Dozens of industry players from all over North America gathered in Toronto last week to honor Fred Oesen, former president of the Promotional Product Professionals of Canada (PPPC), a proud member of its Hall of Fame, and the former vice president of ASI Canada. After more than 40 years in the promotional products industry, Oesen celebrated his retirement at the Belfast Lounge, clutching his trusty scotch in one hand and embracing friends with the other.
“[My time in the industry] was magical,” he says. “I think it’s difficult for anybody entering the industry now to duplicate the same degree of friendships that I’ve formed. It was so much smaller when I started, especially in Canada.”
Oesen joined the Parker Pen Company in 1974 as the manager of the specialty advertising division in Canada. He got the job after drinking at a bar (a recurring theme in Oesen’s story) with a sales representative who was planning to quit the next day. Oesen called the company at 9 a.m., was transferred to the president and asked to fill the new position. After the president asked how he could possibly know about the opening, he responded, “That all depends on where and who you drink with.”
In 1979, Oesen and a partner launched Can-Am Reps, the first multi-line representative company in Canada. “There wasn’t a single person in the industry on the supplier side traveling to meet customers on regular basis,” Oesen says. “The concept of calling on your customers seemed like a sensible thing to do, so I travelled across the country twice a year and sales increased dramatically.”
Oesen later tweaked the idea of representation by forming Task Force Marketing, the first organization to offer U.S. suppliers a chance to visit major markets in Canada through bi-annual seminar tours and networking events. Instead of a solo effort, Oesen traveled with a group and connected suppliers with Canadian distributors, providing full-size end-user catalogues, direct mail and electronic communication along with themed galas at the annual Canadian Association trade show.
Carol DeVille, president of The Branding Company, recalls being star-struck by Oesen while attending her first Task Force event. “As everyone was lined up to shake hands and ladies received hugs and kisses, I wondered who the movie star was,” DeVille says. “It didn’t take long to realize why so many people loved him, why so many people wanted to be around him and what amazing things he had been doing and was achieving for all in the industry. He’s still my movie star.”
As Oesen trail-blazed the country with his innovative seminars, he inspired and influenced generations with his gregarious personality and infinite wisdom. “His unique blend of humor, relationship selling and honesty shaped my approach to business,” says Alex Morin, executive vice president of sales & marketing at Debco (asi/48885). “I’ll forever be indebted to Fred for teaching me that business has a heart.”
Ryan David, chief revenue officer of the St. Regis Group, says he broke into the business because of Oesen, who taught him the importance of caring for your customers. “Despite advances in technology and the speed in which people move these days, Fred prioritizes the value of a human relationship,” David says. “Investing in that relationship will always be paramount.”
Kathy Cheng, president of Redwood Classics Apparel (asi/81627), credits Oesen with her company becoming an ASI member. “Always one to share non-judgmental, honest and insightful industry knowledge, Fred helped to guide me through complicated decision-making processes with ease – especially when it came to spending budget with ASI,” Cheng says.
Of course, a lot of these life lessons were shared around the bar, as Oesen’s tabs frequently reached War and Peace lengths. His going-away gift was a no-brainer – just about everyone brought bottles of scotch to the retirement party. “Although it took us three years to celebrate our first bar cheers together (I was pregnant back-to-back), one of my most memorable moments with Fred was when we sipped our first double-whiskey on the rocks together,” Cheng says.
“Don’t be surprised if you find him with his shirt off and a tie around his head by the end of the night,” David adds. “But despite the late hours he’s kept on many occasions, you’ll always find him well dressed at 8 a.m. for a breakfast meeting.”
Those meetings are over as the new retiree plans to spend more time traveling, now for pleasure rather than business.
“A carton of milk has its ‘best before’ date, and I was beginning to realize I probably expired well before that date,” Oesen says. “It’s been a great run. I spent my time in the field with customers and prided myself on listening as much as I made presentations. Based on listening to distributors’ feedback, I just understood what they needed to support their sales efforts.”