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Cover Story

2008 Counselor Awards

By Michele Bell, Kenneth Hein, Matt Histand and Elaine Wong

Meet the elite winners of the 2008 Counselor Awards.

From the head of one of the biggest and most successful supplier firms to two entrepreneurs who started a business after meeting each other for the first time in a hotel lobby. From one of the industry’s leading voices on international business to an executive who once thought she could run an all-female-operated auto mechanic operation. From executives who took over companies from their parents to one industry professional leading an effort to raise money for autism research. These are the people in the industry who are making the biggest difference right now.

They’re people like Jack Teague, the head of BIC Graphic USA and this year’s Person of the Year, who is one of the industry’s most prominent voices on the need to ensure the products sold in the ad specialty market are safe and reliable. They’re people like Larry Wilhelm of Custom HBC and Lewis Amicone and Monte Baumgartner of, the winners of our Entrepreneur of the Year awards, who thoroughly embody the entrepreneurial spirit of the ad specialty industry. And they’re people like Laura Holt of Geiger and Paula Shulman of Prime Line, two women who never thought they’d be selling ad specialties for a living, but are now models of success for others in the market.

What follows are profiles of the 10 winners of the 2008 Counselor Awards. Need some inspiration?

The Winners

2008 Person Of The Year: BIC President Jack Teague
BIC President Jack Teague is leading the industry charge on two important fronts: product safety and eco-friendliness. Those efforts – as well his success at growing one of the biggest supplier firms in the market – are why he’s the 2008 Counselor Person of the Year. – By Matt Histand

“Wow, that’s cool,” says Jack Teague, president of BIC Graphic USA (asi/40480), as his voice is quickly drowned out by a group of F-15 fighter jets flying by his office in Florida. The sound of the engines easily overwhelms his reaction to being named Counselor Person of the Year. He doesn’t seem to mind though; you can hear the marvel in his voice as he watches them go. “We’re in the pen business,” he says, “don’t come after us.”

Attacking BIC Graphic is probably the furthest thing from the minds of distributors that do business with the firm. They are the industry’s largest writing instruments supplier, a perpetual Top 40 company, and the winner of two Counselor Distributor Choice Awards (for the pens and pencils & erasers categories) earlier this year. There’s a real reason for all the love.

“BIC makes business easy for the distributor in everything they do,” says Chris Vernon, president of Vernon Co. (asi/351700). “When we send them an order, we don’t need to worry about it. If every supplier operated like BIC, this would be a lot easier industry than it is.”

Success flows down from the top, which is where you’ll find Teague. He’s been with BIC for over 25 years; 15 years with the Graphic division and nine years as its president. In that time, sales have gone from $102 million to $191 million last year. Impressive numbers no doubt, but the company’s success isn’t the sole reason why Teague is being honored this year.

What makes Teague stand out in the market – especially right now – is that he’s at the helm of a successful company that is on the leading edge of two of the most pressing issues of the day: sustainable development and product safety. It’s the latter issue, of course, that is of particular importance to an industry that sources much of its products abroad and where just one case of product liability could ruin a business. In the face of increasing recalls on products from overseas – from high profile recalls in the toy and food consumer market to bag and other giveaway items recalled in the promotional market – both suppliers and distributors have quickly been forced to become educated on the issue and ensure that they’re protected from liabilities. Teague, for one, has decided to face the issue head on.

“We have a responsibility to be in business today and in 20 years,” says Teague. “To accomplish that, we need to satisfy the needs of our consumer base. The highest standards of product quality, product safety and supply chain are basic elements of our business.”

Since entering the promotional arena, BIC has held its products to the same stringent safety standards as its consumer division. BIC has an internal safety group that oversees all stages of product development and production, including complete scrutiny of all new products. The group also submits its products to a variety of outside third-party tests facilities.

The company has taken a leadership role within the consumer writing instruments category as a member – and at times a board member – of the Writing Instruments Manufacturers Association (WIMA). The association, in conjunction with the Art & Creative Materials Institute, employs an independent testing lab at the University of Duke Occupational Health Department for the testing certification program for ink.

