2023 Women in Print and Promo: Susan Lewandowski, BEL Promo
BEL Promo, Medley, Florida
There are so many chapters to Susan Lewandowski’s professional life that it can be hard to piece them altogether. But one theme stands out in her almost 33 years in promo: her caring heart. This applies to her colleagues and customers, and speaks to why several people nominated her for this recognition.
“There is no question that [Susan] has had a track record of success, and that has been accomplished by getting her entire team on board and getting them excited about coming to work every day,” one of her nominators says. “She motivates her staff regularly and celebrates the companies’ successes and continually reminds them how important they are to that success.”
Originally born in Michigan, Lewandowski had been a Pittsburgh resident since she was a freshman in high school. After graduating with a marketing degree from Clarion University, she managed a local McDonald’s, and from there transitioned to an outside sales role selling long-distance services — back before cellphones were introduced, she laughs.
However, her promo story begins in Philadelphia. Lewandowski was now married, figuring out her next steps and where to go. After interviewing with several businesses, she landed a supplier sales account manager position with Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI). As her career expanded, so did her family. Lewandowski was now the mother of two young boys. To achieve a manageable work-life balance, she took on a part-time role at ASI, helping with special projects — that is, until Norman Cohn and Chris Lovell approached Lewandowski about launching the first ASI Show. Her response? “Absolutely!”
A year later, Lewandowski was pregnant with twins. With no family support in Philadelphia outside of her spouse, the couple opted to move back to Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. Now a parent to four children under the age of 5, she parted ways on good terms with ASI, and even had a standing offer to return. Roughly five years later, when her twins were in kindergarten, Lewandowski received a call from her former ASI comrades asking her to handle special projects for the show remotely. That evolved into a full-time position as an exhibitor account manager, but by 2013, Lewandowski was ready for a change. Her oldest children were in college or preparing for college, and her youngest children were starting high school. So, where did that leave her?
The answer was ArtworkServicesUSA, a company that outsources order entry through India through a service provider, until Office Beacon recruited Lewandowski to serve as its director of sales. In 2018, she was poached again — this time by DARD Products. She assumed the title of vice president of marketing and business development, the beginning of a new chapter on the supplier side of promo.
In January 2018, when Lewandowski was attending PPAI Expo in Las Vegas, she received a “life-changing” phone call from PromoPlacement Recruiting. (Notice a pattern here?) The details were vague, but the contact asked Lewandowski if she’d be interested in interviewing for a general manager position for a Florida-based company. By March, they brought her on-site and made an offer she “couldn’t refuse,” she jokes. That company was BEL Promo.
But she had doubts. After 20 years in Pittsburgh, she would need to relocate to Florida, and she only felt half qualified when reviewing the job requirements. She spoke with trusted mentors and friends, and followed her instincts.
“I knew her heart — not only how good and well-intentioned it is, but also how soft and caring it is,” another nominator says. “My main concern that I expressed to her [joining BEL Promo] was that this position would come with some unique challenges. However, I also remember telling her that as long as she was ready for what was coming, trusted in the values of the company, and could put her whole heart into it without any shadow of a doubt, that she would have the opportunity of a lifetime to help one of the industry’s largest companies write and tell a whole new story.”
And that she did. A third nominator points out that within her five years at BEL Promo, Lewandowski has worked tirelessly to promote BEL Promo to every industry colleague. “And now, BEL Promo is a preferred or approved vendor partner with almost all top 40 distributors,” the nominator says. “BEL’s sales have increased over 40% under Susan’s leadership.”
Lewandowski was promoted to managing director last August. Her main focus, she says, is a high-level approach to the growth of BEL Promo, including technology advancements, workflow, and regulating expenses. In addition, she monitors industry trends to continue and lead the development, coordination, and execution of BEL Promo’s sales and marketing strategies — and the list of responsibilities goes on.
This isn’t the final chapter of her story, or storytelling. But if there’s one takeaway Lewandowski has learned from her experiences, it’s this: “The one thing that I can say about all of these roles that led me to my current position is that they prepared me for the role I have today.”
