Distributor Entrepreneur of the Year – Heather Sanderson

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Heather SandersonBuilding a three-person boutique firm into one of the larger distributorships in the industry is easy. Sure, just ask Heather Sanderson. “We just listened to the clients,” says the owner of Overture Premiums & Promotions (asi/288473), “and now we’re up to 150 employees and $45 million.”

Of course, it’s best to take Sanderson’s modesty in stride. Not every distributor makes bold decisions at the request of clients, such as adding in-house embroidery and screen printing. Nor does any firm thrive despite starting in 2001, right in the teeth of the dot-com bust. “It was actually a good time for us,” she says, “because there were a lot of companies that were weak, and there was a lot of fallout of clients.”

Prior to starting Overture, Sanderson worked for a very small supplier. When her husband was transferred to the Chicago area, it gave the San Francisco resident the chance to choose her next step – which didn’t include working for someone. “I had done a lot of things for a lot of other people,” says Sanderson, “and I just thought it was time to do it on my own.”

Well, not really on her own. Sanderson recognized her strengths in business development and team building, and put her trust in others to guide everything from technology to the financials of the company. “Listening to the people around you and giving them a voice really helps grow your business,” she says. “I couldn’t do it by myself. One person alone is not going to go from three employees to 150 people and still be a functioning company. I have a lot of strong people around me.”

Still, Sanderson’s direction positioned Overture for success in a number of key ways. She placed an emphasis on creativity and oversaw the addition of many in-house services – everything from graphic design to Web programming. Overture recruited young, aggressive salespeople and instituted a mentoring program that allowed them to thrive. She emphasized a strong culture that has made the distributor a perennial member of the Counselor Best Places to Work list. “Our sales grew when we started to really invest in our team members,” she says. “It was unbelievable the growth we had after we went through all that training.”

That growth currently stands at 30% a year, which puts Overture on track for Sanderson’s long-standing goal of “50 by 15” – reaching $50 million by the end of 2015. The distributor, bumping up against space constraints, plans to ease back to conservative 10%-15% growth over the next five years, but is moving forward with a number of initiatives: branching into different parts of the country, ramping-up its operational team, investing in its Web capabilities and much more. Clearly, this entrepreneur’s next moves are worth a listen. – CJM