“If every supplier operated like BIC, this would be a lot easier industry than it is.” – Chris Vernon, Vernon Co. (asi/351700)

“When we entered the promotional products business in 1977, the same internal quality and safety standards that exist for BIC consumer were transferred into the BIC promotional business,” says Teague. “These are long-established policies of the company that have been in place for many years.”

Taking The Lead
Right from the start, Teague has been getting down to the heart of the matter. In 1993, when he took the job as general manager of what was then the BIC Special Markets Division, he immediately realized that 90% of the supplier’s product mix was over 10 years old. He knew new products were essential to future success, so he put together a five-point growth initiative and met directly with then BIC Corp. North America CEO Bruno Bich, who approved the plan. While it might not seem like much, the decision at that time was monumental.

“Traditionally the consumer side would lead product development throughout the world,” says Teague. “This was the first time the Graphics business stepped out of that box and controlled our own destiny.” The result was a new line of products that grew sales by $1 million the first month – and each month after that for eight straight years.

Today, BIC offers a host of products outside of the writing instruments category, such as sticky notes, magnets, mouse pads and drinkware, along with the addition of a bags line introduced last year with the purchase of Atchison Products. The latest addition is the Ecolutions line of products made from recycled materials, a market that Teague has been looking to migrate to the ad specialty industry over from BIC’s consumer division.

“Sustainable development is really universal throughout our company,” says Teague. “It deals with our products, which includes the Ecolutions line, and provides guidance as to how we operate our facilities, including recycling of paper, electrical, water waste management, etc. We also have a defined contract for the way we deal with sub-contractors, such as safe working environments, labor laws, quality standards, which all tie into that.”

The line was released in this market in October 2007 with four pens and sticky notes with a second phase planned for later this year. “We’ve been very pleased with our progress so far; and pleasantly surprised with the amount of sales value that’s in place,” says Teague.

This kind of success with new product lines and BIC’s penetration in the market has been the hallmark of Teague’s tenure with the company. “During the time Jack’s been on the job, BIC has seen significant growth, and not just in sales volume, but in product expansion and all the things that they’ve touched,” says Gregg Emmer, vice president/chief marketing officer for Kaeser & Blair Inc. (asi/238600). “There were forays into other areas long before his coming on board but those didn’t pan out as well. His success in his position has been pretty much absolute.”

For Teague, the success is due to a team effort. “When you get into the technical aspects of business, such as finance, human resources, IT and manufacturing, I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know,” he says. “I have a great group of talented, committed and qualified individuals who have been part of our team for many years. We operate together and the success we’ve shared is the collective contribution of the complete organization.”

Teague’s work ethic – and likely his ability to work as a team – was molded in Rhode Island where he grew up in a family of seven kids with a dedicated stay-at-home mom and a hard-working father who managed a local supermarket. “We lived a very basic lifestyle, but looking back it was great,” he says. “I think I have some pretty good values instilled in me, established by my parents at a very early age.”

It’s those values and a solid work ethic that allowed Teague to progress through a succession of positions to become president of BIC Graphic, which in 2002 became a global position overseeing seven business units in over 90 countries. “It was a very significant adjustment because I’m not an international person by nature. I only speak English, while some of my managers in Europe speak up to seven languages. That completely amazes me.”

Lingual skill aside, going global and the addition of new product lines has meant a major change in the strategic mindset of Teague and BIC, namely sourcing product overseas. While it may be business as usual for many companies, BIC has always manufactured its products at BIC-run facilities to ensure quality and keep safety top-of-mind.

“High standards of product quality and safety is not a matter of choice,” says Teague. “It is a requirement of being a business leader. And if you go through our history, through evolution of pens, lighters and shavers, there’s no question that the safety of our products has been first and foremost.”

That high-level of concern for product safety is what’s behind their recent partnership with sourcing management company, Asian Sourcing Link (ASL). The relationship started just over five years ago when three representatives were hired to oversee the expansion of the BIC and Solis line, which were being made in China. Since that time, complete overseas’ production has grown to represent 25% of BIC’s line and ASL representatives have grown to more than 60 representatives all across Asia.

