Just as the promotional products industry’s first 100 years were shaped by the actions of bold visionaries, the next century is being guided by a new generation of fearless innovators who have a passion for leveraging the lessons of the past with the technology, creativity and originality of the future. Among those emerging leaders are the 20 individuals recognized as this year’s 2017 PPB Rising Stars. They were honored at the PPAI North American Leadership Conference last month in Austin, Texas.

What first started as a way to recognize the talents of a handful of young industry leaders in 2010 has gained powerful momentum in the eight years since. This year’s competition drew a record-breaking 80-plus nominations from across the industry for PPB’s top honor. With the powerful initiative, boundless energy and impressive skills of this group and others like them, the industry’s continued success is unstoppable. Meet this year’s 20 Rising Stars.


Maggie Cox

Corporate Solutions Supervisor
HALO Branded Solutions
Sterling, Illinois

Before joining HALO in 2010, Maggie Cox worked as a technical account manager for a local magazine and periodical circulation company. Its merchandise fulfillment division providing promotional products to publishers and marketers looked so interesting that when a position became open at HALO headquarters nearby that matched her skillset, she was all in. Cox started as a program developer, answering RFPs, creating proposals and presentations, and implementing new online store programs. Her ability to successfully develop dynamic solutions to accommodate the needs of the company’s Fortune 500 clients recently earned her a second promotion, says nominator John Campbell, HALO’s director of corporate solutions.

“Maggie communicates effectively with large industry clients, manufacturers and sales staff,” he says. “She is helping HALO maintain its cutting-edge solutions that make us the industry leader in program solutions.” He adds that her ideas incorporate all areas of program development involving HALO IT, web development, fulfillment, order processing, marketing, billing, and customer service. During her time at HALO, the distributor has doubled its revenue and program sales.

It’s a big responsibility for the 36-year-old but what challenges her the most, she says, is finding a balance between family and work that was right for her. “I have discovered a whole new level of multitasking being a wife, a new mom and managing my career.”

Over her short career, she’s learned quite a few lessons—the most important being that having a goal and vision for the future is critical but she shouldn’t be afraid to look back. “The decisions
I have made have helped to build and shape my character, my career and make me a better person,” she says. “The key is to learn from these decisions—the good ones and the not-so-good ones.”

When it’s time to relax and recharge, Cox doesn’t need to go far. “Quiet nights in the backyard by the fire pit with family and close friends are the cure-all,” she says.  

Her Inspiration
“My husband and 1-1/2-year-old son inspire me to be the best I can be at everything I do. They have taught me to slow down and appreciate the little things, to see the good in people and to work hard. I also get a push from my HALO team as they inspire me with their work ethic, enthusiasm, humor and intelligence. I also enjoy learning from those around me—everyone has a story to tell and something to teach.”

Best Advice
“Work hard and have pride in the work you do. And, importantly, listen twice as much as you speak.”

Industry Changes She’d Like To See
“… more education and opportunities for the younger (Millennial) generation to learn about and join our industry. Millennials are our consumers and largely drive the trends and expectations set for both products and online ordering/shopping. I believe having this younger generation on the business side will provide incredible benefits for the sales side.”


John R.B. Cudahy, CAS

Senior National Account Manager
Prime Resources, Inc.
Forest Hills, New York

Facing mountains of debt after college graduation, John Cudahy took the first marketing job that came his way. “Big mistake!” he says. He was cold calling machine technicians at hospitals. “It was horrible. I learned a very valuable lesson about how generic the term ‘marketing research’ can be.” He vented to a college friend who said his father’s company was looking for customer service reps. The next week Cudahy went to work for supplier Starline where he spent almost 10 years before moving to Hit Promotional Products as key account manager in 2013. In April 2017, he accepted his current position at supplier Prime Resources, Inc.

During his short time at Prime, Cudahy’s strong skills have caught the eye of Joe Hoffmann, Prime’s director and group account sales, who nominated Cudahy as a Rising Star.
“John’s reputation both regionally and nationally is stellar,” says Hoffman. “His dedication to his clients and the industry as a whole was a main reason we hired him. Any time his name comes up in a conversation, there is nothing but good things said about him. The outpouring of praise I received from his distributor clients after we hired him was overwhelming. They were clamoring to continue to work with him.”

Cudahy’s strong work ethic could be credited to a valuable piece of advice he learned from his first industry mentor. “He told me a story about a boy whose father asked him to go get stamps. The boy, begrudgingly, walks into town to get stamps. After some time, the boy returns home. His father extends his hand and asks his son for the stamps. The boy replies, ‘The post office was closed. I couldn’t get stamps.’ The father responds, ‘I didn’t tell you to go to the post office, I told you to get stamps.’ Whatever goal you are trying to achieve, don’t give up if the easiest, most obvious path doesn’t provide the results you desire. Keep thinking, keep trying until the goal is accomplished,” says Cudahy.

Not only has Cudahy made a powerful impression on his employer but also on his regional association, Specialty Advertising Association of Greater New York, where he was named SAAGNY Volunteer of the Year in 2010 and winner of the Past President’s Scholarship in 2011. He currently serves as the SAAGNY president—reportedly, at 35, the youngest person to hold the office in the regional’s history. He’s also currently a member of PPAI’s SPARK Committee (the group that organized this summer’s first industry conference for Millennials), and was previously a member of the PPAI Events Action Group and the PPAI Events Committee.

Music and travel are two ways Cudahy relaxes and recharges. “Most weekends you’ll find my wife and me at a concert, at a bar with a live band or at a music festival,” he says. “A couple times a year, we pack up and completely unplug in a far-off land. Earlier this year we spent 10 days in Vietnam and Cambodia. To date, we’ve been to 15 countries throughout six continents.”

His Inspiration
He says his family’s motto is: Prodesse Quam Conspici which means to accomplish without being conspicuous. “The key to life is achievement, not boasting about it; we are known by what we do rather than what we claim.”

Best Advice
“Get involved. Volunteer with your regional association. Join a PPAI work group. The more you put into the industry, the more you get out of it.”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“We need to ensure our future and focus on getting young, new talent in the industry. Our industry isn’t sexy like other traditional marketing industries so we need an aggressive, proactive approach to attract the next generation of leaders.”


