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2011 Person of the Year: Marty Lott, SanMar
By Michele Bell
June 2011

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He shuns titles and the spotlight, has a fanatical approach to customer service and a legion of devoted employees and clients. Meet the head of one of the industry’s most respected companies, as he guides it through a period of rising apparel costs and inventory shortages.

SanMar’s headquarters in Issaquah, WA, can best be described as ironic. In an area known for its dismal weather, constant drizzling and dreary cloud-cover – even more apt because it’s only 115 miles from the gloomy town of Forks, where those emo-ridden Twilight movies are set – SanMar may just be the happiest place on Earth.

Its employees are among the most highly-skilled and well-trained in the industry, and – as any of them will gleefully tell you – they Absolutely Love Their Jobs. The reason they’re all so giddy and productive and passionate about apparel and never, ever want to leave the company, rests squarely on the shoulders of the man at the helm of the business, its founder and president, Marty Lott.

Speak Softly & Carry A Big Inventory

“We don’t do titles here,” Lott says. “To everyone here, I’m just Marty.” Be that as it may, SanMar’s famed corporate culture and training process begins and ends with Lott.

Sounding a little like Bill Gates’ backstory, Lott started SanMar in 1971 as a school project from the basement of his parents’ home in Seattle. With an initial offering of a few T-shirts and one backpack, the family-owned and operated company has grown to the behemoth it is today: over 40,000 SKUs from 15 retail, mill and private label brands housed in six national distribution centers covering 3.25 million square feet of inventory space and employing more than 1,800 staff members.

And though he’s loathe to bask in accolades – Lott personifies “low-key” and “humble” – the company has amassed many in its 40 years. It was named ASI’s Supplier of the Year in 2007, routinely wins Counselor’s Distributor Choice Awards in the Outerwear, Performancewear, Shirts, Women’s Wear and Caps and Hats categories, and – not surprisingly, considering its employees’ loyalty and dedication – has been a mainstay on Counselor’s Best Places to Work list. Lott himself was ranked first on Counselor’s list of the industry’s 50 most powerful people in 2008, and has retained a spot in the top five since then. But perhaps most impressive is its stellar five-star rating in ESP. If you look at the distributor comments on the company – and there are reams of them – you’d think SanMar was a personal savior for each and every client.

One of SanMar’s earliest clients – customer #104, to be exact – has known Lott since he was driving samples around Alaska in a pick-up truck and can attest to the top-notch employees at SanMar and their level of service.

“SanMar has truly been a partner with Stellar Design since 1985,” says Tim Ellis, president of the Anchorage-based company. “I’ve enjoyed their support and always looked at SanMar as a role model for my company to follow. I think a true sign of a successful business is the people it employs. I’m still working on that one myself, but Marty has certainly done a great job with this at SanMar. I’ve worked with many people at SanMar over the years and everyone is a true reflection of Marty, and his vision and personality for the way business should be conducted.”

But here’s what you really need to know about SanMar: During the worst of the recession, SanMar didn’t lay off a single employee. Not one. “We tightened our belts in other areas, but I felt strongly that no people should be laid off,” Lott says. “It’s important that employees knew we’d all get through it together and come out the other side.”

His customer service people are trained upwards of six months before they even begin dealing with customers. They attend SanMar University and are given tests and homework, and Lott makes it a point to personally meet and spend time with every new “class.” The SanMar University training room, housed within the company’s headquarters, sports a sign that sums up the general light-heartedness of the place: “Laughter is the shock absorber that eases the blows of life.”

“Here’s what it really comes down to,” Lott says, “Just be nice to people. Honestly, it’s the simplest philosophy, but it works. I treat my employees well and with respect, and they, in turn, treat our customers that way.”

He says he manages “by roaming” and points out that the best way he’s found to take the pulse of his company is to spend time in the lunchroom with employees. Lott is, in fact, so dedicated to keeping the SanMar operation running smoothly for clients and employees, that he owns his own snow plow. Why, you may ask? Because he’s been known to personally plow SanMar’s parking lot so staffers can make it in safely in inclement weather.

Lott created his company’s telecommuting program, which 220 employees now participate in, to be competitive in the workplace. “I didn’t want to lose good people because they found a job closer to home,” he says. “People are more productive, and the quality of their lives has improved because they spend less time in their cars commuting and more time with their families – they’re just generally happier.”

Jordan, Lott’s 31-year-old son who oversees all of the company’s building and real estate ventures, is thrilled with the company’s structure. “There’s nothing greater than working with your family every day,” he says, referring to his dad and brother, Jeremy, another executive at the company. “But I also mean the employees, some of whom have been with us for so long and are like family too.”

Memo Kahan, president of Counselor Top 40 distributor PromoShop (asi/300446), says that over the years, he’s tried to spend as much time with Lott as possible. “His wealth of knowledge, his approach towards our business and his personal interaction with his employees and customers have taught and inspired me,” Kahan says. “Marty makes our industry a better marketplace, as he sets trends, causes everyone else to raise their service levels and teaches us about better ways to succeed and care.”

This mindset is perhaps why SanMar employees are famous for rarely, if ever, saying no to clients or turning down reasonable requests, and that the company’s accuracy rate in filling orders is a sliver away from 100%.

