more. He is constantly educating himself on the current technology developments in and outside of the industry, and how we can maximize that. He works to perfect his individual platform and to advise us on ways to improve our data position. He gives honest input on our strategy when asked and is not afraid to bring up things that he feels from his perspective can benefit our growth opportunities. He is a partner in the truest sense of the word.” – Kippie Helzel, MAS

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Nominator: Ann Gephart, BrandVia

Distributors can use us as their research engine. We have a variety of lines that can fit into many different projects and price points.

— Cheri Partridge

Her first job in the promotional products industry was in 2000 as a sales rep for distributor MadeToOrder—a position she found through friend Rex Shoemake, who is a partner at the California-based company. Partridge opened her multi-line rep firm in 2002.

Secret to success.

I love my job and I’m super open and outgoing. I’m sincerely interested in people and ask a lot of questions, so I not only learn about their businesses but their personal lives as well.

How distributors can help.

Reach out to me with their projects. I’ll do their work for them. Also, I love going on end-user calls with them.

Biggest challenge.

Traffic!

What she wants distributors to know.

We can be a one-stop shop. Distributors can use us as their research engine. We have a variety of lines that can fit into many different projects and price points.

 Alternate career choice.

Interior designer.

About Cheri.

She takes the time to get to know you and really find out your needs as a distributor. She is the rep you call when you need help with creative ideas for a project or have a last-minute rush. For example. I had a rush project that came through after normal working hours. Cheri took my call at 9 pm and helped me come up with creative solutions to present to my client the next morning. She was the very first person I thought of who would go above and beyond on such a late, last-minute project.”
 – Ann Gephart

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Nominators: Michelle DeMayo, Hub Pen

Most multi-line reps represent more than four or five companies. Each company that we represent must be shown an equal amount of time to represent them correctly.

— Gerard Schifano

Twenty-six years ago, Schifano became a sales rep for supplier Peerless Umbrella after working as a national sales manager in the outdoor advertising industry. In 2015 he opened his multi-line rep company covering the northeast U.S.

Secret to success.

Over the past 26 years I have been so fortunate to have many mentors and friends who are both distributors and suppliers. I believe the most important ingredient in forming these partnerships is honesty, hustle and, most importantly, reliability.

How distributors can help.

Distributors have always played a huge role in the success of our business. Having their finger on the pulse every year helps our supplier partners in bringing the correct and pertinent products to market.

Biggest challenge.

Price fluctuation. The tariffs have virtually changed the way our industry has brought product to market. Customers are now encouraged to use online capabilities like websites and social media to view goods and services. Suppliers are still printing catalogs with images and description of items, but because the pricing fluctuates frequently during the year, pricing is no longer available in printed catalogs. 

What he wants distributors to know.

For the most part, distributors are extremely knowledgeable about who we are and what we do. That being said, most multi-line reps represent more than four or five companies. Each company that we represent must be shown an equal amount of time to represent them correctly. I wish more distributors would allow more time to represent each of the companies.

Alternate career.

College basketball coach.

About Gerard.

I consider him a mentor and he makes learning easy. He is a class act and it shows through his generosity and going the extra mile. He is always willing to share his sales secrets and his success, and he mentors me with his professionalism, sales ideas, tactics and other strengths. He is setting a high standard for others to follow.” – Michelle DeMayo

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Nominator: Alex Morin, Debco

The more I understand a distributor’s culture and their clients’ goals, the better I can assist them in growing their businesses.

— Karen Spencer

In 1986 Spencer helped a friend expand a small retail kite company that later became Gayla Canada, a supplier of custom-imprinted balloons and custom-sewn products. She stayed with the company as general manager until 2001. She founded her rep company in 2007 serving clients throughout Ontario.

Secret to success.

I’m a worker bee—I work hard every single day and I am passionate about what I do. I find the most incredible excitement in the newest products and decorating techniques, and I think this passion has been infectious.

How distributors can help.

The more I understand a distributor’s culture and their clients’ goals, the better I can assist them in growing their businesses. My most successful distributor relationships are those where these goals are shared.

Biggest challenge.

