Welcome to the first installment of what (we hope) will be an ongoing series of blog posts. Our aim is to explore and learn from the various career paths of promotional products industry leaders.
PP: First things first, how did you wind up in the promotional products industry?
SW: People seem to get into this business in one of two ways; either their parents or some other relative was already in it or completely by accident. I was the latter after leaving my first career in radio. I was selling billboards and called on an electronics company that had a promotional products business on the side. They didn’t buy my billboards, but when I needed a job a few months later I called them and they hired me on the spot 29 years ago. I can assure you however that neither of my two boys will ever get into this business.
PP: Your distributor side experienced was mostly made up of medium-sized businesses. What was it like working for a corporate giant like Staples?
SW: Staples got into the promotional products business by acquiring two very different companies and cultures. Integration was not easy. Change does not come quickly to a company of that size and while they had a great infrastructure to handle the largest clients imaginable, they don’t respond quickly to the needs of smaller companies who must be nimble to survive. I learned much from working with Staples in terms of what to do and what not to do to stay relevant in business.
PP: From 2006-2008 you served on the PPAI Board of Directors. How did the opportunity to take on such a visible leadership role come about?
SW: I’m blessed to have had the opportunity to be part of a group of professionals who understand the importance of giving back. I initially worked with the local regional association in Georgia (GAPPP) and became president in 2000. I then became their Regional Association Council (RAC) delegate and rose to RAC President in 2004. I was fortunate to have been elected to a seat on the PPAI Board in 2005 and served almost three years. My experience as a volunteer leader has benefited me in so many ways including meeting scores of people I never would have known otherwise, many who remain my dear friends to this day.
PP: Your background is a bit unique, in that you’ve worked for distributors, service providers, and, currently, a supplier. Have the challenges that you faced in each sector of the business varied? In what way were they similar?
SW: The challenges we all face in this constantly changing industry are similar in many ways no matter what sector one works in. The internet has changed and continues to change the way distributors and suppliers go to market with both facing the commoditization of products and margins being squeezed. To survive on either side you must sell the value you bring to the table, be it great customer service, creativity, speedy delivery, or anything else that sets you apart. Selling on price alone creates a downward spiral that I believe is hard to ever recover from.
PP: When moving from one company to another what was your main motivator for making a change?
SW: Like most of your readers, making more money is certainly a consideration when changing jobs. However, I’ve always made a change based on a variety of reasons including the financial stability (or lack thereof) of the company, ethical lapses, management disagreements, or the chance to take on more responsibility. With one exception, every new job has led to better opportunities and put me where I am today.
PP: You’re currently a Regional Sales Manager for Prime Line. What’s been the biggest surprise about working on the supplier side?
SW: I absolutely love being on the supplier side and see it as a natural extension of all I’ve done over the years. My biggest surprise has been in seeing how both suppliers and distributors have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of the other. Both sides have their challenges and neither is an easy gig. Empathy goes a long way in building relationships and, at the end of the day, relationships are what success is built upon.
PP: Steve, you’re active on social media and with your blog BrandExtenders.com. What networking or career opportunities have come your way as a result of your increased exposure?
SW: My goal with blogging and being active with social media has always been to build a personal brand by sharing my knowledge and expertise with others. I can’t specifically point to opportunities that have arisen because of my exposure, but I can tell you it puts me on a different level. One must earn respect and by being myself online, I’ve made friends and landed jobs I might not otherwise have been exposed to. Besides, I love to write and my blog gives me the chance to hone my writing skills on a regular basis.
PP: What was your most triumphant moment/sale/negotiation—when you felt you really had a mastery of this business? Have you ever mastered this business?
SW: At one time, Xerox was a client and I received a call from them during the Vegas show in 2004 saying they wanted to send every employee in the company (63,000) a gift from the CEO to say thank you. Xerox had gone through some very tough times but had turned the corner due to their new CEO at the time and the company’s dedicated employees. We created a custom MP3 player (seems quaint now given the dominance of iPods & Apple Music) made in Xerox red, custom earbuds and packaging, and a message from the CEO embedded on the player. It was a $1.6 million sale and as you can imagine, I was on top of the world. However, I don’t believe one can ever master this business given the constant changes in technology, decoration methods, and product specs. This in turn leads to the need to always be learning and never being afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”
PP: What advice would you give an experienced industry professional who is looking to change roles?
SW: There is no perfect company so you must first assess what motivates you and why you are seeking change. Then look at the pool of potential employers and learn as much as you can about them through research and talking with others. What is their reputation in the industry, do their values seem to be in line with yours, and do they have an overall vision? Is there an opportunity for growth and promotion, is the company healthy and stable and are there leaders there who will motivate and inspire you? Understand this process will take longer than you expect, so don’t get frustrated…
PP: Do your friends and family know what you do? If so, how did you explain our industry to them?
SW: I’m usually referred to as the tchotchke guy, but for those who don’t understand our business I’ll ask them if they have a key chain, T-shirt, or pen with a logo on it (they always do!). I tell them that’s what I do, help companies keep their brand visible with useful, logoed products.