“Look, my employees are extremely well-trained and pleasant and nice, but that’s only part of the issue,” Lott says. “Having product in stock is the other critical part of the equation.”

“Patient & Gutsy”

Lott, who is so in tune with monitoring the volatility of cotton prices and availability that he has an iPhone app showing him the intraday costs, is like that old EF Hutton commercial: When Marty talks about cotton prices and inventory, people listen. He has SanMar producing webinars for customers on the topics, and has been able to hold costs to a competitive level and maintain inventory due to his obsessive planning to the smallest detail.

His pronouncements have aged well in the cask, so much so that clients and competitors consider his advice on the apparel landscape to be dead on.

For that kind of planning, Lott and his team meet at a minimum of six times per month, “trying to predict the future,” he says, to shore up inventory and keep their processes streamlined. “Thousands of hours alone go into determining our price lists, so it’s all a very slow and deliberate process.”

“On one hand, I guess Marty’s formula is rather simple: He believes in deep product inventory so that his customers can depend on getting what they need when they need it,” says Gene Geiger, president of Counselor Top 40 distributor Geiger (asi/202900). “His company has always delivered great, pro-active customer service, and he has stayed very consistent over time to this mission of product and service. On the other hand, if it was simple to pull off, anyone could do it, and no one has done it better than SanMar.” 

Geiger believes Lott has created a people-first business culture that’s attracted quality people who are loyal, fit SanMar’s values and are committed to executing the vision. “He’s also whip-smart and a sponge for knowledge,” Geiger says. “Every conversation with him is an adventure because he always has some innovative thought or insight to reveal.”

Marc Simon, CEO of Counselor Top 40 distributor HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000), maintains that what’s so unique about Lott is that the skills that allowed SanMar to become a viable business 40 years ago are very different from the skills it takes today for the company to maintain its position as one of the preeminent suppliers in the industry.

“Marty has created success and sustained that success through constant attention to the basics of business – listen to your customers, hire good people to do a great job and offer the best value through service, service, service,” Simon says. “Marty’s core values, and, as a result, SanMar’s core values, align very well with ours and, I’m sure, almost all of his other customers. Marty treats all of us with respect, with integrity and as partners.”

Touching upon Lott’s steady hand as a business owner and leader in the industry, Geiger believes Lott’s consistency is coupled with a long-term view. “He doesn’t get sidetracked by transitory economic blips or the demands of outside shareholders – he’s both patient and gutsy,” Geiger says. “And he has marshaled his resources so that he can be opportunistic when conditions allow. He’s one of a very few superb visionary leaders in this industry.”

Located in the Seattle, WA, area near SanMar’s headquarters, Counselor Top 40 distributor BDA (asi/137616) has a long business history with Lott and his company. “From the first day I met him 25 years ago until today, he is deeply involved in his business, takes time to understand the marketplace, and combines this knowledge to make great business decisions,” says Jay Deutsch, BDA’s CEO. “He’s a true leader in this industry, and has helped it grow overall.” 

And though being in the spotlight is not the most comfortable place for Lott, he says he’s honored by his Counselor Person of the Year award. “My goal has always been about helping our customers build their businesses, participating in their success and giving opportunities for the great people at SanMar to grow and build a career,” he says. “My experience has been that if I stay focused on that, then good things come.” 

Michele Bell is senior editor of Counselor and editor of its sister publication, Supplier Global Resource.

FAST FACTS: MARTY LOTT

  • Graduate of the University of Washington
  • The name “SanMar” comes from an amalgamation of “Sandra,” Lott’s sister, and his first name, “Marty.” “SanMar was first incorporated by my father in the ’60s as a construction company and he named it after his kids,” Lott says. “The company went out of business, so when I started this company the name was available.” 
  • On a business lesson learned: “When I was a screen printer, I placed an order for yellow T-shirts from a local supplier. When the order came, there were three different brands and at least five shades of yellow,” Lott says. “When I tried to deliver it to my customer, it didn’t go so well. As I transitioned to being a supplier, I had learned that my customers sell an order first, then they buy it from me. That model of sales demands dependability in inventory, product and service. That’s the early lesson I learned and what we strive to offer every day.” 

MARTY LOTT'S BEST PRACTICES

  • Don’t cut staff. Even when the economy was at its worst, SanMar tightened its belt but had no layoffs – which solidified its reputation for being loyal to employees and putting their wellbeing first.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Because more than 220 people on staff telecommute, making sure everyone’s informed, in the loop and feeling like they’re part of the team is critical. “My employees live by the Intranet,” Lott says.  
  • Empowerment to the people. There are often decisions made by staff and managers to keep clients happy and that cost the company money that Lott doesn’t even hear about until after the fact. And he’s more than OK with that.  
  • Be engaging. Every Friday, apparel being phased out of SanMar’s line is put on sale for employees and sold for just a few dollars, in the company’s Issaquah, WA, warehouse. Employees can pay with SanMar “bucks,” which they can earn as an on-the-spot reward. It’s a huge event at the company, and Lott makes sure to be there to mingle with his employees. “I learn so much about what’s going on in the company from being there and spending time in our employee lunchrooms,” he says.  

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