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2009 Hot List
By Michele Bell, Andy Cohen and Melinda Ligos
August, 2009

Meet the 40 people who are shaking up the market with new and innovative approaches.

What’s Hot in 2009? Hot is growing a company when others are begging for flatter-than-flat results. It’s using social networking and other technologies to expand your business. It’s networking until the wee hours at trade shows just so everybody – absolutely, everybody – can see your face.

It’s creating new apparel designs that have never been seen before…and will probably never be seen again. It’s launching a new product that quickly sells millions of units.

Very simply, it’s taking the market by storm and never looking back. That’s exactly what the 40 people on Counselor’s 2nd annual Hot List are doing. And for this year, we considered a completely new list of people from last year's Hot List. Our one rule: Nobody could be a Hot List member for two straight years. So, who's  hot right now? Check out their stories. 

SandyThe Innovator: Bonni Shevin-Sandy, Dard/Dard Design (asi/48500

She’s this year’s Counselor International Person of the Year and with good reason: While other businesses suffered the one-two punch of a disastrous economy and an array of restrictive regulations, Shevin-Sandy – executive vice president of Counselor Top 40 supplier Dard and president of its custom and overseas sales arm, Dard Design – found clever and crafty ways to sell custom-designed, sanctioned items through her clients into the PhRMA market. Want proof? Dard Design now supports 40% of the company’s overall sales volume and did over $4 million internationally in 2008 – and it’s on target to double that number this year. If you’re a distributor looking for a way to shake up your stagnant sales, this blonde is your bombshell.

KorowitzThe Power Player: Bill Korowitz, The Magnet Group (asi/68507)

This Counselor Power 50 member oversees one of the largest supplier operations in the industry. As the head of The Magnet Group, Bill Korowitz is in charge of running this diverse supplier organization. And he does it with the cool and calm of a savvy and smart leader who’s respected by both his employees and his competitors alike. Not to mention, Korowitz would be happy spending his days – and late nights – rocking out on maximum volume with his Gibson Flying V guitar.

HershThe Socialite: Brett Hersh, AdMints/Zagabor (asi/31516)

If we were giving an award for "Mr. Congeniality," Brett Hersh would snag the sash, hands down. He’s seemingly at every party and is a mainstay on the industry’s social circuit. But what sets Hersh, owner of AdMints/Zagabor, apart is that while he’s partying like a rock star, he’s also strategically steering his company to increased visibility and even more impressively in this economy, increased sales. Hersh’s company is one of Counselor’s Fastest Growing Suppliers this year, with 100% sales growth – making him the embodiment of the adage, "work hard, play hard."

StollThe Free Spirit: Caryn Stoll, Freestyle Marketing (asi/198342)

Some people do their brainstorming in an executive boardroom. Not Caryn Stoll: She takes her serious musings to the ski slopes. An avid freestyle skier, Stoll travels the world to gain her unique perspective on product design and merchandise, and relishes bringing new ideas to Freestyle’s clients. One recent example: When Stoll’s client, Converse, was launching a new division of a well-known brand, Stoll looked for promotional products that capitalized on the launch’s theme, which was normal things done in unusual ways. She sourced a four-lens camera, branded it with the client’s logo and packaged it with a catalog of images of the client’s branding shot. The result: Converse’s customers got to see an ordinary Converse product in an extraordinary way.

DuffyThe Grower: Christopher Duffy, Bag Makers Inc. (asi/37940)

If Christopher Duffy were a draft pick, he’d be snapped up in the first round – his stats are that stellar. He’s helped two companies secure spots on Counselor’s Top 40 list of suppliers – Vantage, where he worked for years as the head of marketing, and now Bag Makers (new to the Top 40 list this year) as its senior vice president of marketing for the last six years – and was instrumental in the company’s nearly 50% growth last year. And while he may not be a flashy industry celeb like some others on the list, Duffy learned long ago the secret of many who succeed in sports and in sales – keep your head down and plow through.

SchmidtThe Road Warrior: C.J. Schmidt , Hit Promotional Products (asi/61125

Want to talk to C.J.? Better try him on his cell phone. Not one to sit in the office, Schmidt, Hit Promotional Products’ vice president of sales, is on the road practically 24/7 meeting clients. Apparently, his Road Warrior efforts are paying off. The company’s revenues are up this year (not a small feat in this economy). Although only 26 years old, Schmidt is poised, along with his brother Bill Schmidt Jr., to take over the reigns of the family business when father Bill retires.