Nicole Deen
Field Sales Manager – Central
Trimark (PCNA)
Detroit, Michigan

The past year has been one of major transition for Washington State native Nicole Deen. She married, relocated from Los Angeles to Detroit (where husband, Matt, started medical school), left her job as national sales director at LA-based supplier CleggPromo, joined supplier Trimark/PCNA, and made it through her first Michigan winter. “Although the year came with challenges, it has allowed me to grow and become a stronger woman,” she says.

A 2012 communications graduate of San Diego State University, Deen was interning at Universal Studios in Los Angeles when she took her father’s advice and sought out a job as inside account manager with CleggPromo. “My father [Dave Claunch at distributor BrandAlliance] has been in the industry for over 30 years and always told me, “You would be great in our industry.”

Now 27, her parents continue to be her greatest inspiration. “I’ve looked up to them as role models my entire life. They have instilled a multitude of noble qualities and life lessons that I will pass onto my children someday,” she says.Their teachings and the high standards they set have paid off for Deen—in her first two years at CleggPromo she earned two promotions. After her relocation and taking the new job at Trimark in November 2016, she has consistently hit her sales goals while learning an entirely new product category, and serving new clients within an unfamiliar geographical territory.

“With influences from her dad, she’s able to put herself in her client’s shoes and use that perspective to be the most efficient and effective supplier rep she can be,” says nominator Jill Rogers, field sales manager at Trimark and a former PPB Rising Star. Within months, she was able to connect deeply with her customer base and is reportedly outpacing the company’s growth trajectory for the territory. “At this rate, she’s going to completely dominate this industry in just a couple of short years,” adds Rogers.

Nominator Scott Anderson, director of sales at PCNA adds, “Her business acumen for someone of her age is outstanding. What Nicole has cannot be taught, and we are lucky to have her as part of the PCNA team.”

How She Relaxes And Recharges
“A night in with my husband, my cat, Spencer, and a glass of vino.”

Best Advice
“Be true to who you are and do not be afraid to push yourself. Relationships go a long way in the industry so be yourself and have fun doing what you love.”

Industry Changes She’d Like To See
“More young faces. Our industry is becoming more technologically advanced and dependent. I believe the Millennial generation can bring unique skills and fresh perspectives.”


Doug Donnell

Vice President
Purchasing & Compliance
Hit Promotional Products St. Petersburg, Florida

At only 34, Doug Donnell is dollars in expenditures for Hit Promotional Products, one of the industry’s largest suppliers. He has helped improve the company’s systems and created protocols for its supply chain to ensure the quality and safety of the products it sells. He also manages a large staff at the company’s Florida headquarters as well as relationships with the supplier’s Chinese vendors, and he is the main contact for all audits conducted at Hit for companies such as Coca-Cola, Disney and Reebok.

“Doug cheerfully takes on every challenge we put in front of him,” says nominator David A. Walker, vice president of field sales at Hit Promotional Products. “His intelligence and problem solving skills distinguished him amongst his peers.”

Donnell joined Hit from another supplier in 2010 when the Florida-based company was just starting its certification process with the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA). “We started him in our new compliance team and Doug was instrumental in helping Hit earn our status,” Walker says. He adds that as Hit has grown, so have Donnell’s responsibilities. He keeps up with all the latest information from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the FDA, provides guidance on compliance to distributors and their clients, and educates Hit’s supply chain and optimizes the factories it uses to help the supplier accomplish its goals for growth and safety.

Donnell started in the promotional products industry in 2005 with National Specialty Advertising Showcase, which operated 15 weeks of traveling trade shows in 75 cities across the U.S. In 2007 he moved into inside sales at former industry supplier Corvest before joining Hit in 2010. The most important lesson he’s learned along the way is to never stop learning. “Ask questions and aspire to understand all aspects of the business, and always be looking for ways to improve,” he says.

In his spare time, Donnell enjoys spending time with friends and family, as well as traveling, playing golf, shooting, and more recently, biking.

What Inspires Him
“Underdogs and success stories—people who set lofty goals and work hard to achieve them. I enjoy seeing people succeed and want to learn as much as I can from it. It’s a competitive mindset that if someone else can do it, I can too.”

Best Advice
“Work hard, put in the time, and exercise patience while gaining valuable knowledge and experience. Yes, even if you’re a Millennial!”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“I have a continuous improvement mindset and am a firm believer in leveraging technology to improve efficiency, so I’m looking forward to seeing how projects like PromoStandards can keep us and the industry as a whole relevant and competitive. Technology opens the door for major disruption to take place in any industry that doesn’t continue to innovate, so getting comfortable is not an option.”


Jacob Fletcher

Senior Account Executive
Image Source, Inc.
Kirkland, Washington

Jacob Fletcher knows what he’s good at and where he’s going. He also knows the power of a good network. While attending college, he was introduced through his mentor to Brian Haner, CEO at Image Source. “I ended up meeting with Brian for an informational interview and left our time together knowing one thing—that he was a leader I wanted to work for and learn from,” says Fletcher.

After graduating in 2011 with his BA in marketing and a certificate in sales, he took his first job at the Kirkland, Washington distributor’s front desk as an account coordinator. From there he was promoted to account executive and then to senior account executive. Those who work with Fletcher describe him as positive, outgoing, fearless and upbeat with an enthusiasm that seems to rub off on those around him. “His work ethic and reliability are beyond reproach,” says nominator Kurt Feldern at Hawkins Embroidery. “He listens, hears and responds appropriately. He’s a forward thinker, always trying to come up with a new, inventive way to help his customers. I’ve seen steady, continuous growth in him and the way he handles his business and his customers. If you ask for something, he’ll find a way to come through for you.”

Nominator Rob Headlee with supplier Cutter & Buck is impressed with Fletcher’s approach to finding new clients. “From my experience with Jacob he has targeted schools and universities in the Pacific Northwest and has started to gain some serious traction in alumni associations, marketing and sports organizations,” he says. “He has focused on this vertical as well as using his age and social media to try to grow his business and future target opportunities. On top of this he has brought energy and enthusiasm to the Image Source team daily.”

Married and with a newborn son, Fletcher, 28, has plenty to keep him busy but still he finds a way to bring that extra zip to client communications, including using social media and creative YouTube videos to attract prospects. While he’s focused on his goals, he also believes in honesty and integrity. “No matter what kind of business you’re in, you’re going to be faced with situations that challenge your morals,” he says. “I’ve learned that I’d much rather stick to my core beliefs and lose out on a possible sale, than compromise what really matters.”