“What ASL does for us is to improve our supply chain and give us the opportunity to ensure standards,” says Teague. “End-users are putting their brand image on the line, as is the supplier. We believe today as we go forward, there will be more stringent controls and a much higher standard in terms of product quality, social compliance and sustainability by our distributors and end-users.”

Despite the benefits of overseas production, the move gives Teague pause because of both product safety issues and the loss of jobs in the United States. “Some of the decisions that I make as a business manager impact people, and a lot of these are people who have worked with the company for a long period of time and have contributed to the company’s success,” he says. “Adjusting your workforce, based on economic conditions or requirements of the business, I think is the responsibility of a business leader.”

Despite tough decisions, or more likely, because of them, BIC has continued to grow in sales volume and respect during Teague’s time as president. “They have been consistent, high performers in terms of service and support for us and our sales group,” says Vernon. “I can’t say enough good things about them really and Jack in particular because of his leadership. It says a lot about being able to be consistent and keep the promises you say you do.”

For Teague, one aspect of the job has always been simple: stick with what you know. “There are so many opportunities to move away from core values of a company that contribute to short-term success,” says Teague. “They’re traditionally the easy decisions, but they have steep, longer-term consequences. We are a company that doesn’t compromise on quality.” – MH

International Person of the Year: Jonathan Isaacson, Gemline
To hear some people who attended Jonathan Isaacson’s breakfast presentation at the Premier Group meeting held this past January in Las Vegas tell it, they were lucky to get out with their vital organs intact. “It really shook me up and nearly knocked me out of my chair,” one said to another, who noted that he felt as though he’d been “smacked in the gut with a two-by-four.”

The reason for the strong reactions was that Isaacson, owner of Lawrence, MA-based Counselor Top 40 supplier Gemline (asi/56070), stood in front of almost 200 suppliers and distributors that morning and, with his simple, Al Gore-esque slide show presentation, explained in a very reasoned, calm and rational fashion how the ad specialty industry is headed for a sea-change of epic proportions. His level-headed, Yankee demeanor prevents him from coming across like an apocalyptic nut wearing a sandwich board declaring the end is near, but there’s no doubt that with each speech he makes on the topic of global issues, his audiences have been jolted, to say the least.

Which is not to say that he’s wrong. As the owner of Counselor Top 40 supplier Vantage Apparel (asi/93390), Ira Neaman is one supplier who attended the Premier Group breakfast. “Jonathan is very in tune with the issues that affect the whole industry; he succinctly addresses social and economic changes in China that are adversely affecting the industry as well as safety and quality risks being created by suppliers and distributors who import without a full understanding of Prop 65 and other government regulations,” says Neaman. “The industry would be wise to listen to his message.”

David Woods, the CEO of Counselor Top 40 distributor Adventures in Advertising (asi/109480), concurs: “I know of no one who surpasses his in-depth knowledge of trends and conditions in China,” Woods says. “Jonathan is the first person I call on to help us understand the fast-changing situation there.”

The China Syndrome
There are three things you should know about Isaacson that give him measurable credibility: First, at the request of his father Sam, who founded Gemline in 1957, Isaacson lived in Asia – Hong Kong – for two years nearly 20 years ago, when its business landscape was more like the Wild West and few Americans had a roadmap for how to navigate its intricacies. Even now, he travels overseas for business about 20% of each year. Second, the amount of knowledge he’s amassed on international issues is voluminous, and he quotes The Economist, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as easily as most people breathe. Lastly, he led Gemline to 7% growth from 2006 to 2007, increasing the company’s sales from $88 million to $94 million.

But despite his global awareness and business success, Isaacson has his concerns and they’re not trivial. “World-wide inflation is a huge issue, in part because of the U.S. market and partly because global markets are developing quickly and the prices of raw materials are way up,” he says. “When you have inflation going up and the economy going down it’s a bad thing.”

