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When your entire marketing plan rests on fixing the branding of clients, you'd better have a clear brand for your own company. After harping to his clients that brand consistency is the key to marketing success, Michael Levitt looked around and noticed his company was far off the mark.
Suddenly, he realized, "We have this marketing kit, and a website that doesn't match, and an e-mail signature that doesn't match," recalls Levitt about his moment of clarity as the president of MRL Promotions (asi/258137). "We're promoting successful branding, and the first step is to do that for your company. We have that now."
It took a while to get there, in part because Levitt, who started the company seven years ago from his dorm room, was too busy managing orders in the company's early days to strategize a consistent branding message.
That's no longer the case. Levitt and his team of seven employees made it a priority to create a coherent brand going forward by making the distributor's website, brochures, catalogs, T-shirts, business cards and just about anything else with the logo on it have the same look – a simple font accompanied by charcoal, red and white colors.
These steps, Levitt says, are key to setting his company apart from competitors. It must be working. This year, MRL Promotions is the fastest-growing distributor in the ad specialty market after growing its sales by 471% between 2009 and 2011 – an increase from $350,000 to $2 million.
As a political science major at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Levitt started experimenting with printing shirts. That led to requests for hoodies, embroidered polos, other apparel orders and, eventually, promotional products in general. He attended his first trade show (ASI Orlando) when he was 20 and just a sophomore in college. That was followed by a three-month internship with a distributor in New York before returning to Florida to continue with his own firm. Today, MRL's office takes up 3,600 square feet in Ft. Lauderdale.
That kind of growth has allowed Levitt to hire one or two additional employees, which in turn frees Levitt from administrative duties for more time in the field. Last year he sold over $1.5 million, and has both pitched to a wide array of clients as well as focused on a few strategic customers in areas like the beverage industry.
"I think it's every person's wish to land the big guys, but it's not realistic," Levitt says of distributor pipe dreams that might include behemoths like Coca-Cola. "The small accounts cannot be neglected or ignored." They can turn into larger accounts, Levitt says. Plus, they "pay the bills." Moreover, smaller players within a larger market (energy drinks and coconut water, for example, instead of Coke) have offered a robust niche for Levitt, not to mention a more expansive level of expertise within the beverage marketplace.
Similarly, Levitt says his growth has come from a sales approach that includes a diversified client base. Last year when the National Basketball Association was embroiled in a lockout, Levitt's one basketball-related account suddenly went cold. In a larger sense, "if I had all my accounts solely based on the sports industry, I'd have a big problem on my hands," he says.
In the same way, Levitt feels that MRL should offer a wide range of products and services to clients. Providing full procurement services (whether overseas or at home), virtually any product in any format, as well as marketing and branding advice, are critical for MRL to maintain explosive growth, he says. And it's made his sales pitch that much more appealing. With prospects, "75% of the time we hit."
Certainly, Levitt has learned hard lessons in the past several years. In the beginning he thought relying on a handful of suppliers would be enough. "You never think to broaden your horizons in the event that your go-to may be out of stock," Levitt says.
In addition, Levitt has spent several years forging relationships with key contacts at the suppliers he uses. "It's not as simple as calling and demanding to speak" to an executive, he says. "We proved ourselves by learning about the products" sold by important suppliers. Levitt says MRL also invites supplier reps to its offices on a regular basis to learn about new products and stay on top of the latest information, as well as maintain solid relationships with company contacts. Levitt and his team work with vendor reps to figure out ways they can increase sales for specific product lines. And, "we don't pick up the phone unless we truly need something," he says. That way when MRL's salespeople do call with a request, they get the attention they need.
To increase sales quickly, Levitt has opted – for the moment, anyway – to hire sellers with industry experience. That's particularly necessary since he has a sales team of three. "If we had 50 to 100 people in our company and had someone to train, it would be another story," he says. "Finding the right members to join our team is the trick." For now that means industry players with drive and a "take-charge attitude."
It's that hustle, more than anything, that Levitt says has helped him see explosive growth. "I think there's definitely a small percentage of luck in there," he says. "But then again, it's also from doing good business and standing by my work."