Distributor Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 - Brian Abrams, Corporate Imaging Concepts

Brian Abrams woke up one morning with a familiar dread. A successful attorney in Chicago, Abrams says thriving in the legal field challenged his ethics on a daily basis. “In my mind, I was being highly compensated to be a prostitute,” Abrams says.

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Seeing his anguish, his wife Patty asked what he did in his life that he truly loved. His answer: selling T-shirts and sweatshirts to fraternities and sororities while attending the University of Michigan.

So he gave his two weeks’ notice and went back to what made him happy – persuading people to buy products that he believes in. Thus, in 1996, Corporate Imaging Concepts (CIC, asi/168962) was born.

Twenty years later, CIC has grown into a major operation focusing on company-store and program business for major brands, with more than 200 online stores currently running. Abrams says that in 2016, the company will complete over 100,000 online orders and generate revenue of $50 million.

“I truly believe we have built the best mousetrap,” Abrams says, adding that over the last five years, CIC has grown about 30% in revenue rate per year. He also lauds his company’s three-year streak of being on the Best Places to Work list and overall high retention rate – his first employee still comes into the office five days a week.

His greatest challenge, however, is still ongoing. When Abrams started the company, cellphones weren’t prevalent and the internet was in its infancy. There was a true distinction between home and business, allowing him to balance day-to-day operations with being a husband and father to two daughters. Nowadays, in this age of around-the-clock availability and instant response, Abrams says his two lives have collided. “I don’t think that’s healthy for our employees or for me,” Abrams says. “You don’t need 100% of an employee’s attention at all times.”

In a world where immediacy is rewarded, how do you provide great service while allowing for employees to have meaningful personal lives? Mutual respect. “I try and respect their personal lives as best I can and I ask the same of them for me,” Abrams says. “Even though I’ve made my livelihood off of technology, I’m still aware of its dangers.”