And then there’s the elephant in the room: compliance. “You can’t flip a switch and have a perfect response for how to handle this,” he says. “It’s going to evolve the next few years, and we’re all going to have to figure out how to deal with it. When you have this big an industry with this many products and people, it takes time for change to get integrated into the marketplace. It’s going to be hard to get perfection quickly in an industry this big.”

“Right now, China’s biggest export is its inflation, which affects all of us.” – Jonathan Isaacson, gemline (asi/56070)

Gene Geiger, president of Counselor Top 40 distributor Geiger (asi/202900), has known Isaacson for years and relies on his international expertise. “Jonathan has taken on the challenge of product safety; he’s spoken on the subject at numerous forums,” Geiger says. “He is well versed in current laws, regulations, and business practices in Asia, and in China particularly since he has a very significant operation there. He was the first person who alerted me to the fact that the era of Chinese price deflation had ended – and the reasons behind it.”

Isaacson predicts that the ad specialty market will be affected dramatically by international as well as domestic economic forces, because it’s inevitable that inflation will work its way into the price of products. “Wages and commodity prices are going up in China, and there’s the valuation of Chinese currency – eventually, that will push its way into the price of promotional products,” he says. “Right now, China’s biggest export is its inflation, which affects all of us. Granted, it will affect businesses differently, depending on who you sell to. The medical and defense industries are still doing quite well, as opposed to mortgage brokers.”

To illustrate why, exactly, he sees price increases as inevitable and rampant, he points out that China is extremely inflationary and the problem is that markets don’t like uncertainty. Unfortunately, in China right now there’s uncertainty in abundance. “The RMB (the Chinese currency) is going to go to 6.5 to the dollar which will be an 8% change over the year. On top of that, there’s a possibility that China is going to reduce its VAT (Value-Added Tax) refund to 4% in July,” Isaacson says. “You want to hear people having fits in our industry? That’s when it’ll happen.”

He maintains that no company buying from China can escape the fundamental economics that are happening now. “The RMB affects everyone, the basic core inflation affects everyone, the changes in Chinese labor laws will affect many and the change in the VAT will theoretically affect us all,” he says. “Wal-Mart’s buy from China is bigger than what this entire industry buys – they’re affected and there’s nothing they can do about it. It doesn’t matter how big your pen is, at some point, fundamental economics take over.”

And lest you think he’s a glass-half-empty kind of guy, he’s much more pragmatic than that. “There will be industry growth, but it will be modest,” he says about the industry in 2008. “Our advertising medium is a very effective, targeted way to reach a customer base. Because of that, it will do better in this economy than other forms of advertising. But, no one is immune from the market around us. The reality is, though, that markets do clear – as markets go down they most certainly come up again. If we can hang through the tough times, the markets do turn.”

And when, exactly, will that be? “At some point, the markets will regain equilibrium,” he says assuredly. “The question is when and how? If I knew the answer to that, I could make a lot of money in a different business.” – MB

Supplier Entrepreneur of the Year: Larry Wilhelm, Custom HBC Corp. (asi/47934)
What makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur? At Custom HBC Corp. (asi/47934), the answer to that question is, well, continuous product innovation. It’s the driving force behind the company’s creative burst of energy, what keeps them motivated when new ideas turn old, and what makes the company and its head – Larry Wilhelm – our Supplier Entrepreneur of the Year.
Yes, this Waconia, MN-based health and beauty supplier, just eight years in the making, consistently fulfills highly creative campaigns. Need proof? Here’s a sampling of its latest work:

  • A barbecue-scented sanitizer. Perky taste bud quencher? Nope. A promotional giveaway for a beef producer’s council.
  • A bust of Millard Fillmore in soap form. The sculpture was used in an auto manufacturer’s “Unknown President’s Day Sale” TV spots.
  • Honey-scented liquid hand soap. Placed in shopping mall bathrooms three weeks before the release of Bee Movie. “Each bottle of soap had the Bee Movie graphics and the date of the first showing,” Wilhelm says.
Custom HBC Corp. is definitely ahead of the curve when it comes to cutting-edge, and this strategy accounts for their success. “Unlike some ‘broadline’ suppliers who try to cover multiple categories, we decided early on to specialize in the health and beauty category, and to be the best supplier in this sector,” Wilhelm says. “These products are pervasive, used by everyone every day, are functional and therefore have value to the ultimate user.”

