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From Couselor's June 2008 Issue

2008 ASI Spirit Awards
By Betsy Cummings, Matt Histand and Meghan Hurst

From sales growth to creativity, the 2008 ASI Spirit Awards honor the industry’s best sales and marketing efforts. Here are the winners.

Sales and marketing. It’s the backbone of any good company’s success. It’s the creativity needed to garner attention and the persistence to sign new clients and retain current ones. Ultimately, it’s what defines the success of companies in the ad specialty industry.

To honor creativity and business success – and the sales and marketing efforts that lead to such performance – the ASI Spirit Awards were designed. In categories ranging from fastest-growing company and best self-promotion to best print and online advertisement and most innovative product of the year, we’ve identified some of the best marketers and sales companies in the industry today – both suppliers and distributors.

Their stories exemplify industry success. There’s a supplier that’s grown its business 500% over the past two years and a distributor that has quadrupled its overall 2007 sales in the first quarter of 2008 alone. Yes, it’s a level of achievement that every good company would desire, but most could only hope for. Wondering how they did it? Turn the page and take a look at our winners’ stories.

Fastest-Growing Supplier
Impressline

When Ray Valle makes a change, he makes it big. First there was the switch from distributor to supplier back in 2002, when his company, Impressline (asi/62479), was still based in Mexico. “In the ’90s, we sold to Mexican companies, selling products made in the U.S. to Mexican end-users,” says Valle of his former distributorship.

But over time his company, after a nine-year success, crumbled under a creeping spread between the values of the peso and the dollar. Before long, “a dollar was three pesos, and then a dollar was 10 pesos,” he says.

Suddenly his business strategy of bringing American products south didn’t seem so strategic. “In the beginning we were trying to import products from the U.S. from companies that are now my competitors. But then the exchange rate more than tripled from one week to the next,” while Mexico was in the midst of an “economic crisis,” Valle says, and suddenly the cost of doing business was insurmountable. Bringing products from the U.S. to Mexico was a competitive advantage because it offered “[the] corporate accounts that we managed different products,” Valle says. But with a skyrocketing exchange rate, “we almost went out of business.”

That forced Valle, the company’s president, to focus on other means to succeed. First, he started sourcing products more cheaply, hunting for bargains in China and elsewhere. When that tactic lost its competitive advantage, and Mexican elections threw the country into disarray, a few years ago, Valle decided “we wanted a way out for our business.”

Or at least a way out of Mexico. In 2005, he decided to exhibit as a supplier at The ASI Show in Chicago – a sort of experiment to see how great a response his company might get. Eventually the company added a few more trade shows to its schedule, and started to land a few orders – many on the trade show floor. Their first, Valle says, was a $250 order from British Petroleum for 500 plastic keychains.

 

In 2005, Impressline’s sales skyrocketed to $450,000, and rose to $1.5 million last year. This year, Ray Valle says he expects sales to climb to almost $3 million.

Those few show orders emboldened Valle and Co. to set up shop in Texas for the last quarter of 2005, to see if selling inside the U.S. could actually work. The experiment paid off and then some. Sales that quarter were $250,000. The next year they skyrocketed to $450,000, and rose to $1.5 million last year. This year, Valle says, he expects sales to climb to almost $3 million. The 500% surge between 2005 and 2007 makes Impressline the winner of ASI’s Spirit Award for fastest-growing supplier. Now with 45 employees, including six in sales, the company has offices in Dallas, Houston and Laredo, TX.

Valle says there was a learning curve for doing business in the U.S. In Mexico, every order is paid for up front. Now, however, Impressline had to deal with establishing lines of credit. “The first two weeks were havoc,” Valle says, “because distributors in the U.S. are used to getting credit. That was something new for us.”

In Mexico, Impressline sold blank products, whereas here, the company suddenly entered a market where it needed to imprint the products it sold. That informed the company’s sourcing policy – to find the highest level of blank items so that they’d start out with a better product before the imprinting process began. Sometimes it has meant losing a few cents on a sale here or there, but has resulted in greater success in the long run, Valle insists.

The company targets small- to mid-sized distributors. “That’s the way we started in Mexico and the way we grew pretty fast” there, Valle says. “Everybody that goes into a market goes after the big guys, but if you’re doing a job correctly, it’s the small and medium guys that appreciate the work much more.”

Apparently so. The company’s clients explain Impressline’s true market advantage. On a recent order of 500 notebook journals, says Miranda Wozniak, vice president of PAL Promotions (asi/288643), she faxed an order and received an art proof the same day. The order was finalized within hours, and the products were received in five days. What’s more, Wozniak says, the company is exceedingly diligent about updating customers on orders. Updates come “the day before shipping,” Wozniak says, then again “the day the products are shipped,” a courtesy she says she rarely receives from other suppliers. “Five minutes later I’ll have tracking numbers in my e-mail” so she can follow the shipment’s arrival to her door or her client’s. “I love that instantaneous customer service,” she says about the company that also often waives setup fees.

