The Right Roots
How industry veteran Kippie Helzel finally found the perfect home base
A few years ago, Kippie Helzel, MAS, vice president of sales at supplier CPS/Keystone (UPIC: keystone), and her husband, Richard, were at a transition point. Living in Westlake, Ohio, they had recently experienced the passing of both of Richard’s parents and didn’t have any other family members nearby. With their two sons in college, it seemed like a good time to make a move.
“We had been going to Essex [Connecticut] for many years to visit friends, and from the first time we went, my husband Richard and I thought, ‘we love it here, this is our kind of town!’ Historic, on the water—the quintessential classic American small town,” she says.
One Friday night Richard was casually looking online at real estate in Essex just to see prices, and he saw a small historic house that seemed like a great opportunity. “We had our friend preview the house for curiosity’s sake, and the conversation started. We went from ‘we can’t’ to ‘why can’t we?’ and we decided to look at the house. But I was in Dallas at the SAGE Show, so Richard went alone to look with our friends, and by that Thursday at 5 pm we had bought a house that I hadn’t even seen!”
The house was wonderful but a bit small. Fortunately, Helzel says, “Within three months a [bigger] house came on the market around the corner from us, and although Richard was out of town, I jumped on it and we bought that house without him seeing it! It is the perfect house for us. We love it.”
Built in 1860, the house has original wide plank floors, a fireplace and lots of character, but was fully updated and modernized a few years back.
“Moving to Essex is one of the best decisions we ever made. We live in one of the prettiest towns in America and our dogs, Griffie and Henry, enjoy walking all the streets and woods around us,” she says.
With their oldest son, Barrett, currently at home after graduating in December from the University of Vermont, and younger son, Burke, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, Kippie and Richard say they feel like they are finally right where they’re supposed to be.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I am just so happy to be home that often I am truly content just puttering in the house and gardening. I love taking walks with Richard and the dogs to our little downtown. We love to cook and entertain, and have friends over for dinner frequently. We go to Italy every year in March or April to visit relatives and friends, so that is the bulk of our vacationing, though we squeeze in a little additional travel here and there. I have six sisters and one brother, so a lot of my free time is also taken up keeping in touch with them.
How long have you worked in your present position?
I have been with CPS [in Erie, Pennsylvania] for 14 years now; over 10 as vice president of sales. I started in the industry in 1987 with ASI. I’ve been in the promo industry for almost 30 years. It’s hard to believe.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I really love my actual sales work, talking with clients, reaching out to growing customers and helping distributors with special requests. It feels good, always, to know that I can make things happen for our customers because we have such a great crew at CPS. Now that we have a number of sales reps, a lot of my time needs to go to sales management, which I love because I have such a great team. But given the choice of selling or managing, I honestly prefer the customer contact.
What was your first job, and what lessons did you learn?
I first worked at an oil and gas exploration company in Denver. I started at the bottom of the secretarial pool, and took it so seriously that I was noticed by our CFO who brought me in to his office one day, and asked me about my education and background. When he heard that I was a liberal arts major and graduate of Tufts, he told me that he supported a liberal arts education, asked me where I wanted to work in the company and then helped me get into the investor relations department. Doing the work required put me on his radar and helped me step in to a higher level position much more quickly than I had expected. That is a lesson I never lost.
What was your first job in promotional products and how did it come about?
After living in Denver for seven years I was ready to come back to the East Coast to be closer to family and friends. My sister had worked at ASI, and recommended me to the company. I studied up as best I could on the promotional products industry to be ready for my interview, and I’ll never forget the feeling I had when Don DePena was talking about a “two-headed widget” and I thought to myself, “how did I miss that one, what ad specialty item is that?” Don hired me and turned me over to Ron Ball, and the rest is history, as they say. I could not have had a better mentor and leader than Ron; he taught me everything I needed to know about not only promotional products, but about customers, how to achieve the best working relationships and how to ask for business.
What motivates you in business and in life?
I am energized by the great people in my life, from customers, colleagues and industry friends, to my husband and personal friends. I feel so blessed to have so many great friendships in work and my personal life, the good energy in it all just blows me away sometimes.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
Having brought CPS to what I like to call “today’s real world.” I worked hard, listened hard, fought hard (respectfully) to get CPS where we are today. From rebranding the company 10-plus years ago, to pushing for the expansion of colors and products, rush service, developing a great customer service and sales team, I had to push and be patient. As the owner of the company, Leon Bilewitz, said to me recently, “When we put our heads together we have been able to come to good decisions,” and he is right. Finding the balance between a conservative company management philosophy and a changing marketplace forced us both to adjust the pace of our strategic plan and the change required and desired. In the end, I will say that winning the 2016 PPAI Supplier Star Award of Merit is the recognition for all that we achieved as a team.
What advice would you give to an industry newcomer?
It’s all about relationships. Do the work, be honest and treat people as you would want to be treated. You may not win over everybody, but in time you’ll win enough to be happy.