The approach, too, has been highly successful for Wilhelm. In 2007, Custom HBC Corp. finished off the fiscal year, with approximately $8 million in gross revenue, and this year’s projected figure, Wilhelm says, is $11.5 million, a 40% increase.

And the way he intends to get his company to reach its goals is through innovating systems in customer service. “In January, we implemented a new manufacturing information system to better control inventory and provide better information to our customer service, production and shipping departments,” Wilhelm says. The company also installed systems to monitor on-time delivery, item and imprint quality and to prevent any errors in production or shipping.

“We want to become as good as the very best companies in this industry,” Wilhelm says. And, with a tone of appreciation, he adds: “As with any award, the recognition should really go to the 80 hardworking and creative folks who make Custom HBC what it is.” – EW

Distributor Entrepreneurs of the Year: Lewis Amicone and Monte Baumgartner,
Lewis Amicone and Monte Baumgartner met in a hotel lobby, and with $800 in hand went on to found a distributorship that finished 2007 with $9.6 million in revenues.

Their partnership dates back to 1997, when Amicone, CEO, and Baumgartner, president of (asi/300367), worked together on their first joint venture: investing in real estate tax liens. Two years later,, the precursor to, was born. “It was exclusively bags, but in the very beginning, we bought seconds: overruns and misprints from a few factories, actually, and we sold them on eBay,” Baumgartner says.

The turning point, Amicone says, came when a school placed a large order. “They wanted 3,000 bags, and they asked if we would do it,” Amicone recalls. “At that point, the whole promotional products business opened up to us. We found it was a much better business model to sell 3,000 bags to one person than 3,000 bags to 3,000 individuals.”

Since 2001, this distributorship has been a true testament to the power of Internet sales. In 2006, the company pulled in $7.4 million in revenue, and this year, Baumgartner says, expects to reach the $12 million mark. The most impressive thing about these two is the fact that they’re both self-taught. Neither has a promotional, much less marketing, background.

Today, has expanded to the point where it’s outgrown its accounting, customer management and order tracking departments, and so, the company has implemented strategies for becoming more efficient. For instance, Amicone says, the distributor now uses a new business platform and is working on launching a newly redesigned Web site, slated to debut this summer. “It will have a navigation search engine, a whole new look, design and layout, complete with architecture built by our in-house IT team,” Baumgartner says.

The business certainly has come a long way from its roots. “We didn’t follow any model or blueprint,” Amicone says. “We did what we thought made sense. That’s really the definition of an entrepreneur. It’s someone who takes something from nothing and turns it into something great.” – EW

Distributor Woman of Distinction: Laura Holt, Geiger
Laura Holt had a unique business idea when she was in high school – running a garage staffed by an all-female crew of mechanics. “Women are intimidated to take their cars to the garage,” she says. “I figured maybe I could find a niche for women customers.” After all, this daughter of a man who sold farm equipment had the aptitude – at least according to a test she took in high school.

Many years later, Holt is a mechanic of a different sort. Instead of fixing car engines, she tends to cross sections of the country for Top 40 distributor Geiger (asi/202900). Last year, she took over responsibilities for 11 states in Geiger’s central division. “We’ve been doing some nice recruiting,” Holt says. “We’re trying to build sales and relationships with other sales partners, because that’s what this business is all about – relationships and customer service. I’m just starting to see results and growth.”

Still, ad specialties was originally her husband’s choice of careers, and then her stepson’s. Only after a random chain of events did she enter the field. Glenn Holt, after a successful run, decided the industry needed a mergers-and-acquisitions firm, and soon founded Certified Marketing. His son Tim, was in the industry as a supplier, and decided he wanted to become a distributor. As a family, they bought a small distributorship in Fountain Hills, AZ, in 1984. It consisted of “a used adding machine, an outdated client list and a part-time salesperson,” says Holt.

