2022 Women in Print and Promo: Shelley Hart, Meridian
Branded Merchandise Manager
Meridian, Loves Park, Illinois
It’s widely accepted that our 20s are a formative time of life—some may say a warmup for true adulthood. We spend those years searching and experimenting, acquiring degrees, building networks, gaining experience (and hopefully confidence). And just maybe we’re lucky enough to learn what kind of job suits us. For Shelley Hart, it was always promo.
Hart recently celebrated her 29th anniversary in the industry. She was first exposed to promotional products as a young college grad with a freshly minted degree in corporate communications. She landed a few interviews, but nothing energized her until she came across an ad for a customer service role at Promac, an Illinois-based promotional marketing company. Like many before her, Hart didn’t know much about branded merchandise. She spent that early period soaking up what she could before being paired with Jannine Givray—an outside sales rep with a million-dollar account at Privac, and a fast mentor for Hart.
“We more than doubled her sales within three years by spending quality time with the client at their facility, attending meetings, strategizing promo items for their tropical sales reward trips and providing outstanding service,” Hart noted. “After several years together, I was brought back into the company as they were growing and needed someone to manage and develop an inside sales support team.”
Hart cited this as a defining moment in her budding managerial career. She became skilled at pairing outside sales reps with inside sales support. But then the 2008 financial crisis hit, devastating businesses. Promo firms were no exception.
To stay employed, Hart would have had to take a pay cut that she couldn’t justify. So, after 16 years of commuting 40 miles each way, she accepted an account manager offer much closer to home. She spent the next four years at C&E Specialties researching unique products for major corporate accounts with an emphasis on apparel.
When commercial print distributor Meridian approached her, Hart was intrigued. The established printer wanted to bring on a manager to help grow its newly added promo business. In their mind, Hart was the perfect candidate.
“I really liked the idea of combining both,” Hart enthused. “What better way to approach marketing departments who were looking for trade show items than to become a one-stop solution!”
Nine years have passed, and Meridian’s branded merchandise department has grown substantially enough to become an integral part of its product offering. Hart currently manages a team of five inside project managers—all rockstars to her.
“Partnering with our suppliers to come up with unique offerings for our clients is something I’m especially proud of,” Hart said. “Everyone preaches about being proactive, but we do more than just speak about it. I’m blessed and grateful to have an amazing team of veterans in our industry who help mentor our new hires to create a beautiful symmetry.”
Her Proudest Career Achievement
I am most proud of what I’ve been able to develop here at Meridian over the past nine years, because I was able to take my previous years of hard work and knowledge and utilize that to help build a promo team that anyone would be excited to manage. I was able to introduce vendors that I had known previously to Meridian, which assisted us with special pricing discounts and marketing services.
On Working in a Traditionally Male-Dominated Industry
When I moved into a management role, I had to learn to have a stronger voice to be heard. When involved in meetings with multiple department managers, it’s important to speak respectfully to others even if you disagree on an issue. Once you speak confidently and with knowledge, your male peers will listen. I have encountered some condescending talk over the years, but I don’t let that discourage me. When you have knowledge, logic and internal strength, no one can stop you.
Her Job Advice to Women
The promo industry exceeded $23 billion in 2021. This is an industry that has unlimited potential and is a great fit for women. I joke with my husband that I shop all day, and we laugh, but it’s not that far from the truth. I research product ideas that fit our clients’ needs based on price point, event type, marketing goals, etc.
We have a lot of fun attending trade shows and vendor expos to find products that fit our clients’ needs. If you enjoy being creative and do well handling a wide variety of tasks in a day, this is the industry for you!
Who Inspires Her
I’m inspired by Melinda Gates. Here is a woman who was a general manager at Microsoft and, yes, she married and divorced Bill Gates, so she ended up with a lot of money. But she is well-known and respected for her philanthropy during her marriage—creating the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated over $60 billion to a variety of causes over the past 22 years. I read about all the money she has donated across the U.S., and she’s a big advocate for women and young girl’s empowerment. The Gates Foundation has pledged over $2 billion to gender-equality work over the next five years. This, along with many other pledges, inspires me to remember that giving pays it forward in life. I may not have billions of dollars, but I give to several causes and organizations as a way to pay back for all the blessings I have in my life.
Her Biggest Lesson Learned
I’ve learned to remain calm in the face of adversity. The adversity could be a product that didn’t ship on time or wasn’t what the client expected, or it could be one of my employees [is] unhappy with something. Whatever it is, my mind immediately starts to work on finding a solution. No matter what happens, if you handle it with grace, the client or co-worker will respect and appreciate your efforts. Don’t take the situation personally and let it overwhelm you.
Her Upcoming Goals
Professionally, I want to continue progress toward training on our new software platform that is in the launching phase. I have a lot of learning to do to become a leader for my promo team and help them through what will be the biggest change to our business technology in the nine years I’ve been at Meridian.
Personally, I need to organize and let go of items I’ve been storing around the house. I have a tendency to think I’m going to need whatever it is at some point in the future, so I store it, but I want to simplify and downsize the excess.
How She Thinks Companies Can Attract and Retain Female Talent
Companies can offer a dynamic, flexible environment that allows for development and growth. Work-life balance is very important, so offering a mix of in-office and remote work has become much more commonplace, and I believe healthier for the demanding lives we all lead. In addition, having female managers in the company shows prospective hires that the company has respect for the female voice and experience in the industry.
What She Wants People to Know About Her
I’m easy to approach, easy to talk to and easy to relate to. This helps in so many ways in the business world with my co-workers, clients and vendors. And I take it as a compliment that people feel comfortable coming to me with anything they need.
How She Recharges
For me, there is no better way to recharge than to travel. I love to travel, get outside and see many amazingly beautiful places around the U.S. I especially love our national parks, and have been to several. My goal is to visit all 50 states, and I’ve been to 47 so far. (Hawaii, Alaska and Nebraska are left!) I’ll be in Nebraska [during] Memorial Day weekend and Hawaii for 4th of July this year, so all that’s left is Alaska, which I’m currently working on travel plans for my 30th wedding anniversary next summer. I am very organized and love trip planning. I do extensive research before a trip and have seen so many amazing things over the years.
Besides travel, I love to read books (ever since I was very young) and take photos—lots of photos! Sometimes I drive my family crazy, but I just love capturing moments in time.