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2011 Hot List
By Michele Bell, Andy Cohen and Joe Haley
August 2011

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Meet the 35 people who are shaking up the market with new and innovative approaches.

What’s hot in 2011? Hot is growing a company at fast rates and to extreme levels. 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. It’s separating your company from the pack with an all-in, in-your-face approach that others can only hope to emulate. It’s penetrating new markets, developing new products, pioneering new strategies and creating new business models.

Very simply, it’s taking the market by storm and never looking back. That’s exactly what the people on Counselor’s fourth annual Hot List – a completely unique list from any in the past and any in the future, as the Hot List always consists of new members each year – are doing. Check out their stories.

Alex MorinThe Renaissance Man: Alex Morin, Debco (asi/48886)

The industry finally has its Elvis. People know him by the lone moniker – Alex – but for those who aren’t in the know, his name is Alex Morin, vice president of sales & marketing for Debco (asi/48886). The former Canadian Idol contestant is taking the ad specialty industry by storm and he’s been described as the quintessential “hot lister.” His bio reads like that of a modern-day renaissance man – gifted orator, articulate writer, passionate, humorous, humanistic and an advocate of “fair play.” Not only that, but he’s keen on social media where he blogs and hams it up for the camera. His video product demonstrations on Debco’s Facebook fan page – including one in which he channels “Vince The Slap Chop Guy” – capture his essence perfectly.

Andrew BossThe Speed Racer: Andrew Boss, A T Cross Co. (asi/47520)

Andrew Boss spent the better part of a decade strapped inside an Indy race car zooming around tracks at unthinkable speeds. Following in the footsteps of his brother and grandfather, Boss had an impressive career, including winning 13 of 16 races in 1993. That was then and this is now. Today, he zooms around the industry as the national sales manager for A T Cross Co. (asi/47520), a company owned by his family for 100 years. Described as a “cool, preppy guy” on his Hot List nomination form, Boss’s family roots in both racing and writing instruments ensure that he has what it takes to win.

Anita EmoffThe Danish Delight: Anita Emoff, Boost Rewards/Shumsky (asi/326300)

She may have grown up in a small fishing village on the island of Copenhagen in Denmark, but Anita Emoff is the epitome of a 21st-century businesswoman. With an innate European sophistication and style, Emoff built Boost Rewards – a Certified Women-Owned Business and subsidiary of distributor firm Shumsky (asi/326300) – into a technology provider for incentive programs. “This industry allows me to help organizations grow and improve,” Emoff says. “A great day is when a client tells me that we made a difference for them.” It’s that infectious enthusiasm and polished panache that secured Emoff a spot on this year’s Hot List – plus, she’s one of the few people we know with attitude enough to wear black leather dresses. And the sartorial sass to pull it off.

Brad WhiteThe Showman: Brad White, Boundless Network (asi/143717)

When Brad White was voted Supplier Global Resource’s Supplier Rep of the Year by distributors in 2010 after 14 years as a supplier, he did something unpredictable, idiosyncratic and utterly him: He quit his job and became a distributor. Now the vice president of sales for Counselor Top 40 distributor Boundless Network (asi/143717), he preaches from the pulpit about why the industry needs to follow his lead and embrace change or face becoming obsolete. From his missives on his blog,, that attracts over 5,000 visitors per month, to his self-promo efforts through Twitter and Facebook, White works the Internet like a zealot jacked up on caffeine. In person, he’s a tireless, passionate, fast-talking example of the industry’s next generation of leaders – a pistol without a silencer.

Brandon KennedyThe Idea Man: Brandon Kennedy, Proforma Progressive Marketing (asi/490211)

You know you’re doing something right when you best the industry’s sales increase in 2010. While the industry saw a bump of 9%, Brandon Kennedy, owner of Proforma Progressive Marketing (asi/490211), realized an increase of over 23%. The man with the eclectic music taste – everyone from Foo Fighters to Billy Joel to Bob Marley to Trace Adkins – has hit on several successful marketing ideas. He hosts client trade shows that are educational in nature and show clients what’s new, what works and how they can use specific products for campaigns. He plans three a year: February to show new products, May to capture calendar and Christmas card orders and September to capture the holiday gift-giving orders. Smart and savvy: a creative businessperson showing others the way.