Tim ran the company while Laura worked as a vice president at a regional bank, managing 31 branches. After two years, it became clear that the distributorship, Holt Marketing Group, needed more attention. “Either I was going to quit my job and we were going to build this, or we were going to close the doors and take our losses,” says Holt.

By 2000, Holt Marketing Group was pulling in $4.5 million in sales. Geiger made an offer and the family accepted. “We started the millennium with a new look and new money,” she says. Today, Holt has a new set of challenges, namely, “keeping our existing sales partners motivated. A lot of clients are cutting back on ad budgets. My focus is to keep a positive attitude.”

This is easy for Holt, as she enjoys the challenges her job brings. “Every day something is different,” she says. “One day we are doing a project for the St. Louis Rams, the next it is a project in Minnesota.”

After all, Holt, who also considered a career as a stewardess and attended fashion merchandising school, enjoys careers that are different. However, as far as that dream of creating that all-woman garage, she says, “I’ve never even changed a tire.” – KH

Supplier Woman of Distinction: Paula Shulman, Prime Line
It’s a little-known fact that Paula Shulman is a Bond girl – well, sort of. As a young model, Shulman appeared on the book cover of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die.

However, her modeling career was put on hold indefinitely once she found herself a divorced mother of one in the late ’70s. “Modeling in the city was too many hours away from my daughter,” says Shulman. “I needed to go back to work and support myself, so I scoured the paper for jobs.”

She landed one at the now defunct distributor N. Donald Edwards and Company. Before agreeing to the position, she had one question: What did the company do? “He said, ‘We sell ad specialties … you know, imprinted matchbooks, T-shirts, pens.’ I never put it together that there was an entire industry behind it. I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ I figured I’d quit two weeks later if I didn’t like it.”

Well, she liked it – a lot. After five years with Edwards, she went to work for Bob Lederer at Prime Line (asi/79530), and last year she celebrated her 25th anniversary at the company. “Here I am 30 years later in this crazy industry. I was a woman in this business, and when I started out, there weren’t that many. I had to fight my way up, to be looked at equally and to be paid equally.”

All of these challenges suited her just fine. “I’m outspoken. I don’t like to be pushed over,” she says. “I’ll often say, ‘I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to conduct business.’ ”

This attitude helped her rise from secretary to receptionist to customer service manager to director of marketing to national sales manager. Two years ago, she became the first woman vice president in the history of Prime. Shulman enjoys reading, playing tennis and cooking. She also enjoys the fact that Prime Line is a privately held company. “I feel like it’s my company,” she says. “I’ve always been allowed to make decisions as if it was mine. Do we spend the money? Do I hire this person? Do I go out on a limb and say this is a product we should put in our catalogs?”

Most of her decisions have been the right ones. Her only regret, perhaps, is not finishing school. “I would have become a lawyer,” she says. “My dad was a lawyer. I think I would have been very good at it.”

Still, she doesn’t dwell on it. After all, she says, she’s been “eternally grateful and lucky to have such a wonderful daughter, Jamie,” who followed her mother into the industry and now works for Vision USA (asi/80060). – KH

Distributor Family Business of the Year: Goldman Promotions
There is something to be said for family values. Just ask Ken and Don Goldman. The two brothers, who took over Goldman Promotions (asi/209700) from ad specialty industry pioneer and father Sam Goldman in the late 1990s, have been able to grow their business using old-fashioned traits like honesty, loyalty and integrity.

Case in point: The C.C. Dickson Company. The southeast’s largest distributor of heating and cooling equipment sent its top marketer to Goldman Promotions’ headquarters in St. Louis. After touring the offices, which are modeled after those of a traditional ad agency (with open spaces and a somewhat industrial look), the marketing man decided to ditch his agency altogether and put Goldman Promotions in charge of all of C.C. Dickson’s marketing.

