Top 40 - The Outsiders

Here's How They're Using Past Experiences To Strengthen Each Of Their Company's Futures

The OutsidersLooking for warm and fuzzy industry leaders? Search somewhere else.

After all, one is a turnaround specialist, another – the son of a cop – calls himself "not the most patient person," and a third says: "I'm quite tough with vendors, pretty gruff." Not exactly a trio you'd be quick to invite over for a summer barbecue. Yet, with their results-driven personas, they are exactly who you'd expect to be leading three of the industry's largest and most successful distributors.

Dave Thompson, president of National Pen (asi/281040), Rich Witaszak, general manager at Staples Promotional Products (asi/120601), and Dan Craig, general manager of Accolade Promotion Group (asi/102905), weren't brought up in the ad specialty business, but it's become their home. And they have no plans to leave. "This is the most fun industry I've ever been in," says Thompson, who got his start at chemical giant DuPont. "I love the entrepreneurial spirit. It's quirky, but there's incredible creativity."

That creativity, along with the industry's energy and immediacy, is something all three have noticed, despite their varied backgrounds. "I come from Cadbury where there was a conservative, ready, aim, aim culture," says Craig, the executive who's especially tough on vendors. "This industry has such a quicker pace, it's much more intuitive and there's that eleventh hour nature."

Witaszak, whose previous jobs were in finance, agrees the ad specialty industry demands more adaptability and personality than most. "It's an industry that's a lot more dependent on relationships from both the supply and customer side," he says. "It encompasses elements from not just one, but multiple industries like manufacturing, retail, wholesale and service, and expertise across multiple competencies."

Making the Transition
So what have Thompson, Witaszak and Craig done to weave their individual skills and styles into their companies' operations? And how have their prior business experiences helped their current companies to excel?

In Craig's case, he's used a rather direct approach to get ramped-up results. "We've had some turmoil and churn, and we've restructured our organization and our approach to the customer," he says. "It's been a big change."

That big change has included putting a premium on teams of employees working on major accounts. "We've had really strong success with RFPs," Craig says. "Our national accounts team is probably batting .600 or .700 in gaining RFP customers. We believe customers are getting more sophisticated. We've become a lot more transparent and, with major customers, we get everyone involved – operations people, marketing people, our salespeople. It's not the traditional model of just a sales guy. In our world, that's gone away."

In Accolade's world, Craig's strategy has led to increased sales – modest 2%-to-3% gains in his first two years on the job, but vastly-improved numbers over the most recent quarters. "We've been lucky," he says. "We have double-digit growth so far in 2012. We want it to continue. We're pretty aggressive in that we want to grow exponentially over the next three to five years. I want all the major brands here to know us, and we want to know them."

Indeed, knowledge is key to the success of any business relationship, but so is timing and restraint, according to Witaszak, the son of a police officer. "It's easy to get caught up in the moment of closing a deal, but I believe my financial background provides the discipline to ensure smart decisions are made," he says. "My background provides me with the ability to better evaluate investments to ensure adequate ROIs are achieved."

Benefitting from the resources of its parent company – Staples Inc. – Witaszak's group has also made strides in Web and data services under his watch. "We're making some significant investments in EDI technology to drive supply chain efficiencies," he says. "We also have the E-Commerce Innovation Center that Staples opened in Cambridge to house teams responsible for designing and implementing solutions for the millions of customers who shop Staples' websites and stores."

But even if you haven't heard about Staples' Innovation Center, Witaszak believes the facility will only strengthen the industry and his unit's sales, which have been consistently higher than many of the office supply company's other divisions. Building off a strong 2011, Staples Promotional Products "achieved double-digit growth" in the first quarter of 2012, according to Ron Sargent, chairman of Staples. "Our promotional products business performed well," said Sargent, during a recent earnings call.

While Witaszak has supported Staples through a period of growth, Thompson has been overseeing what started off as a reclamation project. "In 2008, National Pen was not very healthy in terms of earnings and cash," says Thompson, the turnaround specialist. "We had lost a lot of money. I was put in charge at the start of 2009, and I began a restructuring of the entire leadership team."

Almost immediately, Thompson also began searching for ways National Pen could re-energize its core and become profitable again. "I believe in focusing on what you're really, really good at," he says, "and then putting 100% of your energy into those things."

Thompson's plan – simple in theory, but sometimes hard to execute – worked. "We've been very fortunate," he says. "I'm incredibly proud of what we've accomplished. We're now serving clients in 20 countries and we're entering two additional countries this year. We have a unique space."

In the Thompson era, maximizing that unique space means National Pen concentrates on "Joe The Plumber" clients. "We're really different in that we're half a direct mail company and half a promotional products company," Thompson says. "We focus on the small-business person that has 10 or fewer employees. We personalize promotional products. We decorate everything. This year, we'll do over 30 million pieces of personalized mail."

On its current pace, National Pen will also do $160 million in North American ad specialty business in 2012. "We're up year-over-year 12%," Thompson says. "Business is great."