BlockThe Entrepreneur: Derek Block, Touchstone (asi/345631)

This is a man with a plan. Immediately after graduating college, Derek Block stumbled into the ad specialty market by selling T-shirts. He then quickly built his business into such an attractive investment that he was able to sell the company – and still remain at the helm. He now oversees the fastest-growing distributor organization in the industry – and has designs on remaining that way, as he’s looking to rapidly add salespeople in the coming years – and was even named as Counselor’s Distributor Entrepreneur of the Year last month.

ContrerasThe Hip Embroiderer: Desiree Contreras, Chopped Up Cherries 

Desiree Contreras is the Kat Von D of the decorator realm: young, hip, tattooed and daring. Her Orange County, CA-based company, Chopped Up Cherries, is shaking things up – selling rhinestone-studded, embroidered and screen-printed far-out designs on beater tanks, hoodies and bikinis. From a racy Bride of Franky full-back hoodie design to the rock-n-roller Chopped Up Cherries logo (two guns crossed over a yellow flower and two cherries) in appliqué and rhinestones, Contreras and her staff push the envelope with every design they sell. Chopped Up Cherries is living the life: They embroider tattoo-like bluebirds on the corners of tanks, mingle and meet new clients at ska festivals, and wear knee-high combat boots with teeny-weeny black bikini tops embroidered with white flowers while motorcycling off to the next concert.

PiscitelliThe Recycler: Devin Piscitelli, Aakron Rule (asi/30270)

Looking for a next-generation leader in the industry? Look no further than Devin Piscitelli, who along with his sister, has taken over the reigns of his family’s business, Aakron Rule. Not content to just successfully transition the business from one generation to the next – a feat in and of itself – Piscitelli is also leading the supplier firm’s charge into the eco-friendly movement. Aakron is the only plastics manufacturer that has converted its manufacturing process to completely recyclable materials.

LevinThe Speed-Demon: Eric Levin, Jetline (asi/63344)

Eric Levin is a New Yorker through and through. He talks fast, walks fast and is growing fast. He started his company shortly after college and it has been taking off ever since. It’s now an $18-million operation, and his start-up success helped nab him the Counselor Supplier Entrepreneur of the Year award this year. That’s not all – he even has a turnaround story on his hands, as his customer service operation has gone from one of complaints to one of industry envy. Now, that’s cool.

ParkerThe Tech Titan: Fred Parker, Bluegrass Promotional Marketing (asi/141964)

Looking for somebody using technology to their competitive advantage? Fred Parker, the head of Bluegrass Promotional Marketing, is your man. He recently implemented a whole new technology system for his salespeople and customer service employees to use – making the whole company more efficient and giving direct mail templates and on-demand PowerPoint presentations to salespeople. The systems have spurred growth at this $20-million distributorship. And Parker is even expanding his company’s presence by using online social media like crazy. Yes, he’s busy. But what’s cooler than a technology-fueled take-off?

BraceyThe Green Queen: Jacqui Bracey, Continental Clothing USA (asi/46410)

Just call Jaqui Bracey "The Queen of Green." Since helping to launch the U.S. division of Continental Clothing, Bracey has worked tirelessly to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by providing quality fashion-forward garments that are produced in eco-friendly processes. The Carbon Trust, an organization focused on promoting green practices, has recognized Continental as a "pioneer" in the green movement.

DeutschThe Safety Advocate: Jay Deutsch, BDA (asi/137616)

In an industry where the ever-changing and deeply confusing safety and compliance rules can make one’s brain cramp, many were talking about how to tackle the issue. Jay Deutsch, CEO of Counselor Top 40 distributor BDA, stepped up and actually did it. He rounded up some of the industry’s most prominent suppliers, got them in a room – an effort akin to herding cats – and had them all agree to have their confidential manufacturing and importing operations scrutinized by a third party. The result is the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), the first group of its kind in the industry, made up of 13 suppliers and BDA, all of whom will have the distinction of being stamped with the "quality assured" seal of approval once they pass the stringent criteria.

RobbinsThe E-Commerce Expert : Jason Robbins, ePromos Promotional Products (asi/188515)

You know what’s hot? Growing your company 23% in 2008 with an e-commerce system leading the way. Jason Robbins is at the helm of one of the best e-commerce models in the ad specialty market: ePromos Promotional Products, the New York-based distributor with 75 employees and such a diverse client base that it could overcome losing about 10% of its clients last year (thanks a lot, Wall Street). Plus, Robbins’ organization enhances its online image with a host of blogs and a stream of client case studies on its Web site.

