Top 40 - The 5 Habits of Highly Successful Distributors

Fast-Growing Top 40 Firms Share Their Secrets To 2011 Success

Successful DistributorsLike many companies in the ad specialty industry, both big and small, Counselor Top 40 distributor AIA Corporation (asi/109480; 17% growth from 2010-'11) used the economic downturn to take a good look in the mirror and evaluate its operations. The company and its executives took a hard look at its strategies, analyzing its go-to-market strategy and picking apart its own strengths and weaknesses.

"Obviously, the recession from 2008-'09 hit us pretty hard, as it did most people in our industry," says AIA president and CEO David Woods. "It also created opportunities to look at our company, do some real soul-searching, and look at some better ways to do things. We've come out of that experience very strongly and we've made fundamental changes, and I think we're a much better company now than we were just two to three years ago."

The company began by shifting some of its territory strategies to ensure it was reaching all of its franchise owners – and new prospects, by the way – with training and sales and marketing resources.

Indeed, here's what AIA and some of the other fastest-growing Top 40 distributors did to make a dramatic leap in revenue from 2010-'11.

1. National Focus
A franchising company with over 300 franchise owners, AIA tweaked its geographic strategy in 2010. "One of the first things we did was reorganize the way we deliver coaching and leadership to our owners, focusing on a national basis for the first time, not a regional basis," Woods says.

In their operational analysis of AIA's business, Woods and his executive team decided that the company needed to expand its focus in order to grow overall.

"For most of my life, sales has been considered on a regional basis – you have a region, you have regional meetings, and you bring everybody in the same area together, and those people may have significant differences in the way they run their business," he says. "A couple of years ago we looked at all of our owners, and we decided to organize them and provide them leadership on a basis of how they approach their business, the kinds of customers they want to serve, the kinds of clients they want to develop, and the volume of their business – are they a one-person operation, or do they have various offices and salespeople?"

This segmented, yet national approach has resulted in AIA offering the necessary resources to its owners, which has resulted in overall growth for the company. AIA now has four field sales specialists that have been organized to work with specific types of owners to better equip them to meet their clients' needs. "That's really paid off," Woods says. "We now give much more focused support and really better understand our customers' needs and goals, what they want to do with their business and how they want to develop their business."

2. Social Media Presence
Leaders of Genumark Promotional Merchandise (asi/204588; 13% growth in 2011) believe so strongly that a social media presence is essential to gaining and maintaining clients that they've selected a specific individual to oversee those efforts: Marc Thompson is Genumark's director of visual and social media.

"We're blogging, we're Tweeting, we're Facebooking, and using those vehicles for all kinds of stuff that's going on in the company, whether it's internal events, community events or new product offerings," says CEO Mark Freed. "All the kinds of conventional marketing we've always done are being exposed to the social media environment."

One of Genumark's more successful online promotions that had the intended effect of generating camaraderie among its employees and supplier partners was its celebrity Look-Alike contest. "There were some amazing entries, and it got everyone involved, including staff, clients and suppliers," Thompson says. "We felt it was important to involve everyone, as these types of things are often only aimed at clients, but we feel it's important to create good morale amongst our staff and suppliers, too."

Thompson says Genumark's blog is updated often and is used as an opportunity to promote new products and client events. "I'm also finding Pinterest to be very useful, as I can put together various idea boards, and then we can e-mail our clients a link to our Pinterest account and they can look at a visual idea board or new, unique and cool items," he says. "I can also update this all the time so it's fresh."

"I see social media as an extension of our industry, as the promotional products we sell are used to promote, and we can also help promote our clients online, too."

3. Fresh Talent
Another way that fast-growing distributors found success last year was by increasing their focus on hiring. AIA makes sure to keep its cupboard stocked with new, talented people, according to Woods.

"We've always been a company that's focused on quality, not quantity, so we look for really good people that will fit with our culture and can benefit from the tools that we provide," he says. "In every year of the last five, we've added a great block of new people to our base, and that's really helped drive our business."

Woods says AIA's most profitable franchises at any given time are often the newer ones. It's a fact that's abundantly clear to Woods, as it's in his face every morning when he walks in the office door.

"We have several monitors up in our corporate offices, and on one of the screens on a rotating basis is our top ten owners for the last week," he says. "As I was walking into my office this morning, the top three last week were all owners who have been with us less than a year, and one of them has been with us for just about a month."

Woods makes sure that AIA's new hires have plenty of industry experience. "We believe we have great tools and systems, and a community to really help them develop their business," he says. "We're looking for people focused on growth, and we seek them out individually."

4. Reach for Innovation
Many distributors that have grown quickly over the past couple of years say that innovation – creating a clear point of differentiation from their competitors – has been the key. For Boundless Network (asi/143717; 16% growth), innovation has come from a technology that's focused clearly on buyers of ad specialty items.

One of the company's products is a Web-based platform called GroupBuy. "If you work for XYZ company and there are 50 other people in the company that have the same buying power, we have the ability to create a business process where all 50 of those buyers can use our GroupBuy platform, and they can see what's going on at the same time," says Jason Black, CEO of Boundless Network.

Essentially, the technology allows customers to connect with others who have the same branded merchandise needs, which can lead to significant volume discounts. "They're able to pool their purchasing," Black says. "It will maximize the purchasing power, and each one has his or her own checkout process."

"We don't focus on the actual logoed product; we focus more on the business process, so we're very much about streamlining the way an organization buys the product. I couldn't care less what they buy; we just need to be able to provide them with the products in a manner that's efficient and leverages purchasing power. We're product-agnostic in a lot of respects."

5. Continuing Education
While technology has helped some in the market innovate and differentiate themselves from competitors, others have focused on differentiation through education. "The last thing we did a year ago was place an emphasis on education," Woods says. "We do Webinars every week. We took our director of education and expanded her portfolio to include continuous improvement, so we actually have a continuous improvement department where we look at various parts of the company so we can do intense projects to dramatically improve the quality of the company and its output."

When a new employee – and in AIA's case, a franchise owner – comes on board, this department has the ability to teach him or her about AIA's role in the industry, and how and why AIA operates the way it does.

"I think the results speak for themselves," Woods says. "We're going to be looking at other areas for education in the future. We're just focused on taking a good company and making it great."

Fast Growing Distributors