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2010 Person of the Year: Vera & Greg Muzzillo
By Dave Vagnoni
May 2010

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He’s a dreamer. She’s a realist. He’s the franchising whiz. She’s the financial whiz. Together, they’re the most influential duo in the industry and Counselor’s 2010 Person of the Year.

You won’t find the name Ilio DiPaolo in any employee records at Proforma (asi/300094). He never had an office, a personal parking spot or an official business card. Not once did he cash a business check or get paid in any way for his work. Yet, in the early years of the now $350 million company, DiPaolo was very helpful in maintaining Proforma’s profitability. "Hey, desperate people do desperate things," says Greg Muzzillo, with his wife Vera laughing in the background. "I was always able to collect." To unsuspecting customers who were a bit behind on their payments, DiPaolo was known as the guy with the thick Italian accent who would call to "facilitate" the collection process. The one-way calls, marked with broken English, would go something like this: "My name is Ilio DiPaolo. I’m a friend of a Greg Muzzillo. He tell me you no pay your bill."

Unsurprisingly, the payments that were owed came in pretty quickly after these conversations. Certainly, DiPaolo was quite effective. But for those who haven’t heard the story, the surprise might come in who was actually making those calls. It was a man of many talents. It was Greg Muzzillo the whole time. "I’m not saying I’m proud of it," he jokes. "It worked."

No doubt Muzzillo’s unconventional methods worked then and still work today, 30 years later. Proforma has become the second-largest distributor in the ad specialties industry, boasting 700 franchises whose owners average a 30% profit margin on sales. And, in the days since DiPaolo, Greg has continued to surround himself with resourceful, quick-witted and accomplished people. They include well-respected Proforma COO Brian Smith, investor and billionaire Fred DeLuca and perhaps most important of all, financial whiz Vera Muzzillo, Greg’s wife. "Vera has added a tremendous amount to the financial side of the company," says Linda Martinelli, president of Proforma Graphic Printsource and close friend to the Muzzillos. "She has been a huge calming influence on Greg. They have great balance as a couple."

In addition to balance, Greg and Vera Muzzillo have great drive, as well. "I think we can grow the business $30 million to $50 million this year," says Vera, confidently.  Greg adds, "We’re successful when our franchises are successful." And as Vera says, "It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about the quality of what we’re doing."

Clearly, the industry has taken notice of that quality. For building and growing a model organization (one that has successfully transformed its owners from print brokers into marketing services providers) that’s poised to continue to influence the industry into the next decade, Greg and Vera Muzzillo have been chosen as the 2010 Counselor Person of the Year.

And, this time there’s no need for DiPaolo to help collect. Below is the story of two people, from different backgrounds and with different business styles, who share one goal: to take Proforma to the top.

The Beginning

Only eight years out of college, Greg Muzzillo stood in the Rose Garden at the White House, recognized by President Ronald Reagan for outstanding achievements in business. This was in 1985, and Proforma had been singled out from thousands of other companies and honored as the U.S. Small Business of the Year.

"There were plenty of other great businesses that could’ve won, but we just had a client that rallied our cause," Greg says. "It was a really cool thing, but we were still a small $5 million company. I felt there was more to do."

For Greg, doing more meant finding a better way in the printing sector. "I looked and thought this industry is so inefficient," he remembers. "You had salesmen who were all alone, who had to deal with marketing, billing, collections, cash flow and IT, and then go sell."

Greg’s solution to the printing industry’s shortcomings was the franchise model, which he implemented in 1986. "Distributors could still own their business, but we could provide sales and marketing tools and back-office support," he says. His version of the model worked well and more success followed. Gradually, Proforma expanded from a startup Ohio company to a nationwide network of independent distributors. By 1991, Proforma had entered the Canadian market. In 1994, the company started complementing its printing solutions with promotional products.

Then in 1996, with its number of offices reaching into the hundreds, Proforma received an injection of capital, fittingly from one of the most prosperous franchise operators in the world: Fred DeLuca, owner of Subway Restaurants. "I got to know Fred from being on the board of directors of the International Franchise Association," says Greg. "Fred is a real guy and has been a good friend to Proforma. He’s been motivating to me and helped me to see what’s possible."