These core beliefs make it easier for him to handle difficult situations. “Things happen, and sometimes, it’s something that’s out of your own control,” he says. “You will have a client who is frustrated or disappointed, and the question then is, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to shy away from the issue and lose the relationship, or are you going to step into the mess, and prove to your client that you are committed to doing everything you can to serve them? I’m an imperfect person, but … I’m an imperfect person that doesn’t give up without doing all I can to make things right.”

His Inspiration
“I have many people in my life who inspire me each day—my wife Justynn, my son Micah, my parents, sister, friends and mentors. They inspire me to be the best version of myself. But for me, everything starts at my foundation, which is my faith in Jesus Christ. I believe he is my Lord and Savior, and that he has given me all sorts of opportunities that are not to be wasted. My job is to get up each day, and do the very best that I can to love and to serve people.

It’s something I take very seriously, but the blessing is that it isn’t a burden; it’s a joy. My role at Image Source gives me the chance to work with all sorts of people, within all different kinds of organizations, and I love it. I’m asking them to put their trust in me by allowing our team to manage their current promotion, and my goal will always be to provide them the very best experience. That’s a mix of delivering on our promises (exceptional products in a timely fashion), and giving them a reason to smile along the way.”

Best Advice
“Be yourself and push yourself. You have a unique personality and a unique mind—use that to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to be a little different, because hey, different is memorable, and people don’t work with people they can’t remember. Establishing a career is going to take work—hard work. Put in the time and put in the effort; it will be worth it.”


Charity Gibson
National Account Coordinator
Peerless Umbrella
Tucson, Arizona

Sixteen years ago, Charity Gibson came out of nowhere as a young but motivated distributor salesperson, and made a name for herself on the leading edge of social media. The journey wasn’t easy. She had been managing apartments for a real estate investment trust and attending the University of Arizona full time—and she was in desperate need of a career change. She answered a help-wanted ad in the newspaper but didn’t get it so she tried again a year later and was hired. “I’m pretty sure I’m here for life,” she admits. “Promo people are like family to me and this industry is like Hotel California. You can check out any time you’d like, but you can never leave.”

Now 36, she’s reached many of her own goals but her nominator Dan Edge believes Gibson is just getting started. “Charity made her mark using social media like no one else in the industry was, and used these online platforms as a launch pad to make sure her voice was heard,” says Edge, national sales manager for Peerless Umbrella, who recently hired Gibson to the supplier side of the industry.“More importantly, she used this ability to influence and connect with her customers and colleagues in a unique way.”

Her creative influence is known industry-wide through her work as a co-founding chef at industry group PromoKitchen and as a member of the PPAI Technology Committee, as well as for launching her own distributorship, Green Banana Promotions, in 2010 in a small market and growing it by winning clients such as Amazon, CenturyLink and TechStars. She’s also a mentor to several others in the industry through the PromoKitchen mentor program.

Nominator Mark Graham, CEO of commonsku, says, “Charity is a consummate connector, bringing people together in the industry through her efforts on social media and PromoKitchen. She is enormously creative and is a wonderful advocate and representative for our industry.”

Over the years, Gibson has learned an important lesson that has been critical to her success. “Do what you do best then let others do the rest,” she says. “It sounds so simple, but it is easier said than done. I am incredibly talented, but the skill set I have is unique to me. As much as I want to be able to do everything, there is just no way. Still, there are days that I have to remind myself that not every task is mine to do.”

Her Inspiration
“There isn’t any one person or thing that inspires me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are so many people in this world who have done so much after starting out with so little. These people are my constant reminder that if they achieved the same goals I have, that it can be done. That changes the game! Watching people achieve greatness forces me to answer the questions of how bad do I want whatever it is I say I want, and what am I willing to trade (time, dedication, money, immediate gratification) to get it?”

Best Advice
“Laura McKinney, who used to work for PPAI, once said to me, ‘Don’t chase rabbits when you should be chasing elephants.’ That advice was gold. In this industry, you can make a little bit of money, or a lot of money. In most cases the amount of work you’ll do is the same, but the difference is in the type of clients you pursue, acquire and maintain. The elephants might take a little longer to land, but the payoff is worth the patience and persistence.”

Industry Changes She’d Like To See
“I would love to see distributors and suppliers bridge the gap that exists. Taking time to walk a few miles in each other’s shoes would foster a rebuilding of trust that has declined over the years, and help both sides of the supply chain learn to relate to each other on a new level. Second, I would love to see the conversations between professionals taken to different level. There is a lot
of complaining, especially in online forums, and yet very little is done to create change or solve problems. We need to move past the price match conversations. A team is only as strong as its weakest player and we’re all on this team together. You can’t become a big business by thinking small. It’s time to graduate from the minor leagues and play some dang ball.”


Tiffany Gomas

Vice President, Client Services
Elevate Brand Marketing
Dallas, Texas

Fresh out of college at Oklahoma State University, Tiffany Gomas joined a recruitment firm in her hometown of Dallas, but quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit. Her sister-in-law introduced her to a local distributor and eventually she landed a job there. “I was eager to learn, eager to please and eager to take on more,” she remembers.

Willing to learn all she could about her largest client, Microsoft, and provide the best service possible, she relocated from Dallas to Seattle to be near her client’s headquarters. The move helped make her an instrumental part of the team as Microsoft rolled out its new store model to compete with Apple. Later, when she decided to move back to Dallas to work for Elevate Brand Marketing, she was able to bring the Microsoft business with her.

“Tiffany has built a sales portfolio and track record that rivals account managers with decades in the business,” says nominator Dave Sedlin, vice president, marketing for Elevate Brand Marketing, adding that she has built a client-centric sales organization increasing revenue by almost 50 percent, and has led a highly successful direct sales effort designed to gain inroads to sports teams for gameday giveaways. “Tiffany is client-focused beyond compare,” Sedlin says. “Whatever it takes to deliver on strategy, on time and on budget, it gets done.”

Nominator Michael Dunsworth, who has worked with Gomas as regional sales manager at supplier PCNA, says, “Tiffany listens to her customers’ needs and helps them formulate a marketing plan, and then turns that plan into a promotion. She doesn’t simply sell products, she sells solutions. She knows her customers and their needs because she takes the time to listen.”
Another nominator, Adrian Cruz, owner of Extreme Graphics, says he’s known Gomas for about eight years. “I’m a screen printer and she makes things easy for me by getting all the details needed to get the job done. She has been a pleasure to work with.”

