The Kanga Group (asi/238906)

Top Distributor 2010
Brett and Annalise Law, the founders of The Kanga Group.
The story is a fairy tale of the global commerce age: an Australian distributorship that began by way of Africa and bloomed on the international stage. It was in 2003 that Brett and Annalise Law were honeymooning in the Dark Continent and planning the next business step in their lives. He had a background in commercial and corporate strategy; she, promotional products. They merged the two approaches, and The Kanga Group (asi/238906) was born.

Five years since the company’s inception, the synergy is clearly paying off. Kanga attained 559% growth between 2007 and 2009 to become the fastest-growing distributor in the industry by following a simple strategy: targeting large corporations in thriving industries with the capabilities of a full-scale marketing services provider.
“We just didn’t want to be the run-of-the-mill promotional products distributor, because that’s a highly competitive market here in Australia as in the U.S,” says Brett, the company’s director. “What we wanted to do was push ourselves up the organizational chain and start with the service.”

Naturally it was easier said than done, particularly with the big game that Kanga was targeting. “The first couple years were hard work. It took time to get it going and build momentum,” Brett admits.

The founders started by leveraging the relationships they already had, gradually building up their portfolio and relying on referrals from brand managers to others inside the corporations. They supplemented their efforts by hiring senior marketing employees with backgrounds in large corporations – people with extensive knowledge of the buyer’s perspective and previous connections that could be mined for new business.

As a result, Kanga infiltrated multi-national corporations when so many distributors struggle just getting in the door. “For us it’s been about establishing relationships,” Brett says. “A lot of the sales that we make are through relationships and referrals, because that’s the only way to cut through the multitude of layers in an organization like that.”

How else did the Sydney-based distributor do it? A number of ways, including specializing in custom concepts and supply chain management, targeting recession-proof industries like alcohol and fast-moving consumer goods (think shampoo and soft drinks), spreading itself internationally (with products in 26 countries in the last three months), and limiting overhead by outsourcing work to contractors. It helps to think outside the box, like hiring young mothers who don’t want a full work week. Says Brett: “Mothers are such an underutilized resource because you can get five days of return for two or three days of investment, because they’re so experienced and intelligent.”

While Kanga has succeeded on its own merits, its success is clearly emblematic of the growth taking place Down Under. The APPA (Australasian Promotional Products Association) marks sales in Australia at $2.02 billion, an increase of 45% over the last five years. Certainly the strength of the Australian economy plays a large part in that. But even so, Brett says that distributors who stress service and innovation will continue to thrive beyond the norm.

In addition, the Aussie promo marketplace has also undergone a rapid transformation in the past decade, segueing from a more traditional end-buyer/distributor/supplier dynamic (similar to the U.S.) to a rash of direct importing from China. The reasons are simple: Australia and China share similar time zones. Shipping times are shorter, too. More importantly, Australia is the same physical size as the U.S. but has only one-tenth of the population. This means that pockets of buyers are tougher to find, so distributors want to squeeze every drop out of their margins and prices.

“It’s pushed people to find a lower cost to import quicker than the U.S., where the population is so much greater,” Brett says.

Australian distributors and businesses as a whole survived the past couple years without nearly the amount of hand-wringing that occurred in the States. But Brett isn’t as blindly optimistic about the country’s economic future. “I think the confidence is fragile,” he says, noting that economic troubles in China and Japan (countries that purchase natural resources from Australia) would severely hurt the country.

But when it comes to Kanga’s future prospects, the Sydney resident is decidedly more upbeat. “We got a couple of clients in the U.S.,” Brett says, “and would love in the next 12 to 24 months to establish a presence there. That would help round out the geographical service we can offer our large clients.”

For a company with a global beginning, its arrival on the world’s biggest stage would be a fitting next step.

Top 10 Distributors 2010

-- C.J. Mittica is a staff writer for Counselor.

Top Supplier 2010
Paula Piano, one of the creative minds behind Visstun.


Visstun (asi/93975)

The creative minds behind Visstun (asi/93975) knew they had something on their hands. Something unique. Something big. Something no one else was doing in the world. “We saw Visstun as a product that would create a new category in the promotional products industry,” says Paula Piano, the company’s sales director. “We got excited and went for it.”

That product? A revolutionary new color printing process for cups that produced visually stunning results (hence the name, Visstun). Equally exceptional was the company’s explosive growth during a time when other suppliers were, well, thirsty for sales. The Las Vegas-based company recorded a 922% increase in sales since it was launched in 2007, making it the fastest-growing supplier in the industry. “The creation of Visstun was a wild ride,” says Piano. “It took a lot of technical ability, and a lot of sales ability to get it out there.”

The journey for Visstun and owner Ed Hamilton, who also runs sister companies Digispec (asi/49716) and CounterPoint (asi/46767), began in 2005 when he was alerted to a company that was using a new printing process on flower pots. The possibilities were tantalizing, but making the technological leap proved to be a challenge. Visstun tinkered for two years with the process – everything from different inks and coatings to seeking a plastic that would be both dishwasher safe and could hold a printed message. Even the structure of the cups had to be altered, given that the printing method was originally intended for flower pots that weren’t meant to hold water.

Ultimately, to create the high-quality, four-color process images, Visstun first had to print them on a flat piece of plastic or paperboard and then form the cups; before, cup makers simply printed on the cup after it was created.

“It opened up a whole new window for us because we actually manufacture our cups as well as print on them,” Piano says. “We do it backwards from everybody else.”

The company also had the luxury of preparing for its launch with a dedicated sales team in place and a marketing blitz that included teaser ads, samples and a trade show promotion involving a blue velour bag that had attendees clamoring for more. Visstun also had the benefit of piggybacking onto Digispec’s dependable reputation with distributors.

Not surprisingly, distributors latched on right away to the new product. “Our first trade show,” Piano recalls, “one of the top responses was ‘Finally, it’s about time somebody did this.’”

The company says distributors have been good about producing artwork that takes advantage of the medium, but there’s also been a fair amount of education involved. “When you’re just used to putting a one- or two-color logo,” she says, “and then all of a sudden you have the capability to put a company’s entire marketing program on a cup, that’s a little bit of a mind shift.”

Success for Visstun meant continuing to get the word out. Samples – both virtual and real – have been an integral way for the supplier to reach out to distributors. Most impressively, the higher price of the cups (and their higher perceived value) still haven’t stopped sales, running counter to the notion that buyers are focused more on cost than quality. Piano and her sales team worked hard to level the playing field by trumpeting the company’s low minimums and lack of set-up fees and extra charges. “Our price is our price,” she says, as one way of positioning Visstun against its competitors.

Built to handle the surge of orders, Visstun didn’t need to adapt much over the past two years. The company did just combine its sales team with Digispec’s to simplify customers’ sales experiences by dealing with just one person across all its brands. The purchase of another machine will also bring the supplier closer to producing nearly 200 million cups per year. Visstun continues to explore other opportunities, such as new cup sizes and a plant grow kit that harkens back to the technology’s earliest days in the flower pot business.

“We actually made the cups leak again. We went backwards in technology,” Piano jokes.
These days, it’s the only thing going backward for the company.

Top 10 Suppliers 2010

-- C.J. Mittica is a staff writer for Counselor.

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