Reinforced by solid investment, by the turn of the century Proforma had 500 offices across North America, with a large support center headquartered in Cleveland. While the company had a developing online presence, which included portal sites and e-commerce solutions, Greg remained focused on his interpersonal strengths. "I learned early on that people buy from people they know, like and trust," he says. "It’s been about relationships and hard work."
Truly, hard work matters, but it’s not everything. For Greg, success also needed a leap of faith. A decade before being lauded at the White House, he was a student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. After graduating, he began a career working with auditing firm Haskins and Sells, which later became the renowned Deloitte & Touche. Promotional products were not exactly on his mind, but making money was.

With the help of his roommate, who worked for a print products broker, Greg started Proforma in the dining room of a small apartment. "We were two knuckleheads going into business," he says, in his uniquely self-deprecating style. "Failure wasn’t an option. I was 23 years old and I figured I could eat Campbell’s soup and survive for a while. It was a lot of knocking on doors. I wore out a lot of shoe leather."

Within one year of starting the business with a total of $200, Proforma generated sales of $250,000, quickly building a roster of 300 clients. With striking success, Proforma earned a spot on Inc. magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing Companies list in 1982, ’83 and ’84. Whether Greg wanted to admit it or not, by the time he got to the White House in 1985, Proforma had arrived.

The Model

While Greg Muzzillo was growing Proforma through the 1980s and early ’90s, his future wife Vera was working successfully in banking and finance. She had grown up in Alabama and had become the first student from her Florida high school to ever attend the University of Notre Dame. "That’s something I’m proud of, to go to Notre Dame having no legacy," Vera says.

Exacting and conservative, Vera gained a business reputation as a strong thinker who always displayed sound judgment. Seemingly destined for a life of spreadsheets and pie charts, she never imagined trade show floors filled with scented pens, light-up photo frames and noise-making bouncy balls. Then she met Greg.

The couple connected on the dating Web site, and eventually agreed to dinner at a Toledo, OH, restaurant. True to their personalities, Greg was singular and spirited. Decidedly different, Vera was a bit more cautious. She brought reserves. Stationed a few restaurant booths away that night was Vera’s watchful mini-entourage, which included her sister and brother-in-law. Despite their contrasting styles, the newly minted couple married in 2000. "Before she married Greg, Vera came to me and asked for my advice," says Martinelli. "I actually told her not to do it because second marriages are so hard. But Vera’s made it work. She gets the credit. She has amazing talents."

Vera’s talents have not only made her relationship with Greg work, they’ve also made Proforma work better than ever before. After Greg convinced Vera to leave the banking industry and join his company, Proforma’s printing and promotional products sales have more than doubled from $150 million to $350 million annually. With Greg’s support, Vera has suggested and instituted a series of programs to strengthen Proforma’s bottom line and firm up the financial position of its franchises, all the while fortifying relationships with owners.

For instance, it’s Vera who has aggressively reduced the number of underperforming owners, characterized as those who fail to reach pre-established yearly sales goals. It’s Vera who’s increased the credit requirements to become an owner, while improving financing leverage for franchisees. And while Greg is universally known as being accessible to his salespeople, it’s Vera who’s become an unofficial sounding board for owners’ ideas.

"When Proforma implements a new program and it doesn’t work, they get rid of it," says Mark Resnick, co-owner of Proforma Printing and Promotion. "That’s healthy. Vera has definitely transformed the company and made it more efficient and streamlined."

Of course, Greg and the rest of the Proforma team have had some pretty good ideas over the years, too. Other notable aspects of Proforma’s business model include a rotating advisory council, personality testing for job candidates, the recent creation of a major accounts division and a frequently used credit insurance program for owners. "When you have bigger clients, you have bigger bills," says Rick Sovereign, co-owner of Proforma Canada Inc. "If a client goes bankrupt and can’t pay, you’re covered by a huge policy that Proforma has. It’s like a survival mechanism of small business to avoid the catastrophe."

The Owners’ Take

Before Fred Albrecht joined Proforma, he was the CEO of Kaeser & Blair (asi/238600) for almost 20 years, helping to build that company’s sales from $8 million to $60 million. One might think Albrecht’s industry knowledge was pretty close to unrivaled. And yet, one would be wrong. "I’ve learned more from Greg in the last 10 years than I learned in my entire career before joining Proforma," says Albrecht, co-owner of Proforma Albrecht & Co. "Greg has great forward-thinking vision. He’s a dreamer."

And when Greg dreams, he dreams big. "Proforma provides tools that are the most professional of any selling organization in the industry," says Albrecht. "We can offer clients promotional products, commercial printing, multimedia and help with live events. There are total solutions."