For others just starting out in their careers, she offers four pieces of advice: “Be open to learn all that you can. I’ve always loved the quote ‘If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.’ Be flexible. Our industry is known for curve balls. Learn to roll with the punches and always have a positive attitude. Build relationships. People want to work with individuals they trust and can count on. Work hard and play hard. It’s all about a healthy work/life balance.”

Her Inspiration
“My mother—for so many reasons. Her courage and conviction are second to none. She is the first to lend a hand when someone needs help. She’s my sounding board, my sanity, my coach, my confidante. She’s simply amazing.”

Industry Changes She’d Like To See
“I would like to see younger, tech-minded entrepreneurs enter our industry who can make strong advances in big data analytics. Many of the large competitors already have access to this, and in turn have a strong advantage. It would be great to be on that same playing field.”


Jason Haft

Executive Vice President— Strategy & Finance
Trevose, Pennsylvania

Jason Haft was overseeing software development and the day-to-day operations of a Philadelphia start-up when he responded to a Craigslist job posting in 2007. It was his introduction to the promotional products industry when he was hired as a financial analyst with the supplier that would later become alphabroder. During alphabroder’s 2014 acquisition and subsequent integration of mega supplier Bodek and Rhodes, Haft took the lead on pricing and inventory. Nominator Kane Posner, director of strategic planning and analysis at alphabroder, calls Haft “… a highly intelligent leader who motivates others with his enthusiasm.”

In the 10 years Haft has been at the supplier, he has been promoted six times, completely revamped the company’s inventory and pricing systems, managed nearly $1 billion in annual purchases and is responsible for a number of high-impact contributions to the company’s sales growth and profits. “Jason is a skilled leader who has a diverse skill set which he can use to solve any problem that comes his way. He loves to work with different business units to drive value for alphabroder and solve problems for our customers,” adds Posner.

Not only has his fast-track career with alphabroder given Haft, who earned a degree in finance and economics from the University of Pittsburgh, almost unlimited opportunities to grow professionally, but it also exposed him to a world he knew little about—entrepreneurs. “I’m inspired nearly every time I meet with a distributor or supplier in this industry who’s a true entrepreneur,” he says. “It’s one thing to work for a large company and manage a lot of money that isn’t your own (even though you treat it as such). It’s a whole other thing to actually own the business and know that every decision you make not only impacts the people relying on your business for their livelihood, but your decisions are all being made with your own money (even if it is a lot less money than may be involved with the large company). It always impresses me how others are able to manage the pressures of owning their own business.”

Over the years Haft, now 35, has learned some important lessons, such as making sure he’s not just busy, but working on important things. He used to have a to-do list in Excel with more than 100 items. While he still maintains a larger project list, he manages his day-to-day with what will fit on the front of a 3x5 index card. “The card is reserved for only truly important things,” he says. “They’re either things you’re absolutely required to do as part of your job, or they’re things that, if done well, make all the other things on your longer list either easier or seem insignificant.” He writes a new card at the end of each day and takes a picture of it. Then he schedules each task in his Outlook calendar for the following day.

“While I can’t claim credit for inventing this surprisingly simple method of staying effective and productive on a day-to-day basis, I can say it’s been tremendously valuable. We all deal with tons of distractions throughout the day. It’s nice to have a short list of top priorities to focus on—and it’s hard to beat the feeling of a fully checked off card at the end of the day,” he says.

How He Relaxes And Recharges
“On the weekends, it’s all about family time. I have a son, 5, and a daughter, 3. During the week, I try to go to the gym in the morning before work. This time lets me think about what I’m going to work on during the day, as well as catch up on podcasts. I’m a podcast addict. I love anything related to business, history and science (and of course This American Life, which I believe everybody should take one hour out of their week to listen to).”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“As the industry becomes more and more competitive, it’s clear that both suppliers and distributors are feeling margin pressure from all sides. Suppliers feel it in the form of rising costs from manufacturers, distributor requests for lower prices (or to maintain current prices in an environment with rising costs), distributor requests for higher levels of service, etc. Distributors feel it in the form of higher prices from suppliers, as well as demands from their own customers. The relationships between suppliers and distributors can be strained by these margin pressures. I think we’d all like to see stronger relationships between suppliers and distributors and watch them both earn the margins they deserve in this space.”


Kate Harthan

Operations Director/HR
Corporate Recognition
Owatanna, Minnesota

Kate Harthan’s parents, Pam and Ryan Kubat, launched distributor Corporate Recognition from their basement 20 years ago, but this Rising Star always planned to work somewhere else—she wanted to work for anyone but her parents. During her senior year of college, Harthan was giving piano lessons, waiting tables at a special events company and serving as a weekly worship leader at her church. Life was full. But in the fall of 2012 her parents needed help with their accounting; she had taken accounting classes and was earning a bachelor’s degree in business management. She agreed to rearrange her schedule, make the 45-minute drive to the office and help them out two days a week. The business won her over. The following spring, both Harthan and her husband Matt went to work for Corporate Recognition full time.

“Kate is innovative, driven, dedicated and organized,” says Pam Kubat. “She has jumped into her career with both feet and blazed a path for her future as well as for Corporate Recognition.”
Like most second generations within family businesses, working with her parents presented its own set of challenges. For example, it was awkward to call her mother “Pam” when talking to customers who were unaware they are related. “It just sounds weird to say over the phone, ‘let me ask my mom …,’” she says.

Over the past four years at the company, Harthan, now 27, has not only worked out the kinks but found that her education in business and human resources, along with her previous customer-centric work experience, were a perfect fit. She’s also found ways to contribute even more. Harthan took courses to become a PPAI Promotional Products ADvocate and has presented to the local chamber of commerce about the benefits of promotional products, and is working with schools present a similar session to students. She serves on the board of the local chapter of the Society for Human Resources Management and volunteers for Owatonna Business Partnership, a group of local retailers working to drive sales in the downtown area. A lifelong lover of music (she plays four instruments), she plays piano in the Owatonna Community Symphony Orchestra and serves on its board.

