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The Fastest-Growing Firms

With astonishing sales gains over the last three years, these are the companies surging ahead in the ad specialty market.

It’s not just their remarkable growth that makes them different – it’s how they operate, the way they identify trends and their blending of service and style. This year’s list of the industry’s fastest-growing companies – measured by revenues from 2011-2013 – showcases distributors and suppliers that don’t settle for anything ordinary.

The special group includes newer firms, long-lasting family businesses, and Top 40 affiliates. It’s a collection of companies run by entrepreneurs willing to take risks and unwilling to give up when times are tough. What’s maybe most clear about these fast growers is they’ve been successful at finding their niche – whether it’s a product offering, a tech advantage or a unique sales approach. No doubt, these strengths are helping these firms dominate their target audiences.

So the build-up is now over. Here’s a look at the fast-growing ad specialty firms, with profiles of the top distributor and supplier on this year’s list.

A Passion for Success

A 145% growth rate and spirited approach push the firm ahead of the rest.

It’s not a good thing when prospects hang up on you. But that’s exactly what happened to Michael Lovern – over and over again. “Our two biggest customers basically hung up on us the first two months,” says Lovern, managing partner of Brandito (asi/325944), a distributor in Richmond, VA. “Literally hung up the phone.”

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it taught an important lesson: To make it in the promotional products marketplace, where competition can be intense and prospects flat-out rude, Lovern would need a fresh approach. Since those early struggling days, you bet he found one.

Over the past five years, in fact, the fledgling distributorship has managed to win over those two once-surly prospects and many more, reaching a growth rate as high as 168% at one point. With sales skyrocketing from $518,000 its first year to more than $1.2 million two years later, it’s little wonder why Brandito tops the fastest-growing distributor list.

These days, the firm’s annual growth rate stands at 40%, boosted by an ever-expanding client base. This year, Lovern expects sales will hit nearly $2 million. With that, Lovern is closer to making good on his promise to shake up an industry that he says was “viewed as stale and could use a nice change.”

Lovern, 33, has never pretended to be an expert, but he’s always had a plan. “When I started this company, I knew very little about the industry outside of what I’d heard from other folks that had been in it,” he says. What he did know is that he wanted a diverse client base. That meant small, medium and large customers. It also meant local, regional and national companies. “We didn’t want to just go after one specific client,” says Lovern, who previously worked in sales for staffing and recruiting companies.

Using that experience, he formulated a sales strategy that pinpointed companies by geography, regardless of size. “We said, ‘let’s identify folks in the immediate area that we feel would be good targets,’” Lovern says. Those “good targets” included everything from startups with 10 employees to Fortune 100 corporations.

Meeting with prospects was often drudgery, Lovern recalls. Too often he and his two-man sales team heard a multitude of rejections: “Hey, we already have a vendor. We’re happy with who we’re using,” or just plain “no.” “People are going to tell you everything under the sun to get rid of you,” he says. “A lot of distributors will find the low-hanging fruit, and that’s how they’re going to build their book.” But not Brandito.

Perhaps it was his sales background, but Lovern believed that persistence would crack even the toughest multi-million dollar clients. He understood his company, which has since grown to five employees, wouldn’t find success overnight; he used that knowledge to actually prop up his team, setting expectations about the potential length of sales cycles, particularly with bigger prospects.

“Because the Fortune 500s are a longer sales cycle,” it involves a tremendous amount of work to land an order, but Lovern remembers telling his staff that it would be a consistent client. In other words, it might take longer to get there, but the effort would be worth it. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘here’s what we do,’” Lovern says.

To beat out and, more importantly, steal business away from other distributors, Lovern says, the company developed a consultative sales approach. “Everybody in the industry says the same thing,” Lovern acknowledges, that “we’re all about relationships and being a solution provider.”

But Lovern thinks Brandito offers something others don’t: passion. Sounds hokey, but he insists it’s a genuine part of the company’s philosophy. And when he’s talking about passion he doesn’t mean for the industry. In fact, when Lovern interviews applicants – something he’s done a lot of lately, as Brandito expands – he rarely asks them what they know about ad specialties or even the firm. In fact, he couldn’t care less if they’re even interested.

“To be honest, when people come in and interview, I don’t even look at the resume,” Lovern says. Instead, Lovern wants to know what they’re driven by. If applicants have no passions in life, then they won’t get a job offer. Simply put, “passion creates drive,” Lovern says. “It’s like pulling teeth if they don’t have it.” And without it, they can’t be good at sales.

That approach to selling has paid off. Prior to working with Brandito three years ago, CARFAX was “bouncing around to whoever was giving us the best price,” says Rachel McMann, special events coordinator for the Centerville, VA-based vehicle history website. Brandito, she says, won over CARFAX marketers with a sales strategy that is more consultative in nature.

For example, Lovern, according to McMann, often initiates better branding tactics through the use of updated logos applied to specific CARFAX events, or new products that he scours trade shows for with the company in mind. “It’s great, and we trust him 100%,” McMann says, adding that Lovern’s in-person meetings with the company about every four months help to solidify their partnership.