Wozniak says the supplier works hard to create a personal connection with clients, through regular e-mails wishing her holiday greetings or randomly throughout the year.

While many companies pay lip service to customer attention, Impressline actually delivers, customers say. “In this industry a lot of times it’s hard to get through to customer service,” says Clara Trejo, owner of Talynn Grace Apparel, in Oceanside, CA, and a salesperson at Power Blaster Printing (asi/297550), a distributor in San Marcos, CA. Through Power Blaster, she says, she often works with Impressline on digitizing artwork. Prices per job are competitive, she says (from $20 to $150), but it’s the customer service that keeps her coming back. “I send an e-mail, and within moments I get a call back.”

It’s through simple, but fast, customer service efforts that the company experienced rapid growth, Valle says, steadily spreading its reach across territories nationwide. For Roger Berzoza, a sales executive with Impressline, maintaining such a high level of customer service can mean covering a lot of ground in his territory that spans states from the West Coast to as far east as Ohio. To make Impressline more attractive, he says, the company creates special selling offers (free shipping to Mexico, for example) and highlights specific products on its Web site for free shipping anywhere.

Surprisingly, the training program at Impressline is nonexistent, Berzoza says. Instead, he endured a “really hard interview” to land the job, and a mandate from day one that customer service was the number-one goal day in and day out. “This is my first time working in promotional products,” says Berzoza, who has worked at the company for 18 months. “My strategy” in relation to developing customer service and furthering Impressline’s growth, “is to make clients feel like they can trust you.” – Betsy Cummings

10 Fastest-Growing Suppliers

The following are the top 10 fastest-growing suppliers in the market, along with their two-year growth percentage between 2005 and 2007.
1. Impressline (asi/62479) 500%
2. Radia Enterprises Inc./Spectrum Uniforms (asi/88680) 278%
3. Source Abroad (asi/88242) 228%
4. Custom HBC Corp. (asi/47934) 215%
5. ETS Express Inc. (asi/51197) 152%
6. In Your Face Apparel (asi/62494) 147%
7. Gordon Industries (asi/57800) 117%
8. Symphony Handmade Papers/Okina (asi/74930) 112%
9. Jetline (asi/63344) 88%
10. Rad-O-Koolz/Coolergraphics (asi/80345) 85%

Fastest-Growing Distributor
Level 2 Sportswear

Being named the Fastest-Growing Distributor for 2008 is a great accomplishment, but for Level 2 Sportswear (asi/252696) President Ryan Berry, delivering top-notch service is even more important. “We’ve actually been turning down referrals,” he says. “We could have been growing even faster, but I don’t want to divert my time and attention away and have my existing customers not get the service that they are used to.”

Turning away business hardly seems a recipe for success, but it’s exactly that client-first (and employee-first and supplier-first) mentality that has created the incredible growth needed to win this year’s award. Berry founded Level 2 Sportswear in March 2005, reaping just over $350,000 in revenues that first year all by himself. He slowly added employees to create its current seven-person staff, which pulled in $1.3 million in 2007, resulting in 275% growth over the past two years.

Berry credits most of his success to his team of employees, whom he courted for anywhere from several months to a year before hiring. Despite such prudence he also didn’t hesitate to make an offer when talent was available. “We’ve always looked for the right people,” he says. “Sometimes that meant hiring someone before we needed them on board, but if they were the right person, we got the right person.”

The company’s more laid-back approach also has helped attract talent. At Level 2, there aren’t endless meetings and performance appraisals. Micromanagement isn’t needed because the hard work has been done up front during the hiring process. “If you have the right person, they know where they stand and are already putting pressure on themselves to do more,” Berry says. “They don’t need me to pull them aside and scrutinize them.”

Above: Ryan Berry (back, second from left) grew his company’s business 275% in the past two years.

If laid-back is Level 2’s approach toward management, the opposite is true when it comes to clients. The company makes consistent contact a priority to create close partnerships with customers. They also keep in mind that for many businesses promotional purchasing is just one of many decisions they have each day.

“We want to help clients get what they need in terms of service, as opposed to selling them some product or idea,” Berry says. “It’s about how we can help them make their business better. We’re a reliable company that a client can trust to get the best item for them, at a good price, deliver it on time and not have to worry about follow-up calls.”

A good example of that level of commitment is Level 2’s growing workwear sales, which now represents 20% of its business. While the company had little experience with uniforms, its reputation in servicing clients for their other promotional needs earned it the opportunity to move into the uniforms niche.

“The workwear companies that some of our clients were working with did not provide them very good service, so they offered it to us,” Berry says. “We couldn’t touch the prices offered by those other companies, but it didn’t matter, because all the client needed was for us to be competitive and respond in a timely manner.”