“Leadership skills are so important no matter the size of your business or your role within it,” she says. “Leaders know how to schedule their values, prioritize, delegate and empower others. In work and in life, I see so many people (myself included) doing so many things that aren’t in their top five priorities or values, so they don’t have time left to do those top five.”

With an eye on the industry’s future, she says she’d like to see distributors move toward solution-based product marketing instead of price-based. “We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by fighting with each other and focusing on the bottom line instead of on the end result. If we don’t place value on our own work and products we support, how can we expect our customers to?” she asks.

Her Inspiration
“Stealing a bit from a recent speech by Matthew McConaughey—my inspiration is me in 10 years. When I first heard him say this, I thought it sounded egotistical. However, I started to think about how comparison can so easily dilute a generally positive outlook on life. I could aspire to manage one of the biggest promotional products companies, or to travel all around the world, but what really matters to me is my faith and my family. I will always do my best but will want to focus more on what I have and live in the moment [rather] than wait around and overwork for someone else’s goals and life purpose.”

Best Advice
“This industry is what you make of it. You can settle into routine, or you can learn something new every day and put it into practice. You can think like an employee (How will this benefit me?) and stay an employee, or you can think like an owner (What’s best for the business?) and possibly become one. You can hire people and be frustrated when they don’t meet your expectations, or you can hire and train the right people and empower them to do what you can’t do. Second, make time in your workday for personal development. Get certified as a PPAI Promotional Products ADvocate or complete your certification. Watch leadership podcasts. Find a mentor who is two to three steps ahead of you in their career.”


Bryan Kiel

Marketing Manager
Edwards Garment
Kalamazoo, Michigan

During his seven years at supplier Edwards Garment, Bryan Kiel has not only proven his value but earned a priceless reputation for his can-do attitude and ability to exceed customer expectations with quick but thoughtful solutions to customer problems. “I know personally that there have been many occasions when I have brought Bryan an urgent project with very little detail and extremely tight deadlines. He not only hits the deadline with time to spare, but takes what little information I’ve provided and turns it into incredible tools for our distributors,” says nominator Shawn Rogers, territory manager for Edwards Garment.

For Kiel, 31, staying laser-focused on his goals has been key to much of his success. He worked his way through college at Western Michigan University, graduating in 2008 with a bachelor of business administration degree in advertising and promotion—and, because of his part-time jobs, he earned his degree with no college debt. Looking for a company that would take a chance on a newcomer, Kiel took an entry-level position as marketing and communication specialist with Edwards Garment. He knew very little about the industry, but he learned quickly, and the company’s values meshed easily with his own. “At Edwards, we have a list of values that we strive to work and live by,” he says. “Two of these are ‘Customer Satisfaction Is Our Core’ and ‘People Matter.’ It’s simple to say, but not always simple to do—to treat others as you would like to be treated. How we treat customers and co-workers is vital.”

While skills can be taught, it’s Kiel’s upbeat attitude that has won him two promotions; in May, he was promoted to marketing manager. He’s now responsible for the company’s catalog, marketing projects and campaigns, website branding, social media and community outreach. “Each coworker and distributor is important to my individual success and our company’s success,” he says. “If I can make their experience of working with me any better, I’ll do it. If we didn’t have distributors, I wouldn’t have a job.” 

His Inspiration
“Family is very important to me. My dad and mom inspire me. As I’ve grown older I’ve seen the sacrifices they made for my three siblings and me. If I can be half the parent my parents are, then I’m doing alright. My wife, Erika, also inspires me. As a stay-at-home mom to our two daughters, Kayla Brianne (two years old) and Emily Brynn (five months), I am fascinated by the love, care and energy she has in raising them. Kayla and Emily have the best mom and Erika inspires me to be the best dad.”

Best Advice
“Learn throughout your whole career. Never stop. That is something that holds true no matter what job function or industry you are in. Things change so fast and we need to continue our learning so that we can improve and adapt to changes.”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“It’s amazing to see the services available with technology. We need to embrace technology as an industry. Some have, but we need everyone to get on board and this industry will soar even higher in the coming years.”


Carrie Laufenburg, MAS

Director of Key Accounts
The Magnet Group
Union, Kentucky

Carrie Laufenburg was at the hair salon one day in late 2005 and chatting with her stylist about her career. She had recently graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in merchandising, apparel and textiles, and was working in retail management but wanted much more. The stylist mentioned another client who was looking for a sales manager. A short time later, Laufenburg launched her career in the promotional products industry as a regional sales manager with Tranter Graphics.

Ambitious and smart, she hit the fast track. Within her first nine years, she earned her CAS and MAS designations and is now working toward her MAS+. She also dove right into industry volunteerism by serving PPAI on its Marketing, Information and Research Committee and on the Suppliers Advisory Council. She later chaired the Awards and Recognition Committee, and she currently chairs the Editorial Advisory Committee. In April, she represented Kentucky at Legislative Education and Action Day in Washington, D.C. She was also named the ASI Advantages Salesperson of the Year #4 in 2015.

Nominator Cathy Cummings, inside sales pro at The Magnet Group, has known and worked with Laufenburg in various positions for the past 11 years. “She is an intelligent individual who is dedicated to making the promotional products industry better through education and knowledge,” she says. “Carrie truly cares about people and has built not only strong business partnerships, but lasting friendships as well.”

Now 35, Laufenburg is happy with what she’s accomplished and overcome in her career. “Finding the perfect work/life balance is always a challenge. I don’t know if I will ever overcome it, but I certainly keep trying,” says this go-getter. Asked about the most important lesson learned, she’s quick to answer. “Do your job, do it well and your career will take care of itself,” she states, succinctly. “My father has said this since I can remember.” It’s also the best advice she can offer others. “Essentially it means don’t get caught up in the minutiae of daily work life. I’ve learned to let small stuff go. Focus on the big picture and what benefits the company in the long run.”

Her Inspiration
“My families inspire me—my actual family and my work family. I’m blessed to have a strong support system with my parents, brother and sister-in-law. They challenge me to be a better person every day by offering unconditional love but also tough love when I need it. I’m also incredibly lucky to have found my work family at The Magnet Group. The camaraderie, support and guidance I get from my coworkers is amazing. To know that I have full trust in my executive team and that they have that trust in me, is a tremendous asset.”

