Marvin Spike Lifetime Achievement Award – Walter Hill

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Walter HillWalter Hill knew he had a calling for sales earlier than most. As a young boy, he operated the candy stand at his father’s service station, and he quickly realized that he could sell more to customers stopping for gas by asking them if they needed anything inside. “The idea of buying and selling appealed to me,” he says, “because I realized there were no limits to what I could earn.”

At 21, Hill took a job at a gift company in the industry, eventually becoming a top sales rep. He moved into licensing for several years and had the opportunity to work on successful projects for The Empire Strikes Back franchise and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But 12 years later, he returned to ad specialties after hearing that one of his peers had made almost half a million dollars in sales. “I asked him how he did it,” says Hill, “and he told me he focused more on selling concepts rather than just peddling products.”

So in 1998, Hill established Icon Blue (asi/229398), partnering four years later with the GE Pension Trust as part of its alternative investment strategy. Today, they continue to offer financial support to Icon Blue, where Hill is the president and CEO. “It gives us a lot of credibility,” says Hill. “We have to qualify in order for them to lend their name to us as a partner, so we’re under a lot of scrutiny.”

Since its establishment, Hill has preferred to maintain a smaller group of employees who keep profitability above the industry average. “We’re structured to be more of an online business,” he says. “We have fewer salespeople than most distributors, but we’re still profitable. We emphasize customer service, and we make sure we’re following up efficiently.”

To match its small but ambitious atmosphere, Icon Blue recently livened up its office space. They moved into an environmentally friendly building on the Miracle Mile in the Wilshire section of Los Angeles, and designed the offices with splashes of color. “I love coming here,” says Hill. “We used to have a serious agency look, but we wanted it to be more fun and creative, because our whole business is getting people to respond with color and messages.”

Hill also instituted the office’s True Blue Wall, which displays letters and emails that customers have written to praise members of the team, who are then recognized in front of the company. “That’s a True Blue moment,” says Hill, “when a client is pleased enough to write a personal message.”

Almost 20 years after Icon Blue landed on the distributor scene, it now has to contend with a competitive marketplace. But it continues to maintain its profitability, even with a smaller staff. “If you create a point of difference and stick with it, you will be successful,” says Hill. “You have to know how to use the right products and be an idea resource. I want to give everyone, especially the young people here, a work ethic they can take anywhere. That’s the legacy I’d like to leave, that they gained more than they gave.” – SL