Remembering PPAI Hall Of Famer Bill Vernon, CAS
William F. (Bill) Vernon, CAS, former chairman and CEO of Newton, Iowa-based distributor The Vernon Company, passed away on December 3. He was 89. The news was first reported Monday in a PPB Newslink Breaking News alert.
“He had a fantastic long life, made many dear friends and will be missed,” says Chris Vernon, MAS, Bill’s son and the president and CEO of The Vernon Company. “We are all lucky and blessed to have so much time with him, especially during this terrible pandemic. Bill instilled in all of us solid Iowa values—the importance of always being authentic, fair, honest and nice to everyone regardless of their job or position in life. Take the high road whenever possible, even if the short game is cloudy. We have some big shoes to fill.”
Vernon began his career at The Vernon Company in 1956 after serving in the United States Army and over the next 64 years was highly engaged in building the multi-generation family business across North America.
“Bill Vernon has been one of my industry role models for nearly 60 years—longer than anyone else,” says Bill Bywater, chairman of Bankers Advertising Company. “I have been blessed with hundreds of meaningful business relationships. Bill was always among the leaders. Most prominent among the things I admired over the years was the Vernon family’s involvement spanning four generations. I was privileged to know and admire the most recent three. Our companies have shared parallel longevity and family leadership for nearly 120 years.”
Vernon's involvement in the promotional products industry was extensive. In the late 1960s, he served on the board of directors for Specialty Advertising Association International (SAAI), now PPAI, and was chair in 1971-72. In 1986, he was honored with induction into the SAAI Hall of Fame. A year later, he was recognized by Counselor Magazine as its Person of the Year and in 2002 the company was awarded the magazine’s Family Business Award. In 2013, Vernon received the Marvin Spike Lifetime Achievement Award from the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI).
Beyond his industry activities, Vernon was involved in numerous professional, civic and government organizations throughout his lifetime. He served as a civilian aide to Secretary of the Army for the State of Iowa, the founding chair of the Iowa Games and served as chair of Iowa Association of Business and Industry. He served as chair of The Des Moines Civic Center and was the co-founder and past chair of Progress Industries in Newton, Iowa. Vernon was also past chair of the Iowa Young Presidents’ Organization and served as an international director. Vernon was awarded the Department of U.S. Army’s “Outstanding Civilian Service Medal” and the Chairman Emeritus Founders Award from Iowa Governor Terry Branstad for planning and executing the first Iowa Games. In 2002, The Vernon Company was recognized under the Century Businesses of Iowa Program. In 2011, Vernon was inducted into The Hall of Fame at Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he served as a Lifetime Trustee, and in 2012 he was inducted into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame by Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.
"In every era there are just a small handful of giants who drive the attitudes and actions of an industry. Bill Vernon was one of them," says Gene Geiger, MAS+, Geiger’s chairman of the board. "When my career was just getting started, Bill Vernon was larger-than-life head of the leading distributor firm. If there was an industry leadership position, he held it. If there was an award, he received it. He was an awesome combination of intelligence, energy and high expectations. When he strode by, people took note. When he spoke, people listened. When I was in his company, I learned and grew. Beyond his company’s success and his industry contributions, he was force in his home state. There wasn’t a business leader who didn’t know him or a political leader who wouldn’t take his call. As a member of a multi-generational family business, I can only admire how he took the baton from his father, improved it, and then made sure the enterprise and its supporting values were secured firmly in the hands of the next generation—Chris, Rick, Cameron and Stephanie. As for me, I was gradually able to move past his intimidating facade to enjoy the warm interior of a man who cared and who did things the right way. His stature was well earned; his life was well lived. Our industry has lost one of its most significant leaders of the 20th century."
Bywater adds, “Being a fellow Iowan, it was an honor to also know Bill through some of his other outstanding achievements. His keen mind, sense of humor and obvious leadership qualities stood out wherever he devoted his many talents. Later in his career, he shared his insight, business acumen and vast knowledge through articles in a monthly industry publication. Our beloved promotional products industry benefited greatly from Bill Vernon choosing it for his outstanding caeer.”
Vernon is survived by his wife Marilyn, their four children (Rick, Chris, Cameron and Stephanie) and six grandchildren. One of his greatest legacies was having all of his children serve in the family’s fourth-generation business. Chris Vernon serves as the company’s CEO, Stephanie Vernon-Critchfield is both a vice president and the national sales manager, while Rick and Cameron Vernon are company vice presidents and senior account managers.
A private family graveside service will be held this week in Newton, Iowa, and a celebration of life will be planned next summer in Iowa. Memorials may be made to the Progress Industry Foundation or to the Promotional Products Education Foundation (PPEF). The Vernon Company earlier established a William F. "Bill" Vernon Named Scholarship with PPEF, that is awarded to outstanding students who have a parent working in the promotional products industry or who are working for a company in the industry. Any memorials received for Vernon will be added to the fund supporting his named scholarship, further extending the number of years that it will be awarded.