Industry Changes She’d Like To See
“I’d like to see more of a focus on retail-inspired products from suppliers. Let’s not wait for our customers to tell us what’s new and exciting—let’s show them what will be the next big thing!
“I’d like to see more of a focus on relationship building versus transactional sales with distributors. The relationships and partnerships are what make our industry successful. Let’s capitalize on that. “I’d like to see promotional products gain more market share. I’m so glad PPAI created and is investing in Promotional Products Work! Week and the Get In Touch! campaign.

“I’d like to see more of the younger generation come into the business. They are the ones who will bring fresh ideas, new technologies and a new appreciation for our advertising medium.”


Scott Leonard

South Texas Account Manager
Hit Promotional Products
Katy, Texas

Four years ago, Scott Leonard met Hit President CJ Schmidt on a four-hour flight coming home from a family vacation and made such an impression that, lacking any industry experience, he was later hired. “I just loved his passion for this industry and the idea of working for a family-owned company,” says Leonard, who at the time was a high school teacher and soccer coach in Katy, Texas. “I took a leap of faith and joined Hit the next week. I have always believed in the saying ‘you make your own luck’ and this is a prime example of that.”

The 33-year-old says it was difficult to come in with no industry experience but he made it work. “It was quite a learning curve in my first year, but Hit is well equipped with an awesome team that was willing to help at every turn. It was a fun challenge for me to learn to thrive in a new, fast-paced industry,” says Leonard, who gives full credit to the company’s owner, his regional manager and the Texas and national inside support team, which is based in Florida. “They are a well-oiled machine that keeps me on track every day.”

Despite his lack of experience, Leonard caught on quickly, bringing double-digit growth to his territory each year since and collecting several awards at Hit’s annual sales conferences. “It is his competitive drive, magnetic personality and determination to help his clients succeed that have captured everyone’s attention,” says his nominator, Michael Marias, Midwest regional sales manager at Hit Promotional Products and a former PPB Rising Star.

Leonard says the best advice he can give to others just starting out in this industry is to do what you say you will do. “This seems so simple, yet I believe this has been a huge reason for whatever success I’ve enjoyed.”

His Inspiration
“My wife, Melissa, is my rock. She is the true definition of a hard worker and leads by example. She always knows when I need a good laugh or a solid kick in the butt, and for that I will always be grateful.” He’s also inspired by his parents, who pushed him for success, and by the smiling faces of his two young daughters, Payton, 5, and Jordan, 3.

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“I would like to see more education and common knowledge about the industry. Like me, it seems most of my peers I speak with either knew the right person or fell into our awesome industry. I feel that if we had more awareness out there, then the industry would have a larger pool to hire and search from which would help grow everyone’s businesses in the long run.”


Max Levavi

Vice President, Operations
Los Angeles, California

Max Levavi started as an intern at distributor BAMKO in 2011 and now oversees its international and domestic operations teams. At just 32, he is responsible for the management of more than 100 people across four different continents.

It’s not a role Levavi necessarily planned on while earning his bachelor’s degree in politics and economics from Brandeis University in 2006, his masters in Islamic and Middle East studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2009, or during a stint at a boutique financial firm in New York City.

“I would be lying if I said that my entry into the promotional items industry was the result of a master plan,” he says. “An old friend of mine and former BAMKO partner encouraged my career change. He spoke very highly of the company and the potential to grow in the industry. I took the plunge and have not been let down.”

Nominator Joshua White, BAMKO’s general counsel and senior vice president, strategic partnerships, says Levavi has paid his dues through a tireless work ethic, unfailing accountability and attention to detail, emerging as a force within BAMKO that can’t be slowed down. “Having worked his way through the ranks over the years, Max is the rare high-level executive who leads from the front. Never one to avoid rolling up his shirtsleeves and do the heavy lifting himself, Max has personally spearheaded a number of BAMKO’s most ambitious projects and organizational initiatives. He sets an incredible example for his colleagues.”

Most recently, he says, Levavi has managed the design and development of an internal Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform that will revolutionize the way the company interacts with both clients and vendors. Scheduled to launch six months ahead of schedule and more than 30 percent under budget, Levavi’s stewardship over the scoping, design and development of the platform has been a master class in effective leadership, explains White.

Most Important Lesson Learned
“I’ve learned to contextualize what I do. Stress and pressure can win out if you imbue your role with undue gravity/weight.”

Best Advice
“Don’t get deterred by failure. It’ll happen and you’ll survive, and you’ll learn from it.”

His Inspiration
“My family inspires me to work harder and achieve more than I otherwise would.”

Most Difficult Challenge
“Vulnerability. Learning that failure wasn’t just inevitable, but instructive, took a long time to figure out.”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“Greater differentiation in products and services offered will benefit the industry immensely. We need a greater focus on innovative solutions, he says, rather than a competition of turn times and pennies saved. This trend is inevitable and the sooner it happens the better. The industry needs to constantly refresh and appeal more strongly to younger generations. We need a proactive approach to technological advancement and offerings that consistently connect with the behaviors and proclivities of our youth.”


Edward Martin

Proforma Media & Print Solutions
New Braunfels, Texas

Edward Martin sold large volumes of custom franchise in 2010 and has been steadily growing his business since then. He has also acquired nine businesses worth a total of $1.4 million and has set his sights on reaching $5 million in sales in the next five years.

“Edward has become a stand-out among his peers for quickly and steadily growing his business, with more than 1,070-percent growth over the past five years,” says nominator Kendra Smith, manager of public relations at Proforma. “Although Edward has experienced significant growth, he isn’t slowing down anytime soon. He is laser focused on growth through acquisitions and is always looking to identify the next business opportunity.”

Riding a rocket ship of growth wasn’t always the case for Martin, now 36. Just a few years ago, he was working for a custom envelope company that went bankrupt as the demand for those products decreased. He knew layoffs were inevitable. Instead of going to work for someone else, he decided to go into business for himself. “I wanted to do something related but have a larger pool of customers. The number of potential clients for me to call on was quite small. Now just about anyone could be a customer,” says Martin, who earned a philosophy degree from Brigham Young University and spent the first three years of his career in customer service at a Houston printing plant.

Running a company often leaves little time for a personal life but Martin dedicates at least an hour every day to exercise, and he also plays in a local basketball league. To relax and recharge, he spends time with his family, occasionally goes rock climbing and tries to catch as many punk rock concerts as he can. “My family is what drives me,” he says. “Without them I’d probably just sit on the couch all day. I work hard to provide them the lifestyle they deserve.” 