Time. Everyone is so pressed for time and to respond to emails and texts instantaneously that we often don’t take the time to sit together and be proactive with creative, storyboards, samples, etc. I encourage my customers to take 20 minutes on a Friday afternoon to just sit with one or two accounts in mind. Then send me a short bio on that client and what they are currently working on and let me come back with some proactive creative.

What she wants distributors to know.

MLRs can provide such a great assistance to growing their businesses because we have so much knowledge of the industry, not only through the cultures of different distributors but also from the variety of suppliers that we represent.

Alternate career.

None—I love my job.

About Karen.

By approaching RFPs with a unique perspective, she challenges our company to create product solutions that exceed the demands of hungry end-users. Consistently ranking No. 1 or No. 2 in sales growth year after year, Karen is the model of how an MLR can take years of experience and channel that experience into new and innovative ways of educating our customers. For example, in a recent large bid for a Fortune 100 automobile company, Karen challenged the notion of what could be accomplished on a budget and recommended highly customized product solutions with exceptional packaging. Her ideas won the bid and resulted in an order worth more than a half-million dollars.” –Alex Morin

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Nominators: Heidi Sturmfels, Promotion Select, Inc.; Taylor Borst, American Solutions for Business

This year Yoder celebrates 21 years in the promotional products industry. He started his career selling pagers and made an impression on a distributor in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The distributor liked his persistence and offered him a job as a sales rep. He moved his family to the Milwaukee area and worked for two distributors before deciding to make a big switch. In 2006 he joined supplier Ash City as a hybrid factory rep and became a full factory rep in 2014 after the company was acquired by alphabroder. He opened his own rep company, 5Y Marketing, in 2016.

Secret to success.

I believe that my time as a distributor, and seeing what they encounter daily, has helped me to earn their trust. They believe that I understand how best to support them and their work with their clients. This credibility has allowed me to make deeper connections with many of my customers. My supplier partners know that I am going to work hard and try to get them as many opportunities as possible with my clients. It is truly a team effort to be successful, and I do everything I can to promote my suppliers in a very positive light with distributors.

How distributors can help.

Information is critical so that we can all be efficient in either helping with projects or resolving order issues with suppliers. If a client can take the extra step to give me full details, the process will move much faster and the results will be better for both of us.

Biggest challenge.

We are all business owners who don’t have control over a lot of the daily processes. There is consolidation of suppliers that is entirely out of our hands. There is the pull of trying to go deeper with our current clients versus trying to expand our territory base for our supplier partners. You must be very nimble as a multi-line rep, work smarter with both sides of the business and control the effort level that you put in to be the most successful. 

What he wants distributors to know.

I understand that most distributors are very busy and pulled in many directions. I hope distributors realize that we, as reps, have many of the same issues that we face each day. We all want to maximize our time in meetings so they are efficient and have value. If we are not showing that to you, please tell us. Any rep who values his or her relationship will make the changes necessary so that our meeting time is beneficial. We really are here to support you and your clients in the best possible way. On our end, please show up for meetings with a plan and stay focused so we can accomplish something great together. 

Alternate career.

Professional athlete, but that ship has sailed. I believe that I was meant to be in sales and/or service in some capacity. I really like being around people and trying to achieve something together. There is a slight chance that I may be competitive, so that plays into my career choices.

About Chris.

The way Chris maintains relationships is more fitting for the modern way we do business in this industry—he’s genuine and honest in a way where you feel you know his real personality rather than him putting on a sales facade. Another way he accomplishes this is his use of social media. He connects with everyone in his personal and business circles so that we all get to see what’s happening in his life on both sides. From our perspective, we get to see how connected he is with his family and understand his values and priorities—and how they align with ours.” –Taylor Borst 

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Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.

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Comments (2)
Jae M. Rang, MAS
April 2, 2019
CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL the hard-working, dedicated reps who bring us ideas and solutions. Personally we have worked with Karen Spencer for more years than we care to admit, and Karen just keeps getting better. What a valuable resource she is! Neil Mihan continues to invent and expand on supportive opportunities by partnering with other MLA's to be a one-stop-shop for samples and education. He, too, is worth his weight in chocolate. Thanks, both! Succeed deliberately! Jae
Adrienne Barker
April 2, 2019
Congratulations to all nominees and winners. I enjoyed reading this article.
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