Why? “C.C. Dickson is a family business as well. He understood,” says Chairman Ken Goldman. The bonds run so deep that there are six or seven other pairs of family members employed by the company. The Goldmans have a history of family cooperation. Sam, who passed away three years ago, had run hotels with his father. At one of his properties, “he noticed a man at the bar who always had a wad of cash,” says CEO Don Goldman. “He found out that man sold lighters and calendars.” Once the hotel business ended, Sam sought out that wad by entering the ad specialties business. He joined Brown & Bigelow in 1954.

“His mother-in-law thought he was crazy going to work in a business that no one knew what it was,” says Ken. By 1960, he’d opened his own shop, which Ken took over in 1997. Don joined him three years later. The two, who manage 135 employees, bring very different skill sets to the table. Don is more of the right-brain creative guy, while Ken is more of the financial left-brain thinker. Together they have seen sales grow to $36 million last year, up from $32 million two years prior.

The C.C. Dickson coup helped. Goldman Promotions came up with an entire plan to promote the 120-location chain’s 75th anniversary that centered around its NASCAR sponsorship. In December alone, the company did half a million dollars in printing (a new category in which it has recently expanded its role) and premium products. For the first quarter of 2008, Goldman did nearly another quarter of a million in billings, thanks in part to a racing-themed incentive program it helped create.

“We’re fortunate, because most families can’t get along,” says Don. The secret: “We never discuss business after work when we’re together as a family.” – KH

Supplier Family Business of the Year: Chocolate Inn
“ ‘Business must be sweet,’ I get that all of the time,” says David Miller, president of Chocolate Inn (asi/44900). But the old joke about being president of the leading producer of chocolate premiums holds true. Chocolate Inn sales last year rose to $9.5 million, up from $7.7 million in 2005. In fact, the supplier is involved in 300 programs at any given time for blue-chip companies ranging from the pharmaceutical to the financial realms.

To further support its company tagline, “Where Promotion Meets Good Taste,” Chocolate Inn refurbished its packaging to look more upscale and revamped its catalog last year. Its boxes carry more of a coppery gold color than the yellowish look of the past. “We’ve never spared any expense on the taste of our chocolate. We wanted to make sure the packaging and the catalog were treated the same,” Miller says.

Chocolate Inn was founded in 1979 by George and Joyce Miller in Freeport, NY. George’s fraternity brother at Bucknell University was Prime Line’s Bob Lederer, who introduced Miller to the ad specialties industry. It was a natural fit. The ability to mold quality chocolate into any shape appealed to end-users in a variety of industries. Chocolate Inn has since created trucks for trucking companies, an eye dropper for a pharmaceutical company and even a shark’s tooth covered in red to look like blood.

“What people don’t know is chocolate is very sensory,” says David, who took over the reins of his parents’ company in 2005 after working for them for 15 years. “People remember it because it not only satisfies hunger, but it also mimics the chemical the body produces when you are in love. The serotonin makes them feel good.”

But it isn’t all just about having a highly desirable product. Miller says that customer service is what makes this family business thrive. Most of the products within its 56-page catalog ship in five days. If the temperature rises above 75 degrees, the product is sent in insulated packaging so it doesn’t melt.

“No matter what the product you produce in this industry, it’s about the service,” says Miller. “A lot of times the end-user will come to the distributor and won’t specify what they need or want. If the distributor feels you have a good product and will ship on time, they will recommend it. That’s why we really try to bend over backwards.”

This includes even Miller jumping onto the production line to help pack and ship packages around the holidays, “to make sure we get them out on time.” Which leads to other things people always say to him: “It must be great to work in a chocolate factory.” – KH

Bess Cohn Humanitarian Award: Neil Tatar, Adirondack Ad Specialties
Can four college graduates, a few wheels and skates, and a 2,000-mile journey up the East Coast unite the country in autism awareness? If you were part of last summer’s Rolling for Autism movement, and you and your teammates braved intense heat to rollerblade from Florida to Maine, then the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

But the person who made this summer-long nonprofit cause possible – both financially and organizationally – was Neil Tatar, president of Adirondack Ad Specialties (asi/105035), and for his giving and selfless nature, he is this year’s Bess Cohn Humanitarian Award winner.