Her Proudest Career Achievement
My biggest achievement is being instrumental in rebranding and reinventing BEL Promo as a top industry supplier. I have rebuilt our customer service team leading to A ratings within industry systems. I have built a sales team consisting of a national account manager and seven multi-line rep groups around the country. This has led to a 46% increase in sales during my time here at BEL Promo. We have also gained preferred status with the majority of the top 40 distributors. Awards include best places to work with ASI and PPAI in 2022, ASB Rising Star Award in 2021, and ASB Mid-Level Supplier Award in 2022, BEL USA LLC – Women’s Leadership Award for Advocate and Catalyst for Cultural Change in 2022.
How Failure Taught Her Resiliency
That’s a great question and I have thought about all the times that I could say I have failed.
- Was it not achieving a goal that I set for myself?
- Did I let someone down (i.e., a customer, a team member, etc.)?
- [Did I] not meet expectations that I set for myself as a spouse, mother, friend, etc.?
- Was it a job that I lost?
In my opinion, I fail at something every day. However, [for] every failure or setback — and there have been many — I start by realizing these failures are just the difference between what was expected and what was the actual outcome. We may see that these are failures, but are they? I try to work with a new outcome and find the opportunity to learn. These are “teaching moments,” as I like to call them, and are how I evolve and are what will ultimately shape my life. We always make mistakes. … Seeing these mistakes as nothing but failures is what will keep us in a negative space. I never settle for anything less than what I deserve and that’s why I say, “It’s always a work in progress.”
Her Most Significant Barrier as a Female Leader
As a woman, I can’t pinpoint one thing that I would consider a barrier for my career. However, I continue to invest in myself professionally and personally. This requires being humble, authentic, having the courage to change, and continuously learning. I have been fortunate enough to surround myself with both men and women who never stop encouraging and mentoring me on all these things and more. When I started in this industry 30-plus years ago, the leadership was predominantly male. In my tenure, I have witnessed the growth and promotion of women into leadership roles that have been predominately held by men. I have had the privilege to stand alongside these amazing, empowering women who give me the strength and courage to keep going. My mother was one of those amazing women. She encouraged me to always go after my goals. Watching her never let her disability, from Polio, define her or stop her has been one of the greatest influences in my life. She instilled in me that it was important for women to have equal rights and the ability to do anything. These were not just words that she preached, she practiced [them] in her everyday life. She learned how to drive, started her own business, volunteered with women’s rights organizations, and was a leader within her community, all while raising her family from her wheelchair. That is why it is important to empower women and encourage them to go after what they want.
How She Thinks Companies Can Attract and Retain Female Talent
Develop programs geared toward women: mentorship programs, leadership workshops, and a platform to feel like they can be heard and appreciated. Most women are not just juggling the job, they are juggling 100-plus other things that have nothing to do with the job. Every woman, no matter her role or responsibility, can be a leader to someone they come in contact with. This year, BEL Promo launched the first leadership workshop. They brought in guest speakers, team building, self-defense, and spotlighted different women leaders in our company based on recommendations from our peers. This is a list of type of awards received: Mentor Award, Authentic Leader Award, Servant Leader, Customer Service, Advocate & Catalyst for Change Award.
Her Job Advice to Women
I would say that this industry is growing, and the opportunities for women are going to be even more valuable than in previous [years]. Women in this industry are finally being recognized and moving into leadership roles every year. We are just scratching the service for women in this industry. If you are looking for a great career, then this is the industry. It is not like any other industry. The support you get from other women leaders is something that I have not seen in [any] other industry. It isn’t just a job, it’s a family of friends who look out for each other. In what industry can your best friend be a competitor to your product line?
Her Upcoming Goals
Personally, I would like to find my work-life balance this year and take advantage of living in such an amazing place and explore south Florida. Professionally, of course, continue to grow in sales. Isn’t that what everyone wants? However, I want to continue to build BEL Promo’s brand in the industry. BEL Promo is held to a high standard than other suppliers, and for us to grow we need to build customer confidence in who we are and how we partner with distributors. My focus is customer acquisition and building on providing the distributors with what they need to be successful.
How She Recharges
I love the ocean and sitting with my feet in the sand. Looking out into the ocean is one of my favorite things to do. I also have found time to read again — this is something I did in my younger days and now that my kids are grown, I finally found time to just sit back with my feet in the sand and read.
Elise Hacking Carr is editor-in-chief/content director for Print+Promo magazine.