Lovern says acquiring and keeping valuable client relationships has often been accomplished through the smallest of details. “It could be changing your voicemail just to say, ‘hey, I’m in the office all day long,’ or ‘hey, I’m traveling today,’” Lovern says. Or maybe it could involve nudging a client towards lasering a logo on a jacket instead of using typical embroidery, just to freshen the look. Really, it’s about whatever it takes to be a cut above, to help clients know Brandito will always be uncommon and interesting.

Certainly, mastering time management has been another key to keeping up with Brandito’s growth, Lovern says. His team repeatedly asks itself the same questions week after week: How can we best manage time in the office? What should be done first? How can we successfully juggle what’s in front of us? When you’re “growing like gangbusters,” Lovern says, these are extremely important questions. By asking them and improving processes, the company is better able to focus on what it can do for its clients and, ultimately, for its rapidly advancing top line.

Quality Comes First

The company is committed to offering a better product. Its nearly 2,000% growth proves customers like what they see.

For T-Shirt Tycoon Solutions Inc., success seems to hinge on this one goal: Make the closet, not the drawer. Translation? The company aims to produce a garment so appealing that its tees will become the ultimate must-have item. With revenue growth approaching 2,000% over the past three years, T-shirt Tycoon might have accomplished just that.

“We’re not your traditional screen printer with a $1.99 promotional T-shirt,” says Mima Cavan, marketing manager for the Garland, TX-based company. “What we focus on is a more retail-quality garment, which we manufacture in the USA.”

Rather than be a go-to source for low-cost apparel, despite the industry’s constant pull to offer more for less, the young company is banking on an alternate strategy. It hopes resisting price-pressured market demand will actually be its ticket to market domination. “There’s a study out there that shows that the typical promotional T-shirt might get worn once or twice and then gets used for a dust rag,” Cavan says, “whereas if you go with a retail-quality garment, it’s going to stay in the closet six to 10 times,” if not longer.

This idea of offering a markedly better garment has been the focus of T-shirt Tycoon since it was started by the supplier’s president and CEO Adam Walterscheid, an industry veteran, in 2010. Walterscheid, who began his career screen-printing many of his college’s Greek life T-shirts, split with partners from a previous firm when they wanted to broaden their product line, says Cavan.

It seems Walterscheid’s T-shirt-centric vision has paid off. Sales at T-shirt Tycoon jumped from $220,000 to $2.2 million in a single year and will top $4.6 million this year, according to Cavan.

But the company isn’t banking on quality garments alone to ensure its success. The firm’s approach to the marketplace has been to partner with trusted distributors whenever possible. Walterscheid himself goes on sales calls with distributors who do regular business with T-shirt Tycoon.
In addition, the supplier offers factory tours that include detailed tutorials on the company’s domestic manufacturing and decorating processes. Attend one of these tours and a distributor might learn, for example, that “we don’t use standard plastisol inks,” Cavan says. “There are not too many T-shirt suppliers doing water-based discharge decorations, which gives you a soft vintage feel.”

Educating distributors – through live events like webinars – is another component of T-shirt Tycoon’s plan. “A lot of people don’t know much about screen-printing,” says Cavan. Education makes those distributors that much more informed, helpful and impressive to their own clients and, ultimately, an extension of T-shirt Tycoon’s own sales force. “It’s really simple,” Cavan says, “once you get the hang of T-shirt Tycoon’s processes, the easier it will be for you to sell it.”

To that end, the company is also big on sending out sample kits to authorized distributors, which include T-shirts, details about production processes and information about the latest retail and industry trends. In fact, the company seems to drive a lot of its success based on proactively reaching out to clients. Sure, every supplier has an active sales team that builds relationships with key distributors, but T-shirt Tycoon is mindful of what happens beyond the initial sale. Its staff works hard to spur and stay ahead of reorders to keep garments flowing in a way that’s beneficial to both customer and vendor alike.

When July 4th rolled around this year, for instance, the company, like many in the industry, braced for last-minute holiday T-shirt orders. But its ramp-up wasn’t a behind-the-scenes production. Instead, T-shirt Tycoon sought to get ahead of its rivals, sending out e-mails in May that reminded top customers about the holiday. It might sound like a small effort, but “nine times out of 10” those reminders “help alleviate the rush,” Cavan says.

Constantly keeping ahead of the curve has been challenging, Cavan admits. To remain competitive and agile despite such tremendous growth, T-shirt Tycoon has espoused precision within its 30-member team to be able to offer its one-stop-shop approach. Clients can order tees, have them custom-designed, packaged and sent all from one location, domestically.

“Honestly, I would say there’s just not enough time in the day,” Cavan says. To keep pace, the company, which offers a multitude of screen-printing options, including lenticular and gloss prints, has adopted a “very, very precise production schedule that keeps us on track,” Cavan says, “down to the minutes it takes to mix ink.”

The approach, she adds, is strikingly unique. “I’ve worked at a few different apparel companies that have done screen-printing and I’ve never seen it done this way,” Cavan says. Tracking processes that assiduously “not only affects our time but the budget as well. Most people aren’t accounting for the time it takes to mix ink or the time it takes to slide a shirt onto the palette.”

Knowing exactly how long each process takes – from front-end office tasks to production floor functions – saves both time and money, something the company ranks as a top priority as it grows so swiftly. And a leaner, more efficient T-shirt supplier is exactly the kind of apparel company that will thrive in the years to come.