Success Stories From Fast-Growing Promo Distributors and Ideas for Right Now
When the ball dropped on Jan. 1, 2020, we all celebrated. Yes, we do that every year. But this year felt a little different. It was a new decade. It was 2020. We made a million “2020 vision” jokes, thought about all of the exciting things we’d do in the coming years. It felt like a blanker slate than usual.
Fast-forward to now. Things are not exactly how we planned. We did, however, make good on our resolution to read more books and spend less money at the bar, for whatever that’s worth.
In the business world, the new normal has brought challenges, to say the least. For companies that grew revenue in 2019, the plan entering 2020 was to keep that momentum rolling and continuing to grow. For many businesses, those goalposts have likely moved, with sales slow in most product categories outside of PPE. But it doesn’t mean promo distributors can't learn some valuable lessons and prepare for future growth.
Let’s rewind for a second, actually. Before we get into how businesses can make 2020 a successful year, let’s talk about how they rocked 2019. (See our 2020 Top Distributors list and Fastest-Growing Distributors list for more.) For some, it was a game of balancing quality and quantity of customer prospects, as well as expanding product lines within existing orders.
“The key to our business growth in 2019 was to increase sales with existing customers,” said Dave LaRusso, president of MPG Tandem, Fenton, Mo. “We were able to penetrate other departments with the organization, as well as increasing our sales within the same department. As an example, we were able to sell traditional promotional hard goods and employee incentive products to the same organization or department that was purchasing corporate apparel.”
MPG Tandem increased its promo sales from $8.6 million to $13.1 million from 2018 to 2019. LaRusso also said that the company started focusing more on online ordering options for customers, which ranged from “somewhat complex company stores to a simple store concept.” These ideas coincided with holiday gifts or nurse appreciation week.
Printfection, a Denver-based distributor and promotional products management platform, grew its sales from $5.9 million in 2018 to $9.9 million last year. Ryan Campion, the company’s head of marketing, attributed that growth to branching out to new customers and casting a wider prospecting net.
“There were three main factors that contributed to our growth,” Campion said. “One, we stepped up the volume of our outbound prospecting efforts, going after more accounts while also improving the type of prospects we targeted to make our outreach much more efficient. [Second,] we started going to trade shows. This unlocked a big, new revenue stream for us, which sadly has diminished during the current crisis, and we ended up going to around 10.”
Finally, Printfection bolstered its customer service team, which gave it the time and freedom to get strategic with customers on a more granular level.
“Our customer service team meets with customers, figures out what events, campaigns, outcomes they are hoping to achieve, and then puts together beautiful, comprehensive swag decks, sharing items that align to that customer’s theme or intended audience,” Campion said. “In general, we operate under a philosophy of testing often and testing quickly, and getting scrappy if needed. Our outbound prospecting was pretty manual before we started investing in tools and solutions, so we suggest you try something for a month or two, try to limit the spend on it to $3,000 to $10,000, depending on your overall budget, and then double down on anything that seems promising. For us, the first initial indicator of success is whether we’re getting a good number of meetings with our sales team.”
Obviously, investing in these teams and capabilities requires resources, but it can become a self-sufficient system if it garners more money for the company. That’s a measurable return on investment.
Then there’s Wendy Fahle, owner of Dallas-based W.M. Martin Advertising. Fahle was just about ready to sell her business. Her sales had taken a hit after a failed merger with another company, and she was weighing her options. Rather than throwing in the towel, she decided to invest in herself by taking a hard look at her business, pushing herself to learn more and investing in more capabilities.
“I was trying to decide whether or not to sell, and decided it was time to move forward with growing my company again,” Fahle said. “I applied and was accepted into a mentorship program. There are many out there for small businesses. I took a hard look at my company from an objective viewpoint. I realized that my brand was not consistent across all platforms and made the necessary changes to get this implemented.”
She recommended taking classes through organizations like PPAI or industry professionals like David Blaise, who frequently offer educational opportunities. Sometimes, focusing on the intangibles can make as much of a difference as the quantifiable factors.
“I can’t say enough about taking the time to challenge yourself and learn through this process,” she said. “I also submitted a project for my MAS+ and was awarded this at the 2020 PPAI [Expo]. The implementation of a vision board, true [and] measurable goals, and building the habit of looking at these frequently also helped keep me on track.”
It can be scary to change the way you do business. That includes relying more heavily on technology, or investing in new platforms or marketing channels. A lot of these processes might feel intimidating, but staying ahead of an ever-changing world and industry can be a keystone of growth.
After updating her order processing software, Fahle said she “brought her company into the 21st century,” making her work seamless from computer to smartphone to tablet. This contributed to more than doubling her company’s sales from $350,000 in 2018 to $770,000. It also paved the way for future growth, allowing her company to more easily manage an influx of orders. Fahle said the upgrades allowed her to hire two more people for sales support and order processing.
We’d be ignoring a gigantic elephant in the room if we didn’t talk about the current situation, though. Education, motivation, technology and casting wide nets are great, but when the world is turned upside down, they can’t solve everything. To go into 2020 without adjusting realistic goals would be naïve.
That said, there are ways to keep growing. The business is there—you just have to know where to look and how to secure it it when you find it.
Dana Henton, owner success manager for AIA Corporation, Appleton, Wis., specializes in consulting with AIA’s owners about opportunities for business, growth and customer service. Right now, her job entails helping distributors form strategies for a diminished customer base.
“Because the market space of today is not the same market space of four months ago, it is a completely different ballgame,” Henton said. “So we’re looking at, OK, what businesses do you have where the employees are working from home, and of those employees that are working from home, what are the items that as a home-based worker can they utilize? And then, what are the products that, once those employees are coming back to work, are going to be mandatory items to have from now until indefinitely? How do you, as a distributor, create a curated group of products or a curated program for your companies that will help their employees feel welcome and safe back into their work environment?”
She advised distributors who work with restaurant and food service clients to continue to offer PPE products, as even after dining rooms eventually open, certain measures will remain in place. In the meantime, those businesses are desperately looking for ways to still attract their usual customers.
“Keep your customers engaged by having fun things that people can earn by how many times they come and eat at their restaurant, that they just physically give them something,” she said. “Maybe it’s a bag, maybe it’s a cooler, maybe it’s a hat. It could be any kind of creative piece that you give to the customer. Then you build on that later on when the businesses open back up for people to be coming in.”
Brandon Lutz, national sales director and founder of Foundry Brand Services Group, Gardena, Calif., said that staying busy in any way you can right now can keep your business above water while things are uncertain, and position you to hit the ground running when things level off.
“We’re staying busy by building decks, really setting us up for when things kind of open up, and pre-planning with a lot of our brands, whether it be apparel or retail displays when a retailer like Whole Foods is ready to bring in displays on the floor,” Lutz said. “We’re building all of the tools so when we’re ready to hit go, we’re ready to go. We’re not scared to put the time in while we’re a little more free to build out these assets for our brands and just be ready. When the brands are ready to spend, it’ll be go time for everybody.”