Most Important Lesson Learned
“I think anyone can be a good salesperson if they do two things—show up and keep their word. Sadly, most don’t do these simple things. If you stay top of mind until you get an opportunity and then follow through with what you’ve promised, you will be at head of the class.”

Best Advice
“Be patient. Some deals take several months, if not years, to close. You must stick with your plan and not get discouraged when things don’t go right. Remember, they are just temporary setbacks.”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“I’d like the industry to get younger and hungrier. From the meetings I go to with other distributors, the majority seem to be nearing retirement and not looking to grow their business. The industry, as a whole, needs to look for new work in new places and add products to their line. You cannot just stand still. You are either growing or shrinking. Those who aren’t looking to grow should consolidate with those who are, so they can work together to build up the business. Everyone makes more money in that scenario.”


Anna Nguyen

Executive Brand Director
Monarch & Company
Denver, Colorado

Anna Nguyen, 33, is not afraid to push the conventional boundaries of what is possible—even if it means failing. In fact, she says the way she’s kept her passion is by not settling and not accepting the way things are but pushing herself every day and focusing on doing what she enjoys. “I’m fortunate to work at a company that aligns with those values and supports and demands continuous growth, reinvention and risk-taking,” she says.

With a degree in journalism and communications from Iowa State University, Nguyen set her sights on joining industry distributor Pelligrini Solutions on the event side of its business after graduation. But the only open position was in the promotional products division. “I took the opportunity and jumped in head first in an industry I knew very little about at the time,” she says. “I fell in love with the fast-paced nature, limitless opportunities for creativity and lasting relationships with clients and supplier partners.”

It was there that she met Yvonne Lyngaas, who became a long-time colleague and friend, and who later launched the Chicago-based distributor Monarch & Company. After working in brand management for a couple of other companies, Nguyen joined Monarch full-time in January 2016. “From day one, Anna has elevated the way that our company thinks and uses branded merchandise,” says Lyngaas, who nominated Nguyen as a Rising Star. “She is a creator, and our sales numbers have proven that her unique ability to position items are working. Last year, Anna and I doubled the company’s revenue—she grew five accounts that now spend over $100,000 each with us, and her dedication to this industry should be celebrated.”

Lyngaas also explains that Nguyen was the creative mind behind two new services the company recently began offering: kitting and company stores. “We were sitting around one day talking about how we so badly wanted to break into these two areas and within two weeks Anna was able to source partners for kits and create a mock company store along with a pitch deck that has won us four stores,” she explains.

For others wanting to follow Nguyen’s success, she offers this simple advice she often draws from: “When facing tough decisions or trying something new, ask yourself ‘what is the worst that can happen, and am I ok with that?’ If the answer is yes, dive in and give it your all. If no, reflect and readjust, but never stop moving forward and challenging yourself.”

Industry Changes She Hopes To See
“I’d like to see the industry keep pushing the limits and challenging what is possible. It is more important than ever for distributors to be equipped with design skills in order to showcase and bring to life all the advancements and options that are now available to us that weren’t five years ago. I also hope to see the shift continue in our industry of becoming a truly valued partner to our clients, ingrained both creatively and strategically to the success of their campaigns and initiatives, rather than order-takers competing over the best price.”

Her Inspiration
“Tony Hsieh of Zappos. His focus on the ultimate customer experience resonates with me to the core as I also try to add value to every client interaction whether it be showing a unique add-on, providing the next steps or sharing a new product or decoration method they can have in their back pocket for their next company meeting. Tony’s focus on the company culture—how this is critical to an organization’s success and how it is only produced through conscious work and effort—stays top of mind for me as a team leader. Our company is taking a field trip to tour the Zappos campus during The PPAI Expo 2018 in Las Vegas to immerse ourselves in this unique company and see what takeaways we can incorporate into Monarch and the industry.”

How She Relaxes And Recharges
“During the commute to and from work, I love listening to Audible.com [she’s currently reading Shoe Dog] and focusing on personal growth. I walk into and leave work each day feeling inspired by the stories of other entrepreneurs and leaders. On the weekends, I completely disconnect to spend time with my husband and friends, and to enjoy the outdoors, whether that be golfing, skiing, hiking or going for a run.”


Nate Robson
Director of Promotional Sales
Raining Rose, Inc.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Nate Robson was recruited into the promotional products industry by a college friend. The pair played together on a basketball team and the friend interned at supplier Raining Rose during his senior year of college and then became its first sales rep. “Now he is serving as our chief operating officer,” says Robson. “He recruited me from the start and it only took me seven years to see the light.”

After college at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, with a degree in business administration, Robson went into the financial services industry, got a taste of sales and launched his own equipment leasing and consulting company with a couple of colleagues. When his basketball teammate asked him to consider a position at Raining Rose, the time was right.

Today, at 36, he manages a team whom he inspires with his passion, humor and creative ideas. “Nate does a great job of thinking outside the box,” says Katie Beitz, director of marketing at Raining Rose and one of the team members who nominated him. “He is always brainstorming ideas for our clients and pushing the envelope for what a sales conversation should look like. He has also encouraged the reps to learn to do webinars and make that part of our daily conversations with customers.”

She adds, “Nate wants the best for the industry and is constantly seeking to learn more about it. He doesn’t accept the way things are done and is always exploring new ways to approach our customers that will truly be beneficial for both the distributor and the supplier.”

Robson admits that leading his diverse team can be a challenge at times. “I am learning every day and have made my fair of share of mistakes for sure. While I have improved, I have more work to do to become a great leader when it comes to appropriately casting people, helping to unleash their potential and creating a great engaging environment.”

From a young age, Robson played sports, and being active continues to be a way to relax. He’s currently training with a goal to qualify for the reality show America Ninja Warrior. Much of Robson’s inspiration comes from his older brother, who was born with Down Syndrome and other health problems. “Bearing witness to someone who has had to fight for many things that we take for granted forces you to see the world through a pretty unique lens. In a lot of ways his approach to life has shaped who I am.”

Best Advice
Be mindful of the people you surround yourself with. Choose those who challenge you, make you better and fill your heart. And get into the habit of taking complete ownership of failures. You will find that it will free your mind to learn and succeed at an accelerated rate. Stay away from rationalizing non-desirable results. Rationalizing often prevents people from making the behavioral changes needed to get to a better result.