Carla BuchananThe Referral Master: Carla Buchanan, Business Brandings (asi/152018)

If you hate cold calling, then you need to sidle up to Carla Buchanan, because the owner of Business Brandings (asi/152018) has built her entire client base via referrals. You heard that right: 100% of Business Brandings’ business was built with BNI referrals, earning Buchanan the distinction of the #1 Networker from BNI, Platinum Coast Chapter. With a fashion degree from The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Buchanan has the gift of the gab too, taking every opportunity to talk with and listen to industry colleagues, clients and potential clients.

MarkCatherine GrahamThe Social Media Stalwarts: Catherine Graham & Mark Graham, Rightsleeve (asi/308922)

When Mark Graham founded Rightsleeve (asi/308922), he had $500 to his name, which he promptly plunked down on his entrepreneurial dream. That was 11 years ago. Today, the company has 17 employees, revenues in excess of $4 million and a corporate culture that oozes unfettered exuberance. Riding shotgun, Mark’s counterpart, Catherine, plays Cher to his Sonny. The two certainly have each other, as together they push the limits of how to make social media an integral component of doing business with clients and with their employees. In addition, they developed a proprietary software that enables employees to interact with each other on a newsfeed that keeps them connected on a daily basis. They also blog and vlog, tweet and teach – Mark leads many education sessions in the industry. Busy? Yeah, they’re busy changing the culture in the market one step at a time.

Christopher BernatJackson BurnettThe Apparel Innovators: Christopher Bernat & Jackson Burnett, Vapor Apparel (asi/93396)

University of Clemson classmates Christopher Bernat and Jackson Burnett run Vapor Apparel (asi/93396), a leading supplier of sublimated apparel. What sets them apart from the pack is the variety of styles, colors and fabrics they produce specifically for sublimation. With its headquarters located in an old Navy yard in South Carolina, Vapor Apparel has been designated as one of the 20 fastest growing companies in the state. And both Bernat and Burnett are recognized as leaders, not only in sublimation but also in bringing large and small brands into unique apparel lines.

Craig WolfeThe Lead Duck: Craig Wolfe, CelebriDucks (asi/44398)

If you can make ducks cool, you have to be hot. Since no one was doing licensing for rubber ducks, specifically those made to look like celebrities, Craig Wolfe figured, why not. And there you have the genius that eventually became CelebriDucks (asi/44398). In fact, Wolfe’s creations have garnered lots of attention, including being voted as one of the top 100 gifts by Entertainment Weekly magazine. And these aren’t your run-of-the-mill bathtub toys. No, Wolfe’s quackers are some of the most intricately sculpted and painted ducks on the market. And he’s a real pal to his fine feathered friends, launching the first ever 100% recycled green duck.

Diane KatzmanThe Philanthropic Designer: Diane Katzman, Diane Katzman Design (asi/63988)

When fashion designers like Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole and Escada need jewelry to accompany their runway shows, they call Diane Katzman. Katzman is the owner of Diane Katzman Designs (asi/63988), a darling of the fashion world with a loyal following. Her jewelry has graced the pages of InStyle, Modern Bride and Elle magazines and is sold by high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Anthropologie. But this worldwide fame is nothing compared to the millions of dollars her custom pieces (read: you’re not finding them in a catalog) have raised for charities. Her work has been so important that St. Louis named her 2011 Woman of Achievement for Creative Philanthropy.

Gabriel JordanThe Whole Package: Gabriel Jordan, Prime Line (asi/79530)

Gabriel Jordan, West Coast sales manager for Prime Line (asi/79530), is a distributor’s dream come true. Known for being very progressive and proactive with his customers, his follow-up is second to none in the industry. He’s easygoing and has a flawless disposition. Ask anyone who’s sat through one of his creative presentations and they’ll tell you that he prods until he uncovers what it is that’s important to his clients. Aside from the rapport he has with his customers, he knows Prime Line inside-out and upside-down. Plus, he does a monthly video post that he uses in his territory and Prime uses nationally. A salesman with a 21st-century plan – very cool.

