Fastest-Growing Distributor

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Rector CommunicationsHow Rector Communications became the fastest-growing distributor in the ad specialty market.

The main objective at Rector Communications (asi/305623) has always been more than just making money, though CEO Tom Rector knows a healthy bank account is key to a strong company. "Primarily, we want to change the industry culture," he says. "We want to focus on ways to help it evolve toward more sophisticated items."

In just six short years, Rector Communications has achieved both strong sales and a reputation in the industry for changing things up. The distributorship started with one man (Rector), one computer and one dog in a living room, and is now a consistently expanding enterprise. In fact, the CEO admits it's a challenge to keep up with the momentum. "I just wish there were more hours in the day," Rector says. "We have to keep asking ourselves, what can we feasibly do?"

Annual sales in 2010 were $350,000, then grew more than 500% over the next two years, and the company expects to reach more than $3 million in revenues this year. And that goal to change the industry one sale at a time has remained the same.

Rector's foray into promotional products, though, came by chance. He was once a real estate market lobbyist, and while he was successful, he felt limited. "My father-in-law showed me how he screen-prints and embroiders, which he's been doing for 30 years," he says. "It interested me instantly. I jumped into it blindly, so I had a different perspective. I incorporated new technology to improve existing systems."

At first, Rector's office was his living room, and only his dog kept him company as he taught himself the complexities of owning a distributorship. His hard work led to one sales rep, then another as the referrals kept coming. The group moved into one office suite in Indianapolis, and after only a couple months moved into the next suite over. In October 2012, they expanded into a third.

When the Rector team first began attending ASI Shows, the reception from suppliers was not overly convivial. "We're all in our 20s and 30s," says Rector. "I think they were convinced that we would never make it. But we weren't just collecting free stuff; we were looking for creative, innovative items that clients would respond to."

Today, they discuss product lines with those same reps, figuring out how to make the items work for their customers. "If suppliers want to meet us when they're in town, we always make the time," he says. "We want to know what's out there, what's great about a line, so we can educate our clients."

While the company's recent success could easily go to his head, Rector's time as a one-man enterprise is never far from his mind. Thus, when he can, he puts the company in solidarity with other businesses in similar situations. He cites an Iowa pin company that employed almost every resident in its local area. When a larger entity bought it out and moved the facilities, the town was hit hard by skyrocketing unemployment. Instead of despairing, the locals restarted the business on their own. "They fought for their livelihood," says Rector. "We support that, and so we buy these pins when we can."

While Rector Communications continues to focus on screen-printing, embroidery and promotional products, it has recently added media services and marketing solutions to the menu. "We'll do PR and marketing for rebranding efforts, including business cards and website development," he says. "We build e-commerce Web stores and print on-demand so we have no inventory. We also create lead-generating systems. We build data mines for our clients, and they build a better product for theirs."

To continue to expand, Rector says, his company must always be prepared to fulfill client needs. "There's never a client that's too big or too small," he explains. "We can do three or 3,000 tees in a day, so that allows us to get our foot in the door." He emphasizes to his reps that there's potential in every order. In addition, smaller runs benefit the online business; Rector Communications can offer 2,000 products through its 84 Web stores without any inventory. "We're not spending money hoping to sell," explains Rector, "so we can have more products and more points of sale."

How does Rector Communications successfully weather the natural peaks and valleys of any business year? Rector says they use the slower times to regroup and plan strategy. They also offer specials for potential clients, which "help spur ordering and keep us top-of-mind. We'll make $100,000 from October through December with online ordering, which is where we get higher margins." In July, the team preps for the busy fourth-quarter season, maximizing SEO and creating strategic preparation.

Despite already not having enough hours in the day, the team has added incentive programs on its Web stores, will aggressively push its lead-generating programs and plans to add Near Field Communication (NFC) Technology chips to promotional items. Even with exponential growth, Rector manages to keep things in perspective. "I tell my team that it's OK to make a mistake," he says. "This is T-shirts, not brain surgery. It's OK to price incorrectly once in a while."

Fastest Growing Distributor