Distributor Woman of Distinction - Barb Wells

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Barb WellsBarb Wells, senior vice president of marketing for Staples Promotional Products (asi/120601), hopes her two daughters have great mentors like she did throughout her long, successful career. "I had people who challenged me and created an environment for growth," says Wells, who oversees the marketing effort for Staples, the largest distributor firm in the industry, sitting at number one on the Counselor Top 40 with estimated sales of more than $400 million annually. "When you have that kind of environment, it makes you so much stronger and so much better."

Indeed, as the first intern at Lee Jeans and later the youngest vice president, Wells says she was fortunate that one of her early mentors, Jack Weinrich, took a chance on her when he hired her freshly graduated from Kansas State University. She was promoted at age 28 while working in youth wear and men's wear. She wound up leading Lee's women's wear merchandising, which she grew to over $400 million, and "ultimately we owned over 40% of the women's jeans market at that time," she says. Wells credits SVP Howard Vandervort as her most influential mentor at Lee, where she remained for 17 years.

During that time Wells had her children, and she heralds her parents and husband (whom she's been married to for 34 years) for giving her the support she needed to remain in such a highly competitive career, plainly stating, "I couldn't have done it without them."

Thinking she would always work in the fashion business, Wells decided to make a change. Having just set up one of the first shops within a retail store for Lee, she saw a similar challenge at Swingster, a Kansas-based distributor firm. Wells already knew folks at Swingster, which later changed its name to American Identity and was acquired by Staples in 2007.

Former Staples Promotional Products CEO Roger Henry was another mentor for Wells. While Wells was still at Lee, she said the company started a relationship with the Olympics. "We still had some business with licensing agreements that Swingster was working on, so there were a lot of opportunities for me moving to Swingster, and Roger had a huge influence on that," she says. "I was totally surprised by the degree of opportunity in the industry. We started the evolution of the promotional products business, where we started managing programs and building e-stores and catalogs for individual companies."

In the 20 years that Wells has been at Staples, she has witnessed some positive changes in the market. "What was transforming is how promotional products have become such an important part of marketing for all companies in terms of customer engagement, brand immersion, brand recognition, and how people are using them today to create that positive customer awareness about their brand," she says. "It continues to amaze me how passionate people are about their products. Certainly, for us, we have evolved into a company that now is not just coming up with a product, but literally coming up with how that product ties to how they want to execute their brand. So as we say, we help build strong brands."

In addition to Henry, Staples general manager Rich Witaszak has been influential for Wells. "I have so much respect for Rich as a leader," she says. "He's a financial wiz and we have continued to grow this business. We have shown tremendous growth over our acquisition with Staples, and Staples views us as a key portion of developing categories that are important to businesses today. Instead of just office supplies, it's beyond office supplies." – JC