Viewpoint: Promoting Our Profession Beyond American Shores

This past spring, I spent a week traveling in Stockholm, Sweden, with PPAI President and CEO Paul Bellantone, CAE. He and I were invited to attend the Swedish Product Media Association (SBPR) Education Day. Paul was a featured PPAI speaker and I was asked to be the category expert, or as I like to call it, “the color commentator.”

It was exciting, informative and, frankly, just a great time. In my numerous overseas travels to various industry events and vendor factories, I have enjoyed combining my career and profession with opportunities to explore foreign countries (a month before the trip to Sweden I had been in Düsseldorf, Germany, for the PSI show). I have made many professional and personal friends along the way and, in the process, I’ve increased my overall understanding and knowledge of our global industry and hopefully shared some information and stories about my 40 years as a U.S.-based distributor.

After returning from this last trip, Paul asked if I’d articulate my thoughts on what drives me to explore the world of promotional products in various areas of the globe. My reasons, desires and conclusions extend beyond a distinct ROI. Here’s some background.

My first trip to Asia was in 1979, before I ever got into the business. I was trying my hand at importing furniture. I didn’t make any money on my first attempt, but I managed to cover all my costs for a month-long trip to Hong Kong, Korea and Taipei. The trip ignited my excitement for travel and entrepreneurial adventure. My next trip was to Hong Kong when I was working for distributor Jack Nadel International. It was a WRAPV incentive trip (a consortium of suppliers that sponsored fantastic travel incentive trips). A few of us added on to our journey and traveled to Beijing. Beijing, in 1985, was an entirely different world than it is today. The Asian Tiger had not yet blossomed, and Tiananmen Square was completely different, but that is another story.

After forming my own distributor firm in 1988, my travel to Asia picked up and in the early 2000s I made many trips to attend trade fairs in Taipei, Hong Kong and Canton along with various vendors and agent partners. We went to some amazing places, ate unusual foods and visited workshops and factories; some were in dismal condition, others in better shape. I loved it all.

However, the lure of substantially lower unit costs must be weighed against the risk. You can do 10 deals that are perfect but the last one may cost you the profit from the previous nine. I began to learn the perils of being a “spot buyer” vs. a “supply-chain buyer.” I can still hear Gemline’s CEO Jonathan Isaacson saying, “Without the promise of ongoing buys, you are vulnerable to loss—you have no negotiating power. You are only as valuable as the next order coming down the line.” We did have some great relationships that developed from personal trips and have had some success in our direct import efforts, but being a spot buyer as opposed to having a healthy supply chain is a risky business at best.

Some of the markets, particularly in Canton and Yiwu, are overwhelming in terms of size and selection. The Yiwu market, in particular, is an eye-popping and leg-weary experience. Certainly the markets are mesmerizing and thought-provoking, but after seeing 3,000 to 4,000 stalls in five or six million square feet of exhibit space, and with little to no understanding of the language or culture, it’s easy to feel overloaded.

For me, these trips are truly more about learning, observing, cultural immersion, adventure and meeting people, and not so much the deal or buy to be made. Today with product safety, working conditions and tariffs among myriad business issues, MadeToOrder tries not to be the importer of record, but I have become friends with my contacts in Asia and I have hosted them in my home over the years. We always continue to seek out new ideas because you never know what may develop.

Ten years ago, when I was elected to the PPAI Board of Directors, my desire was to evolve the “I” in PPAI. That is still my passion. Since the timing of PSI in Düsseldorf this year didn’t conflict with the PPAI Expo, Paul and I decided to attend. I had been once before as a guest of Holland-based supplier Xindao, which I had met with previously in Asia, but this visit was a chance to promote cooperation between PPAI and PSI. I loved this show, loved Düsseldorf and was fired up about all the meetings and meet-ups with other promotional products suppliers and distributors. It was exciting and invigorating, and I vowed to go back every chance I get. 

But these trips cost quite a bit and take me away from running my business. Where is the real ROI for this effort? It is not a bright line and there is no guarantee you will find some miracle opportunity, but I have created some nice partnerships that have allowed me to jointly pitch to global clients. My company has had some significant wins where my EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa] partner has realized seven figures of annualized business when we jointly serve the global needs of clients by sharing concepts about importing, resources and vendors. MadeToOrder has also handled special projects for clients in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Great Britain. They are not the same level of business we referred over to our EMEA partners, but they have been fun and interesting projects.

I have now made more than 15 trips to meet with my EMEA partners and have created such strong friendships that PSI CEO Michael Freter has brought his family to vacation with my wife, Barbara, and me at our summer home in Washington State. And we’ve visited the Freters as recently as last year when I picked up a new car at the BMW factory in Munich, Germany. Similarly, Patrick Tornqvist, at the time a partner at Xindao, and his family have come to stay, fish and hang out at our summer home, too. Now, after our recent trip to Sweden, I count Kjell Harbom, managing director at the SBPR, among my friends, along with many others around the world.

These professional friendships are warm, motivating and thoughtful as we explore and discuss ideas about the industry—everything from shows to products to networking.

Barbara and my business friends know that I love to grab a pen and write out ideas on the paper table liner at restaurants as we launch into all kinds of ideas about business. I love to “talk shop” in general, and on the international front it is even cooler.

Some may have seen the announcement a few months ago that I’ve decided it is time to step out of my operating role with MadeToOrder and transition those responsibilities to my very capable team members. My hope is to build a new role for myself in keeping with my passion for exploring and searching for new ways of doing business and making new professional contacts around the globe.

In the months and years ahead, as I change focus from running a company, I hope to work with others to advise, consult and provide services for those needing professional introductions, candidates for acquisition, market intelligence, expert witness and the skills of an industry ambassador.

After 40 years in this profession, I hope I have achieved some level of professional validity, a trustworthy reputation and a willingness to go anywhere, meet people and seek out new ideas, relationships and opportunities. I hope I can continue doing what I enjoy, which also includes my volunteer work in the slums in Mexico to build hope, and traveling to Africa to deliver food and gifts to blind orphans.

Again, coming back to the why of this adventure we call life in the promotional products industry: I love this stuff. And even if the commercial side does not pay off, the lifestyle, the travel, the cultural and business immersion with other entrepreneurs whom I now call friends is reward enough. As I like to say, “There is more to life than simply commerce.”

It is a fantastic world to explore. Go be a part of it. This is why I do it.  


Rod Brown is owner of Pleasanton, California-based distributor MadeToOrder.

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