RichThe Success Story: Jeremy Rich, Debco (asi/48885)

International expansion during a difficult economy? That’s cool. And it’s exactly what Debco’s Jeremy Rich has been doing lately. He was hired a few years ago as sales manager and tasked with increasing Canada-based Debco’s business in the U.S. Well, Rich has spearheaded a successful international effort and is on track to double the supplier’s business in the U.S. this year – of all years.

HaganThe Turnaround Artist: Jim Hagan, Sweda Co. LLC (asi/90305)

It’s one thing to be president of a large, successful company when things are going well; it’s a different story altogether when it goes to hell in a handbasket. When Sweda, the Counselor Top 40 supplier of which Hagan is president, had the computer glitch to end all computer glitches in 2007, the situation spiraled down fast. Orders were lost, clients were furious. But while others might have hunkered down in the bunker and let their team take the thrashing, Hagan hit the road to meet with clients and explain exactly what happened and how the company had rectified the issues to become the stronger, faster entity it is today. Some clients left, but many more – including Top 40 distributors – stayed, impressed with Hagan’s forthrightness, honesty and integrity.

HouldingThe Olympian: John Houlding, Cotton Candy Inc. (asi/169186)

If you were in a jam, no matter how big or small, you’d want John Houlding on your team. A former Olympic rower, Houlding puts an emphasis on customer service and never cracks under pressure. Case in point: Last year, he sent an employee on a 30-hour flight (round-trip) to Beijing, China, to deliver a special plaque for the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremonies presentation after the first went missing days before the event. Now that’s going the extra mile for a customer.

KarofskyThe Savvy Businessman: Judd Karofsky, Zagwear (asi/365552)

Judd Karofsky, the 38-year-old hyper-frenetic and ingenious macher who’s one-half of the $20-million NY-based distributor Zagwear, talks fast, thinks faster and does not sit still for long. Along with his business partner of 14 years, Toby Zachs, he and his team hustle to create innovative campaigns for their many well-known retail clients such as Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Nintendo. On the side, he and his partners invent items like the Invisibelt (of which they’ve sold "hundreds of thousands" online, on QVC and in retail). Karofsky doesn’t have an abundance of free time, but he’s got chutzpah in spades.

TarrThe Online Master: Kevin Lyons-Tarr, 4Imprint (asi/197045)

If the market was looking for a leader, somebody to shine the light on how to run an ad specialty business on the Internet, Kevin Lyons-Tarr is the guy. He oversees the fast-growing Counselor Top 40 distributor 4Imprint, which even in a difficult year increased its revenues from $145 million in 2007 to $171 million in 2008. Don’t bother to pull out a calculator. That’s 18% growth – with business mostly from its online sales channel – in a year when any growth was something to hold a party for. If you’re wondering where Lyons-Tarr spends his time, check out 4Imprint’s Web site, go to YouTube, swing by Twitter. You’re likely to find him in online videos and sharing his thoughts on promotional products in just about every social network possible.

TriumvirateThe Triumvirate: Juli Sinnett, Jamie Mair & Kevin Phoenix, SwervePoint (asi/340679)

Now here’s an attitude we like: The three people in charge of Boston-based distributor SwervePoint say they’ll only work with people they like and that like them. You’re definitely hot when you’re the choosiest employer on the block. Plus, this threesome oversees a fast-growing operation that is a three-time winner of Boston’s Best Places to Work contest. And they’re fun. They’re building a retail-inspired brand, operate in a tricked-out eco-friendly building with a tiki bar and a fitness room, and have a showroom that could double as a J Crew outlet store.

RobinsonThe Green Leader: Kris Robinson, PromoShop (asi/300446)

There are few people in the industry with a cool quotient to make "green" the new black and the passion to shift the industry out of its status-quo comfort zone and nudge it into the ecosphere. Kris Robinson, vice president of Counselor Top 40 distributor PromoShop, has been the loudest voice leading the charge for the industry to get its eco groove on, spearheading initiatives like, the industry’s first green-only distributorship. But that’s just the tip of the polar ice cap: Robinson’s award-winning marketing campaigns are jaw-dropping in their creativity and effectiveness, and with his ever-present, Entourage-esque posse, he’s the one whose presence at a party practically guarantees a good time.