“I just wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to support them,” says Tatar, who donated 10 months’ worth of funds from his own pocket and family members’ and friends’ to get the marathon up and running. (His younger son, Dan, 24, a Union College alum, spearheaded the effort, along with a group of friends.) “As we traveled from state to state, it was apparent that we could bring people together and put a positive spin on a challenging situation.”

Rolling for Autism totaled 54 days and involved intense wheel-churning on the uphills in 90-degree temperatures, with various stops along the way. The campaign even garnered national media attention from outlets including ABC, Fox and NBC.

As the rollerbladers made their way from one point to the next, the fervor they drew from fans at local universities and supporters was tremendous. One sorority, in fact, became so smitten by the cause that they proclaimed “Rolling for Autism” their charity of the year. Another student group bought 300 T-shirts and set up a tie-dying booth. All proceeds went to the nonprofit cause, an adjunct of Adirondack Charities, the 501(c)(3) chapter Tatar started last year.

Tatar encouraged industry suppliers, distributors and end-buyers to join in on the cause. The response was overwhelming. BIC Graphic USA (asi/40480), Providence (asi/79980) and Gill Studios Inc. (asi/56950), for instance, donated thousands of T-shirts, wristbands and other ad specialty items. AAA, one of Tatar’s clients, helped map out the route. Choice One Hotels let the rollerbladers stay overnight for free. And no matter where the participants looked, people of all ages – men, women and children – reached out to them in their mission to foster understanding of this widely prevalent brain development disorder. And for Tatar, this last point especially hit home. His oldest son, Ben, 26, has never been formally diagnosed, but has exhibited some of the behaviors consistent with the milder end of the autism spectrum.

At one point in the marathon, Ben even joined his younger sibling, while Tatar’s wife, Lini, assisted with some of the fundraising events. To date, Rolling for Autism has brought in $100,000, and plans are in the works for coordinating future fundraising opportunities at nationwide campuses. “If I were to walk away with one lesson, it would be that we really managed to build community,” Tatar says. “It just totally amazes me how appreciative someone can be when others show concern. It really does give a sense of encouragement and hope.” – EW

Marvin Spike Lifetime Achievement Award: Dick Kaeser, Kaeser & Blair Inc.
Every year, at the annual Kaeser & Blair (asi/238600) sales convention in Cincinnati, Dick Kaeser, CEO of the company, delivers the keynote address. And then, almost simultaneously, his team of 3,500 independent sales reps stand up and clap. “He gets the standing ovation,” Dick’s son, Kurt, says.

Kaeser, 79, has introduced more people to the ad specialty arena than his son can count. Over the course of his 50-plus years in the promotional products business, Kaeser has earned numerous high-profile accolades: A 2007 PPAI gold medal in the Web category and honorary life membership in 2005; a spot on the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Top 100 privately held businesses list for several years running, and now this – the Marvin Spike Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I remember him always coming in on the weekends. He never got home before seven in the evenings,” says Kurt. “Way back when we were little, he’d always go get the mail on Saturdays. During the week, we had a shipping clerk, but on the weekends, he wasn’t there, so my father would get in the truck, drive, pick it up, and come back and sort through all the mail. He did that so people would have something to work on on Monday, to help speed up the efficiency.”

In fact, Kaeser was so dedicated to fostering his employees’ success, that he personally penned many of the articles in the company’s newsletter, the Windjammer. Published every month since the 1930s, when Kurt’s grandfather originally conceived of it, the Windjammer contains the latest factory specials, sales tips and ideas. “He didn’t know how to type on a computer, so he would get his pencil, sharpen it and write up each word exactly how he wanted it to look,” Kurt says. “When he wrote with his pencil in the exact size type, the precision was remarkable. Nowadays, he does it lightly, and of course, it goes into our graphics department.” – EW

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