Howard SchwartzThe Risk-Taking Networker: Howard Schwartz, HDS Marketing (asi/216807)

Howard Schwartz, founder and CEO of HDS Marketing (asi/216807), is the opposite of “idle.” Rather, he’s more like the Energizer Bunny, networking like a maniac, finding new and unique ways to build the client base for his company, which is a consistent member of Counselor’s exclusive Best Places to Work list. But, he’s more than just a presence at the local Rotary Club monthly luncheon. When he lands those new clients, he’s not afraid to take calculated risks and shake things up. Because of this living-on-the-edge mentality, he’s increased his market share in the industry, which has resulted in an innovative and successful national expansion.

James ClintonThe Key Master: James Clinton, Brewzkey LLC (asi/41736)

James Clinton, inventor and co-founder of Brewzkey LLC (asi/41736), is an entrepreneur who has a keen knack for providing solutions to everyday problems that often make life knotty. To wit: After a round of golf, he and his buddies were set to enjoy a few beers but no one had a bottle opener. After unsuccessfully trying to pry the caps off with house and car keys, Clinton was inspired. He had the idea for a key-shape bottle opener that would attach seamlessly to any keyring. The Brewzkey was born. It’s that kind of smart innovation that is tailor-made for the Hot List.

Jason MillerThe Builder: Jason Miller, Camsing Global LLC

Able to survive and thrive in the span of a year, Jason Miller has seen it all as president of Camsing Global LLC. Previously the president of Corvest, Miller was a vital cog in the Camsing acquisitions that turned the company into a new Top 40 supplier. Organized enough to bring together large companies and lead a turnaround of the Corvest operation, Miller has the type of go-get-’em positive energy that others aspire to. He even closed the acquisition of Avaline (asi/37590) on the Friday before the July 4th holiday weekend. The question: What’s next on the acquisition hit list for this company and this executive? How high on the Top 40 can this company that has quickly burst onto the scene go?

Jennifer TsaiThe Multi-Tasking Designer: Jennifer Tsai, Tri-Mountain/Mountain Gear (asi/92125)

If it’s not enough for Jennifer Tsai to run the daily operations of Top 40 supplier firm Tri-Mountain/Mountain Gear (asi/92125), she’s also been instrumental in designing the company’s new product offerings. Of which there are many. Very many. Tsai is the creator and lead designer for Tri-Mountain’s new Lilac Bloom product line, a collection of items specifically for women. As the leader behind the new line, Tsai envisions a level apparel playing field for men’s and women’s apparel in the corporate world. A novel thought in the industry from a unique and visionary leader.

John RobertsonThe Tech Titan: John Robertson, Robertson Marketing Group (asi/309630)

What’s hotter than 30% growth in one year? That’s exactly what John Robertson and Robertson Marketing Group (asi/309630) experienced between 2009 and 2010. Led by an innovative technology platform that provides clients with a system for ordering promotional products and tracking the success of their marketing programs, the growth at Robertson has helped the company to explode onto the scene this year as a newcomer to the Counselor Top 40. Next up? Keeping up the same growth pace, Robertson says.

Lizie JonesThe Energetic Enthusiast: Lizie Jones, Logo Mats (asi/67849)

The face of a supplier company at the tender age of 23? That’s Lizie Jones, the do-everything, conquer-all-tasks sales manager for supplier firm Logo Mats (asi/67849). Since joining Logo Mats straight out of Georgia University, Jones has taken full responsibility for the company’s sales efforts, and she is the smiling face you’ll find bounding out of the Logo Mats booth at all trade shows to espouse the value of logoed floor mats.