BauerThe Dealmaker: Lori Bauer, BIC Graphic USA (asi/40480)

Lori Bauer is somebody you will definitely know – if you don’t already. As the trade marketing manager for BIC Graphic North America, Bauer obviously has a prominent position at a large supplier firm. But now? She’s instrumental in the deal that saw BIC acquiring Norwood and getting out the buzz of how the newly-created largest supplier in the ad specialty industry will operate moving forward. If that’s not enough, she also is the current president of the Promotional Products Association of Florida. Trust us, you’ll be hearing much more from this connected exec.

RoyThe North Star: Marc Roy, Accolade Reaction Promotion Group (asi/102905)

This smooth operator is head of Accolade Reaction Promotion Group, the Top 40 distributor that has burst onto the scene in the past few years with tremendous growth. Let’s call it hypergrowth: Accolade has increased revenues from $27 million in 2006 to just under $60 million in 2008. And more growth is on the way, as the company was acquired last year by Golftown, the large Canadian retailer that is sure to expand Accolade’s footprint. The results have landed Roy on the Counselor Power 50 list, but it’s his recent Phantom of the Opera Halloween costume that impressed the Hot List judges.

BoydThe Trend Setter: Malik Boyd, Executive Apparel (asi/53418)

When he’s not hitting the latest hotspots in South Beach (his favorite spot to decompress), playing Wii fit with his daughters, dabbling with interior design projects or surfing the ‘net for new Photoshop tricks, Malik Boyd, Executive Apparel’s director of marketing, is looking for ways to push the industry in a more fashion-forward direction. "The economic shift has caused businesses to become creative in every aspect of branding to stay on top," which means companies should be outfitting their employees in more sophisticated, fashionable duds, Boyd told our editors in an interview last spring. Boyd doesn’t just talk the talk. A snappy dresser, he’s got the GQ look.

MaloneThe Cell Dude: Matt Malone, eGrips (asi/54596)

When you’re the marketing guy for a company that grew its sales 1,700% over the past two years, you must be doing something right. That’s Matt Malone, who’s one of three partners for eGrips, the 2009 Fastest-Growing supplier in the ad specialty industry. He’s got a cool product – a silicone non-slip strip that attaches to cell phones – and he’s promoting it in unique ways. He’s on Facebook, Twitter and he has a blog that regularly doles out promotional advice. And the company is even working on embedding RFID chips into its products so they could carry credit card info. We’re not even sure we know how that kind of thing works, but we know it’s cool.

SteelmanThe Next Generation: Bethany & Natalie Steelman, Bama Jammer Inc. (asi/131333)

In 1995, while their friends were studying and attending frat parties, full-time college students and fellow cheerleaders Natalie and Bethany Steelman had other ways to spend their free time: They launched Bama Jammer Inc., a spinoff of their parents’ business that offers ad specialties, embroidery and screen printing. While carrying a full-course load, the two hunkered down and created a plan to lure big clients to the Huntsville, AL-based firm. Their efforts paid off: Last year, the U.S. Department of the Army awarded a million-dollar-plus contract to the company to furnish promotional items for Army recruiters. Now out of college, we’re left wondering what this dynamic duo will spend its free time on next.

GranolaThe Innovators: Andreas Bergman, Matt Pawlik & Raoul Duggal, MixMyGranola Inc. (asi/71801)

This is a threesome with a brilliant idea on its hands. Can’t find the right mix of ingredients in any store-bought granola product? Neither could they. So in 2008, this innovative triumvirate created, where consumers can order their own customized mix of ingredients. Now, the company has become an industry supplier and will customize granola packages for any promotional event. We’re getting hungry just thinking about it.

StandleyThe Entertainment Diva: Nicole Standley, The Perfect Swag (asi/293508)

With her the LA-based distributorship and online boutique of luxury brand names, The Perfect Swag, Nicole Standley is the diva of fabulousness. In short order, she’s become the go-to girl for any Hollywood party planner needing a splash of promo glitz and glam for their awards show swag bag, and has provided the promo merch for music industry luminaries like Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Ludacris and Jay-Z. But not content to cater only to celebutantes, Standley has a growing online presence, with her Promo Gals social networking site and a Twitter following building momentum. Those who know her can’t help but get caught in her Holly Golightly-like joie de vivre. Says her business contact at Tiffany & Co: "If you know Nicole, you’re a fan. If you don’t, you’re about to be."