Level 2’s service-first approach also extends to its suppliers. While many distributors sit on supplier invoices for at least 30 days – if not 60 or 90 – Level 2 has a policy to pay all of its vendors before 30 days. In fact, during that first year it paid vendors on a weekly basis. And Berry believes that payment strategy has been instrumental in the company’s growth.

“Vendors know that when the next order is coming from us, that the check is also on the way,” he says. “Once suppliers realize we do business that way, they are more willing to do a favor once in a while, because [they] aren’t out 60 to 90 days. Paying so quickly has its benefits.”

Another secret to the distributor’s success is that it outsources as much of its day-to-day business functions as possible. From accounting and finance to printing and design, Level 2 tries as much as possible to save on costs by outsourcing these jobs. “We outsource absolutely anything that we can outsource,” says Berry. “By keeping our overhead low, we have been able to keep our cash flow high and pay people quickly. That allows for fast turnarounds, which allows for a better experience for our customers.”

Level 2 expects the good times to continue despite gloomy economic predictions that start with the letter “r.” Its first-quarter ’08 sales alone were $4.96 million. No, that’s not a typo. Level 2 has already nearly quadrupled its entire 2007 sales in the first quarter of this year. If that performance continues, chances are good that this time next year, you might be reading a very familiar article. – Matt Histand

10 Fastest-Growing Distributors

The following are the top 10 fastest-growing distributors in the market, along with their two-year growth percentage between 2005 and 2007.
1. Level 2 Sportswear Inc. (asi/252696) 275%
2. Gimmees.com (asi/207070) 266%
3. Proforma TCT Promotions (asi/300094) 221%
4. The Brandmarket Inc. (asi/145006) 202%
5. Absorbent Ink (asi/295819) 150%
6. iPROMOTEu (asi/232119) 136.3%
7. SayNoMore! Promotions (asi/319787) 136.2%
8. CM Promotions (asi/154919) 127%
9. WorkflowOne (asi/333647) 113%
10. Noble Logos Inc. (asi/283625) 75%

Best Supplier Self-Promotion
Target Graphics

Target Graphics Ltd. (asi/90549) captures this year’s Best Supplier Self-Promo award for its interactive trade show promo that it recently implemented. Call it the $100 T-shirt promo.

Tom Vann, president and CEO of Target Graphics, says the goal behind the initiative was to build brand awareness and showcase the supplier’s ability to print four-color process on dark shirts. “The whole idea is to practice what I preach, and that is creative marketing with T-shirts,” he says.

He came up with the idea working with his marketing coordinator, Cole Lohman, and using ideas from promotions in the past. Vann ultimately decided that he wanted to promote what he does: T-shirts. “I wanted a shirt to be remembered and worn on the show floor,” says Vann. And, what better way to get people to wear it than by offering up a $100 cash prize?

The shirt featured the Target logo printed on the front of a plain black T-shirt to highlight the company’s new “leather ink” process, and a huge four-color-process $100 bill on the back, with text that read, “If we printed on paper, we’d be counterfeiters.”

Before trade shows last year, Vann spread the word via pre-show e-mails, show directory ads, and Vann’s participation in The ASI Show’s Supplier Secrets Keynote sessions. The message was the same every time – come to Target’s booth to get a shirt, wear the shirt during the show and be entered for a chance to win $100.

At the booth, staff members asked people if they would like to participate by first hearing a three-minute sales pitch about what the company does. Participants got handed the $100 T-shirts and were asked to wear them around the show floor. Vann would then walk around, randomly handing out $100 bills to those wearing the shirts, giving out $600 cash per show. Winners had their pictures taken holding the money, and Target sent out an e-mail to all of the show attendees with the pictures and quotes from the winners. “I think people in general like to be entertained,” he says. “If you can entertain people, you’ve got their attention. If you entertain them in an honest fashion, where it’s fun, people respond to that.”

In all, 288 shirts were given out at each show, and Vann estimates that about 80% kept wearing the shirts. He says he even saw some shirts being worn in 2008. “Nothing like building a fan base,” says Vann. “A T-shirt that’s loved and worn is a true winner.”

Vann believes the promotion was well worth the cost, as the effort helped to drive traffic to his booth and drive increased revenue for last year. In all, the company held the promotion at five trade shows last year and spent a total of about $10,000 (approximately $2,000 per show). The return? Trade show leads for the supplier more than doubled last year. “The promotion was a huge success,” Vann says. “People simply loved the idea. You could see the shirts in every aisle.” – Meghan Hurst

Best Distributor Self-Promotion
The Singleton Company

“I wanted people to be conscious of our capability of creating a custom store Web site,” Todd Singleton, president of The Singleton Company (asi/328000), says of his company’s self-promotion. The effort, which took place during the holiday season last year, can be considered a perfect marriage of high-tech and soft-touch.