Marc ThompsonThe Geek God: Marc Thompson, Genumark Promotional Merchandise (asi/204588)

Simple fact of the Internet age: Cool business titles garner attention. Enter Marc Thompson, director of social media for Genumark Promotional Merchandise (asi/204588). Indeed, it’s Thompson’s job to make this Top 40 distributor firm cool on the Internet. He has ramped up the company’s online presence and creates fun games for its Twitter and Facebook followers to play. Check out his most recent effort: Will You Fit?, where Thompson challenges fans to try to squeeze themselves into strange things and submit photos of their efforts. Cool and creative. Very hot.

Mark JohnstonSarah JohnstonThe Creative Decorators: Mark & Sarah Johnston, PromoSpark (asi/349939)

When you can put a new printing process to use as your central business strategy – and totally succeed with it – you know you’ve hit on something good. That’s precisely what Mark and Sarah Johnston, owners of PromoSpark, formerly known as Unlimited Promotions (asi/349939), have done. The duo developed an efficient and cost-effective online system within the racing community where T-shirts have the same front imprint and the backs have individualized team names. It’s been a boon to their business, as charity drives, marathons and all team races can feature personalized uniforms of sorts. Just check out this testimonial from the company’s website: “We have an event with 12,000+ participants and allow each team to have their own logo on the back of their shirts,” wrote Jennifer from the Mini Heart Marathon. “Unlimited Promotions e-mailed artwork proofs to 150+ team leaders, kept track of our shirt inventory and delivered the order on time.”

Marvin AmbergThe Entrepreneurial Expat: Marvin Amberg, Caseable (asi/44262)

He grew up in Germany and lived in Spain, France, Argentina and England, where he attended business school to study investment banking. It was then that Marvin Amberg realized a career in finance wasn’t for him, so in 2009 – at the age of 25 – he jetted across the Atlantic to New York, where he and his business partner founded Caseable (asi/44262), a supplier company that manufactures, or “freshly bakes,” as he and his team say, customizable neoprene laptop sleeves – all from its headquarters in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Though a neophyte in the U.S. ad specialty industry, Amberg knows what he loves about it: “The drive for innovation … the new, the creative.”

Megan ErberThe Superwoman: Megan Erber, Jetline (asi/63344)

Described by the voluminous number of industry pros who nominated her for this year’s Hot List as “dynamic,” a “social networker extraordinaire” and a business asset with “a blitzkrieg-like reaction speed for resolving problems and offering help,” Megan Erber – mid-Atlantic sales manager for Jetline (asi/63344) – is a one-woman whirling dervish of energy, creative ideas and high-functioning responsiveness. So ubiquitous is she that she seems to be at every sales meeting, on every sales call and at every industry party simultaneously. Need more proof of her superhuman abilities? She’s a mixed martial arts expert who could just as easily drop you like a sack of potatoes with a well-placed roundhouse kick as she could bowl you over with her charm and charisma.

Mel EllisThe Flag Bearer: Mel Ellis, HumphreyLine (asi/62050)

Leading the charge of made in the USA, exactly at the time when made in America products are making a comeback in the economy overall, Mel Ellis is carrying the flag for domestic manufacturing in the ad specialty market. Indeed, he has even leveraged the trend into growth opportunities for his company, HumphreyLine (asi/62050), based in Portland, OR. In fact, as a made-in-America manufacturer, Humphrey has grown its operations recently by espousing the inventory advantages of purchasing from a domestic company. Going against the grain when most ad specialty items are imported? Yep, that’s Mel Ellis – and he’s succeeding with the maverick effort.

Michael FieldsThe Young Gun: Michael Fields, K.C. Fields & Associates

Youth matters when you have to juggle the sales pitches of various lines of products from multiple suppliers. Michael Fields, at just 28 years old, is indeed one of the youngest multiline reps in the industry. And his suppliers are reaping the benefits of his youth. In fact, Fields is as active in industry outings as one can possibly be. He participates in regional associations in many ways (i.e. volunteering for committees, working as a panel speaker, attending social networking events, etc), and was on the OPPA (Ohio Promotional Professionals Association) Board of Directors for three years. It’s good to be young.

