Person of Year - Kevin Lyons-Tarr

Meet 4imprint's Kevin Lyons-Tarr

Kevin Lyons-TarrWhen you call 4imprint's (asi/197045) toll-free number, the first voice you hear belongs to one of the company's real characters – the guy who tends to take on a lot of the odd jobs. Like when there was a major flood in Oshkosh, WI, in 2008, he helped mop up 4imprint's wet floor. When the fast-growing company has run out of desk space over the years, he's chipped in to build new cubicles. He's also sort of the unofficial greeter for new employees, giving out his personal cell phone number. "He doesn't take himself too seriously," says Mary Curtin, a longtime 4imprint employee.

This is also the guy who has elevated 4imprint from a catalog-first marketer to the first page of the top search engines on the Web. He's a metrics man, a spokesperson, a techie, a deal-maker, a master marketer. And now, Kevin Lyons-Tarr, 4imprint's president and the guy in charge of the largest e-commerce operation in the industry, is Counselor's Person of the Year.

The driving force for 4imprint is the clear sales and marketing strategy that Lyons-Tarr has implemented. With no employee or independent reps, 4imprint puts a premium on trackable and measurable direct marketing techniques including e-mail, search, pay-per-click, product sample packages and e-commerce. "Kevin's done a great job of setting the tone," says Greg Ebel, 4imprint's vice president of sales and marketing. "For us, it's about having a maniacal focus and doing what we're good at. It's also about hanging out where customers are."

Customers, of course, are hanging out on the Internet. Consider that online sales in the U.S. have risen nearly 300% in the last decade, boosted by 80 million home and business broadband connections. It's estimated by researchers that 10% of all U.S. retail sales will be Web-based by 2016. "E-commerce is so powerful that no one in business can afford to avoid it," says Jack Plunkett, CEO of Plunkett Research. "The challenge for businesses is not just making the initial investment, but committing to keeping it up."

It's a challenge Lyons-Tarr – who has an IT background – and his staff have met. For example, when an Internet browser searches for "promotional products" through Google, 4imprint consistently comes up near the top of the result listings, and some days, the distributor ranks first. How many potential customers does that help 4imprint reach in one month? Based on independent searches, roughly 368,000, according to Google Analytics. "If you're not on the first page of Google, you really don't exist," says Nate Tennant, president of SEO firm Kirk Communications.

So what's 4imprint's search engine secret? "We look at what works and what doesn't," Lyons-Tarr says. SEO experts, like Tennant, point out a few specifics after looking at 4imprint's website. "They have a really tight, clean URL structure, and it's been well-thought-out," he says. "Products are listed on top in navigation, on the left side and in the middle of the site. That gets keywords in more places." Then there's the front-page introductory video, featuring Lyons-Tarr. "Video is key for SEO. The number-two search engine in the world is YouTube."

While it would be an exaggeration to say all of 4imprint's recent gains (in the past two years alone, 4imprint's sales have grown 36% to reach $225 million) have come through a strong SEO and e-commerce link, Lyons-Tarr does admit his firm's Web-based sales have increased by double digits over the last several years. He also agrees with the notion that industry sales through traditional channels have plateaued, and real growth must be earned in other ways. "As technology changes, it's been important for us to be more flexible," he says. "Increasingly, the world is moving toward an Internet-enabled way of doing business. We're well-positioned to take advantage of the shift."

And, suppliers have also noticed how well-equipped 4imprint is to capitalize on current and future trends. "They have a formula and they've been consistent," says Jeff Brown, chief marketing officer at Polyconcept North America. "They build trust and operate very openly."

Since Lyons-Tarr became chief executive at 4imprint eight years ago, the company's annual sales have risen by at least 12% six different times. In two of those years, revenues jumped more than 30%. Predictably, only in 2009 – during the worst recession in the U.S. in 80 years – did sales slip at all. At the end of that year, 4imprint couldn't award profit-sharing bonuses to its employees. Instead the company gave out $20 gift cards, seemingly an afterthought until employees began noticing that Lyons-Tarr had also hand-written personal notes to all of them. "We had over 400 employees," says Curtin, 4imprint's vice president of human resources. "We follow the Golden Rule here, and Kevin leads by example."