ValleThe Nomad: Ray Valle, Impressline (asi/62479)

Ray Valle is so versatile that he could succeed as a distributor, then as a supplier. Plus he did it in Mexico and now in the United States. Yes, Valle had the savvy to turn his Mexican distributorship into a supplier organization, and then brought the supplier outfit to the U.S. Dizzy yet? In 2002, he decided that his company was set up better to be a supplier than a distributor in Mexico. And then, in a natural expansion for the business, he opened up shop in Texas, where he quickly turned his operation into the Fastest-Growing Supplier in the U.S. in 2008. And, with an innovative product line that’s made up of sleekly-designed items, we’re sure Valle is here to stay.

CaccamoThe Man On The Scene: Pat Caccamo, iPROMOTEu (asi/232119)

His official title is Director of Business Development for Counselor Top 40 distributor iPROMOTEu, but the role Pat Caccamo really plays in the company is that of owner Ross Silverstein’s trusted right-hand – a combination cornerman and consigliere. Silverstein may be the big-picture guy, but if the devil’s in the details, Caccamo’s holding the "to-do" list. From planning parties and dinners, to spearheading the wildly fun and stunningly ballsy "Deception Reception" – for which he and Silverstein planted themselves outside Mandalay Bay’s China Grill during PPAI’s Vegas Show two years ago, working the crowd and passing out beers to prospects leaving the show – Caccamo proves that behind every great leader, there’s a sturdy support system helping him shine.

SchliefThe Motivator: Sadie Schlief, American Solutions for Business (asi/120075)

American Solutions for Business has been on a roll, and Sadie Schlief is at the helm for this company’s ad specialty sales effort. This bright and energetic mother of two is always on the go trying to find new ways to get ASB’s 500 sales reps to increase their sales of promotional products. And they’ve been doing just that. The company is now number 12 on the Counselor Top 40 distributor list – and it shot up with a bang this year, increasing its ad specialty industry revenue from $87 million to more than $100 million. You want more? Schlief has a hobby farm in rural Minnesota, so she obviously has a knack for "growing" things.

JohnshoyThe Up And Comer: Sheila Johnshoy, Deluxe (asi/178720)

If the length of a person’s title conveys their value to a company, then Sheila Johnshoy’s responsibility at Deluxe is downright Herculean: "Director, Image Products, Promotional Products, Apparel, Retail Packaging and Signage." A seven-year veteran of the publicly-traded St. Paul, MN-based check behemoth Deluxe (NYSE: DLX), Johnshoy is at the helm of its relatively recent (within the last five years) foray into the ad specialties industry. She’s already on the speed-dial of some of the industry’s best and brightest, and is a gregarious presence at industry shows and events. She was nominated to be on this list by a few members of Counselor’s Power 50, who clearly see her as someone to watch in the industry. We agree.

ReidtThe Marketer: Teri Reidt, Dri Mark Products Inc. (asi/50840)

Highlighters? Dri Mark sells them, of course. But one look at their 2009 catalog will show you that the company has diversified its product mix – and also snazzed up its logo and catalog design. The woman behind the changes? Teri Reidt, vice president of sales and marketing, who works out of a company office in Canada. Expect to see more positive changes from this marketing maven, who Tweets motivational videos to her followers on Twitter, as we head into 2010.

MckinneyThe Ultimate Seller: Tanya McKinney, Cutter & Buck (asi/47965)

Looking for a salesperson with passion, knowledge and charm? Cutter & Buck’s Tanya McKinney is the one for you. While Cutter & Buck became part of global conglomerate New Wave Group in 2007, it’s people like McKinney who have spurred the apparel company onto success in the corporate market. A mainstay on the Counselor Top 40 supplier list, Cutter & Buck depends on McKinney’s passion and deep familiarity with the market to expand its sales presence. Plus, she’s the ultimate resource for her customers and a seller with quick wit who is a natural networker. Now, that’s somebody we want to hang with.

LecaThe Financier: Yann Leca, Polyconcept

You’d be hard-pressed in this economy to find a more challenging position to be in than that of CFO for a billion-dollar multinational company. And yet Yann Leca, the CFO of Counselor Top 40 supplier Polyconcept – the largest ad specialty supplier in the world – has held that title for the last 12 years, through highs, lows, acquisitions and market fluctuations. Leca, 42, has kept the Polyconcept ship steady with his laser-like focus on the company’s numbers, his pragmatic business sense and low-key, approachable management style. Far from a dull finance wonk, Leca may be the only CFO we know who, when he dances, dips like Fred Astaire and shimmies like Shakira – giving a whole new meaning to the term "mover and shaker."

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