The Singleton Company shipped overnight a tin of cookies from the Atlantic Baking Company, a teddy bear and a tri-fold mailer to 120 potential clients over the 2007 holiday season, telling them to “enjoy the cookies,” a “Singleton family favorite.”

A total of nine gourmet molasses, ginger and chocolate chip cookies were sent out in each package, along with the teddy bear in a red-printed T-shirt and Santa hat. The concept was easy for Singleton to come up with; he aimed for continuity and simplicity. “People love sweets; people love soft, cuddly things. There’s a sense of smell that anchors that whole product,” says Singleton. “So those are the root images that create, to me, a more deep, imbedded impact for the promotion.”

The tri-fold card was the “trigger point,” and ironically, the least expensive piece of the promotion. It prompted individuals to visit the company’s Web site, where they could choose one of 19 free holiday gifts. A unique user name and password were provided on the card so Singleton could track who was responding. Within 24 hours after the packages were sent, 41% of the recipients went to The Singleton Company’s Web site to claim their free gift (plus a bonus 2008 calendar) and simultaneously brought heavy traffic to the site. In all, there was a 61% response rate, with another 16% within the following four weeks. Also the distributor garnered a total of 19 orders directly from the promotion. And a couple of major new clients, including the Screen Actors Guild and the U.S. Olympic water polo team, signed deals with Singleton for the distributor to run online stores for them.

Singleton says he’s looking into running something similar later this year, to see how it could be used as a customer referral program. He attributes the success of this promotion to the fact that it was so “laser focused” and crafted toward his clients. “It’s a dance,” he says. “It’s very flowing, interactive and an intelligently articulated program.” – MH

Best Client Promotion
Geiger/Pinellas County Health Department

To educate approximately 6,000 children about Big Tobacco’s use of candy-flavored tobacco products to advertise directly to youths, the Pinellas County Health Department called on Top 40 distributor Geiger (asi/202900) to develop a promotion that ran from August 2006 to May 2007 in Pinellas County, FL.

The promotion, called the “Candy Campaign,” was developed by Julie Isenhour, a Geiger salesperson, and needed to educate children between the ages of 11 and 18 about the issue of Big Tobacco targeting youths. “When they approached me and told me all this, I became enraged, actually,” says Isenhour. “Not only do I want to do my job here, but I’m angry and I want to fight back too.”

Promotional products that Geiger used to create awareness included T-shirts and book bags given to the SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) members, along with lip balm, sunscreen and boxes of candy to be distributed during the awareness campaign. The SWAT members distributed these gifts at homecoming games, sporting events and Sandblast, an annual beach event in Florida. “They would go out and canvass the beaches, and go out and talk to them about what Big Tobacco was doing,” says Isenhour.

The products all aimed to bring attention to the issue of candy-flavored tobacco products. The T-shirts and bags were in “candy” blues, oranges, yellows and greens, and featured messages like, “You can’t sugarcoat the truth” and “Not for sale.” Rubber ducks with “Big Tobacco ducks and runs” printed on them were used at the Sandblast event in a carnival game. They were so popular that SWAT used them as inspiration for a carnival-themed commercial aimed at raising awareness of Big Tobacco’s youth-targeted advertisements. The spot now airs an average of 200 to 300 times a month.

In all, approximately 10,000 youths were impacted by the promotion, and thousands of promotional products were distributed at the different venues. Even more children were indirectly affected by the signs and flyers placed in three high schools and middle schools. Upwards of half a dozen ASI suppliers were used to produce the promotional items, and the feedback was phenomenally positive. The success of the program has led Geiger’s client to continue and expand on the program in 2008.

“Julie and Geiger clearly wanted to give SWAT teams items that met the need, and at a reasonable price,” says Carolyn Smith of the Pinellas County Health Department. “We never have a lot of money to spend, and what we have goes to youth prevention education. The items we purchased from Geiger were integral parts of the campaign, and because of the items selected, helped make the campaign bigger and more recognizable than we ever dreamed.” – MH

Best Ad – ESP Online
R 2 B Inc. (asi/80303)

Best Ad – email express
Prime Line (asi/79530)

Best Counselor Ad – General
Bullet Line Inc. (asi/42424)

Best Counselor Ad – Insert
EcoSphere Associates Inc. (asi/51660)
Best Counselor Ad – Wearables
Gildan
Innovative New Product of the Year
Fargason Outdoors (asi/53680)


This tent chair fashioned as a love seat has an attached canopy and a carrying bag with shoulder strap, large side windows, a zippered storage bag and convenient cup holders. A great item for a tailgate promotion or beach-related event.
Best ADVANTAGES Ad
Prime Line (asi/79530)

 


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