Mike RiddleThe Player: Mike Riddle, WorkflowOne (asi/333647)

You know Mike Riddle. He’s the gregarious glad-hander sidled up to whichever bar is “the” meeting place after a day on the trade show floor, with miles of smile and an embracing personality to match. As national director of promotional products for Counselor Top 40 distributor WorkflowOne (asi/333647) for over 11 years, Riddle knows his stuff. But he truly shines when the sun goes down and – as any true networker will tell you – the real connections are made. His business-by-day and fun-at-night personas met inside a well-known casino, where Riddle came face-to-face with a promotion he crafted. “Knowing my creative items work and drive revenue for my customers is the best,” he says. We believe him, though not so much when he claims that a “malted chocolate milkshake” is his favorite beverage. Bartenders, industry luminaries and the fine folks at Ketel One would beg to differ.

Neal HarperThe Confidante: Neal Harper, Logomark (asi/67866)

When you think of the resident South African at Logomark (asi/67866), Trevor Gnesin, the company’s owner and force of nature, naturally comes to mind. But next to him – quieter, calmer and more contemplative – is always Neal Harper, the company’s COO and Gnesin’s trusted right-hand man. Harper met Gnesin in South Africa 22 years ago, and when he came to the U.S. in 1991, working together was a natural fit. “Neal has the same passion for the business I have, and as a team we’re very powerful; he’s more grounded while I’m more the risk taker, which is why I never make a call without getting his opinion,” Gnesin says, adding, tellingly, that Harper is being groomed to take over Logomark. It’s Harper’s unfailing loyalty, though, that’s his greatest strength. As Gnesin says: “He’s the only person I’d trust with my checkbook.”

Nina ShatzThe Sales Professor: Nina Shatz, Red Ball Promotions

The ultimate creative seller, Nina Shatz goes above and beyond to get her clients thinking outside of the box. In fact, in May alone she planned two separate “field trips” for clients visiting the Boston area get them outside the realm of the corporation. “Enjoying each other in a relaxed atmosphere makes future business transactions easy and relaxed, as both client and distributor have solidified their bonds in an informal manner,” Shatz says. Even better? She’s teaching her successful sales tactics to other distributors, as she has led sessions at ASI Shows this year.

Patrick WhiteThe Producer: Patrick White, Rustico LLC (asi/84264)

Check out the list of accomplishments that Patrick White, vice president of marketing for Rustico LLC (asi/84264), has been responsible for over the past two years: Promotional products growth of 78%, getting a promotional item placed in the Smithsonian Museum and creating a catalog and trade show booth that other suppliers stop and admire. “Suppliers take my catalog and try and ask me to help with their own,” says White. He has repackaged the consumer products leather-goods company into an industry supplier in the short time he’s been there – and it has taken off. “The company was in business since 2001,” he says. “I arrived in 2009 and I am pleased to tell you, that’s when things started to heat up.”

Pranav DalalThe Growth Getter: Pranav Dalal, Office Beacon

This provider of graphic and digitizing services, as well as software solutions, to industry suppliers has had off-the-charts growth over the past few years. Office Beacon has had so much success, in fact, that it has made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for three years in a row. And Pranav Dalal, who co-founded the company in 2001, is the person in charge of this explosive growth. Prior to his hyper-success with Office Beacon, Dalal held management positions at Fidelity Investments and served on its Global System steering committee.

Raman AgarwalThe Networking King: Raman Agarwal, Akran Marketing (asi/115329)

Good salespeople can operate anywhere – and everywhere. Raman Agarwal, president and CEO of Akran Marketing (asi/115329), is testament to that. He recently wrecked six phones in one year because, well, he took them into the shower with him to close deals. “It was worth it,” he says. “It generated $50,000 in business.” Agarwal even closed $10,000 in sales from a customer he met in a public bathroom. Yes, networking is everything to Agarwal, and he’ll do it at any time and in any place – airport lounges, hotel bars, corporate and social parties, parking garages, restaurants, retail shops. Every single person is a target for this addicted-to-networking exec.