Plus, the organization has Greg’s outsized personality going for it. "We were in Mexico and we went to this Mayan restaurant," Albrecht remembers. "We got there and the place is closed, but Greg talks to them to get them to stay open. I think it was Vera’s Spanish that got them to understand. Then Greg orders everything on the menu. Who does that? We had no idea what we were getting. That’s Greg."

Resnick also has a high opinion of Greg, especially as a motivator. "We were meeting a few years ago and talking about goals," Resnick says. "At the time I was still working out of my basement. Greg told me to get out of the house. I had heard that before, but the impact alone of Greg saying it did something."
The next day when Resnick was driving his kids to school, he decided to act on Greg’s advice. "I saw a ‘for rent’ sign about 200 yards from the school," says Resnick. "Just like that, we took the place. It was a huge move for us, but it opened doors for growth. We recently were able to take on an acquisition and we were prepared, without having to scramble."

While Greg is known to be remarkably engaging and incisive in one-on-one talks, Vera also excels in making connections and in engendering trust. "Vera listens to you," says Martinelli, who first met Vera on a cruise arranged for Proforma’s top sellers. "One time we were having technology problems and I wanted the company to dump the technology, but they thought it was fixable. I called Vera. Later on, she told me that I was absolutely right about the technology. I thought that was amazing, the respect there."

Owners say Greg is equally respectful and completely committed to helping them maximize their time and opportunities. "Greg has a saying that relates to the nameplate on your desk," says Dan McCarthy, CEO of Proforma Sunshine State. "The side that’s facing you says ‘you’re not making money sitting here.’ In my first year with Proforma, I was able to more than double my sales. Greg really wants to enrich people’s lives. He can’t understand mediocrity."

The View From The Top

Vera Muzzillo believes in structure, but her daily routine doesn’t really involve a packed schedule of business briefings, power lunches and PowerPoint-driven marathon meetings. Instead, Vera’s routine is more about giving rides, helping with school activities and spending quality time with her children before bed. Recently, Vera has even started studying piano to support her youngest children as they learn to play, too.

"I want to set a good example," says Vera, a parent to 10 children. "It’s important to me to be involved and to connect with families of our children’s friends. This is a big year for us. We have one daughter graduating high school and another getting married, so we’re really looking forward to that."
Vera also considers it a calling to take part in community service and to further the education of the next generation of business leaders. That’s why she and Greg both teach at Notre Dame and have helped students at Baldwin-Wallace (Greg’s alma mater) get started with franchising opportunities. "God calls us to give back," Vera says.

While Greg and Vera make family and service priorities, be assured they’re still very much focused on expanding Proforma. They’ve made and executed goals by managing their time. "They’ve learned a big secret that they don’t have to micro-manage," says Albrecht, one of Proforma’s multi-million dollar sellers. "They’re a great team."

A few numbers can help demonstrate just how much of a successful team Greg and Vera are. In the midst of the historic recession in 2009, more than 100 Proforma owners generated $1 million or more in sales, and more than two dozen owners produced multi-million dollar revenues. Then, earlier this year, Proforma signed an agreement with industry service-provider Global Source Link. The deal has brought more than 100 additional salespeople to Proforma, who are expected to increase the company’s 2010 revenues by a full $30 million. "We feel like a recession is a great time to get new customers," Greg says. "We can provide clients better solutions at a better value."

Of course, the Muzzillos also believe in providing better solutions for their owners. The company holds a national convention and several regional meetings annually that combine networking activities, training seminars, vendor showcases and reviews of new support services. "It’s like a show just for Proforma owners," says Resnick, who joined Proforma’s multi-million dollar club five years ago. "To be around peers and build business relationships is very motivating."

Greg and Vera think the next step in advancing Proforma’s aggressive agenda is the implementation of a new technology platform. Their owners agree. "It’s going to be the most sophisticated platform in the industry," says Albrecht, who’s been involved in testing the technology. "It utilizes Microsoft-based technology and it’s going to be easy for everyone to use. It’ll create a paperless environment."

Adds Resnick: "The new software is really going to be the best. They’ve piled a lot of money into it. It’s going to integrate everything into one place and remove multiple steps from doing something like sending an e-mail blast. People are excited."

And so are Greg and Vera, about the industry’s future, their personal future and Proforma’s future. "Maybe if we get to $1 billion in sales, then I’ll sit back and relax," says Greg. "We’re not there yet."

Dave Vagnoni is a staff writer for Counselor.

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