Randy ChenThe Ringleader: Randy Chen, Impex

As the owner of Impex, a New Jersey-based company that handles product importing, warehousing, fulfillment and compliance inspections for suppliers, there’s little doubt that industry veteran Randy Chen has his finger on the pulse of the business. But, as the unofficial mayor of every swinging soiree and social event in the industry, he’s equally at ease working a rope line, smooth-talking his way into every high-end Vegas club and swanky backroom speakeasy. In that vein, we’d be tempted to call him the industry’s Frank Sinatra, but we prefer his own assessment of his larger-than-life personality: “I’m 6’ 2”, 230 pounds,” Chen says. “I’m like the Great Wall of China.”

Rena AshfeldThe Red Hot Mama: Rena Ashfeld, Winning Edge Inc. (asi/97472)

“If there is a poster child for energy, enthusiasm and networking, it’s Rena,” says one of the industry execs who nominated Rena Ashfeld, the national sales manager for awards supplier Winning Edge Inc. (asi/97472), to the Hot List. Having been in the ad specialty business for over 16 years as both a supplier and a distributor, the list of Ashfeld’s friends and fans is long and distinguished. Describing herself as “passionate, honest and fun,” Ashfeld says the people in the industry are what keep her motivated and energized. But much as she loves a good party, don’t expect her to revel at her usual level at any shows in 2011. Just as she was told she had made it on this year’s Hot List, Ashfeld learned she was expecting her second child, due in early January. “So I’ll be ready,” she says, “for the 2012 trade show season.”

Richard SolanoThe Moniker Maker: Richard Solano, The Little Dude With Black Hair (asi/254801)

No need for an elevator pitch for this guy to get attention. He just needs to say his company name. Creativity and ingenuity ooze from Richard Solano, owner of The Little Dude With Black Hair (asi/254801). Yes, that’s the company name. And if that weren’t enough on its own – which, really, it is – Solano has also taken to marketing his company with Microsoft Tags on business cards and self-promotion T-shirts.

Stephanie LeaderThe Entrepreneurial Evangelist: Stephanie Leader,

Stephanie Leader was sure, from a very young age, that she would be a lawyer. Her parents encouraged the dream and her grandfather – a judge – inspired it. Some dreams, though, aren’t meant to be. Leader was taken with promotional products while interning at a distributorship during college, a company she ended up purchasing in 1998. The entrepreneurial itch was simply too strong, and now Leader leads a $16 million business with 60 employees. It even began an affiliate program last year, which is helping to expand the business and grow the operations of other like-minded entrepreneurs.

Suzanne RobinsonThe Green Queen: Suzanne Robinson, Ad Spice LLC (asi/105286)

When a company plants heirloom cotton in its front yard, you know it’s serious about sustainability. No doubt, Ad Spice Promotional Marketing (asi/105286) and its leader, Suzanne Robinson, take eco-friendliness to levels most companies can only hope to reach. Its Seed-to-Shirt learning garden in the front yard removes the nutrient-depleting, water-thirsty grass and shrubs and develops a sustainable crop of heirloom cotton – all in an effort to bring a wealth of information about the printed apparel industry to clients and passersby. Ad Spice received the Green Plus certification from Duke University this year and was certified as a B Corporation (an organization that highlights companies focused on eco-friendly business tactics) in February. All this and success too: Ad Spice was recently named the best place to purchase promotional products in the Raleigh-Durham, NC area.

Tom SavioThe Mix Master: Tom Savio, Caliendo Savio Enterprises/CSE (asi/155807)

With sales up 26% from last year, Tom Savio, president and CEO of Counselor Top 40 distributor Caliendo Savio Enterprises (asi/155807), has clearly found the recipe for success. In the industry since 1982, Savio has built a business that prides itself on blending many different areas of expertise – such as traditional ad specialty sales along with in-house apparel decoration – and employee personalities, as evidenced in the rap song and video he and his team created (seriously) to express who they are and what they’re capable of. He’s so well-respected that even Savio’s competitors think his savvy business strategies are something to which to aspire. “He’s very smart and devoted to the industry,” says PromoShop’s CEO Memo Kahan. “And he makes this industry a fun place to be.”

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