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
I would like to see continued efforts like the Get In Touch! campaign. It is reaching people outside the industry and driving more awareness and excitement to the promotional products world. This will not only pull in more talent but also elevate promotional products to the top of the list of effective branding mediums.

Right now, there is too much inefficiency, unnecessary costs and misaligned resources in the supply chain that aren’t adding value to the consumer. I feel the industry is primed for a transformative change and I don’t think it will come from an outsider like Amazon. I would like to see that change come by way of strategic partnerships between innovative suppliers, distributors and service providers.

To get there it will require innovators who are willing to shift their focus, from protecting what they have, to building something that puts their old business out of business. It will take lot of trust, transparency and collaboration but I believe the rewards will be great. Of course, as a result, some will be on the outside looking in, but I was never a fan of “everybody gets a trophy” anyway.


Eric Schmaltz

Brand Relationship & Campaign Development Manager
OmniSource Marketing Group, Inc.
Indianapolis, Indiana

Before joining OmniSource last year, Eric Schmaltz was a long-time super user of branded merchandise. He was also an OmniSource client.

His love of the medium started after graduating with a degree in public relations and advertising from the University of Southern Indiana, and taking a job as marketing director for South Central Radio Group. He understood that promotional items are an important part of engaging with listeners to build brand loyalty and ultimately increasing ratings. “The power of a tee!” he says. Next, he moved into marketing and account management for two independent blood centers. “Engaging volunteers to give up an hour of time and donate a pint of blood is not an easy task—but offering a t-shirt as an incentive can literally fix or prevent blood shortages.”

Early on, Schmaltz became a client of OmniSource Marketing, buying shirts, incentives, signage, mascots and health fair giveaways. Fast forward 10 years and today he’s a company employee delivering strategy and innovation to OmniSource’s Fortune 500 corporations. He also went back to school and earned his MBA in 2014 from Western Governors University.

“Eric has brought the magical alchemy of inspired creative thinking, absolute passion for his client’s brands, and an uncompromising commitment to quality, says his nominator Nickolai Mathison, GM/VP sales and marketing at supplier Sonoma Promo. “Eric understands that creativity wins if, and only if, it provides true value to the process, and he is willing to go the extra mile with suppliers and his clients alike to ensure the final product is a winner.” Mathison likes the fact that Schmaltz comes from previous organizations that didn’t have large promo budgets. “As he says it taught him to be scrappy, creative, different,” says Mathison. “He’s all that and more.”

The best advice the 32-year-old can give to others starting out is to work on building authentic relationships if you want to have a successful career. “Early on, an exec at my company told me that I was on the wrong team—that I needed to be in sales. At that time, I couldn’t disagree more. I was a creative! After that conversation, I studied our sales team and how they interacted with clients—what was their strategy/approach, who was successful and how would I have handled things differently?

My ‘aha’ moment was when I noticed the most successful salespeople had authentic relationships with their clients. They went in and listened to what the client was trying to achieve and then provided customized solutions. That’s where the magic happens— growth, increased sales and referrals.” 

 His Inspiration
“I am motivated by figuring it out. In business and in my personal life, my default answer is always ‘yes!’ I am the guy who loves to figure out how to deliver the impossible or take on the project no one else wanted to tackle.”

Most Important Lesson Learned
“Transparency and collaboration are essential. When you are open, proactive, honest and collaborative with all stakeholders in business, success is easily achieved. It is crucial that this happens internally within your company, externally with suppliers/vendors, and most importantly with your clients/customers.”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
Overall, he’d like to see increased efficiency and effectiveness including streamlined e-commerce (client ordering, purchase orders, inventory, fulfillment, global solutions, etc.); less redundancy in product lines; standardizing and simplifying the pricing strategy by including extra fees (setups, run charges, etc.) in the price; and on-demand production for one-off and personalized products.


Brittan Stiff
Vice President Of Sales & Marketing
Bates-Wells, Inc.
Lubbock, Texas

Brittan Stiff is the next generation in a thriving family business and her passion for the industry is unmistakable. “Truthfully, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in the industry,” she says. “As soon as I was tall enough to see into the filing cabinet I was in charge of catalogs. I would also go sit with the guys in engraving to learn what they do, and soon I became known as the paper runner.”

After high school, she attended South Plains College in nearby Levelland, and later worked part-time at Walter’s World of Pets with thoughts of working with animals full time, but her heart kept coming back to promotional products. “Having grown up in this business I was fortunate enough to see the joy our products bring to people,” she says.

In 2002 she officially took over the order management department, and today she is part of the management team alongside her father, Mark Stiff; mother, Roni; and sister, Kimberly Davis. Working closely with family has its challenges for some, but for Stiff the familiar relationships offer a steady stream of inspiration. “Mark has shown me a passion for the business that’s unmatched,” she explains.

“His ownership of the day-to-day operations and his management of a leading sales team make me want to take it a step further. My mom taught me at a young age that women can rock this industry and she made it fun. As a working mom with two young girls she was able to hold one of the top spots in our sales team while also attending every event that my sister or I participated in.”

Now, at 31 with two young daughters of her own, Stiff is grateful to her mother for demonstrating how to successfully blend her personal and business roles, and still find time for herself.
Her sister, who officially started in the industry in 1997, is also a role model for Stiff. “Her drive and devotion have led me like any big sister should,” she says. “No matter what the day holds, Kimberly always has a positive outlook and attitude.”

Getting to where she is today has not been an easy feat for Stiff who overcame an eating disorder at 20 and is raising her two daughters, ages 4 and 8, on her own. However, her persistence and courage caught the eye of Jaimee Adamson, supervisor of account services at AIA Corporation, who nominated her as a Rising Star. “Working with Britt as a business partner for over three years, I have had the honor to watch her do what she does best,” says Adamson. “She has ingenious ideas and is not afraid to share them. She has a voice and wants it heard. So many people find themselves feeling belittled and afraid to take a stance, but Britt just goes for it. She knows that sometimes you need to fail in order to move forward. She embraces every failure and opportunity, finds the positive, and makes strides to move forward.”

Helping lead a flourishing family business can be demanding, but there’s plenty to learn, if you keep your eyes and ears open as Stiff has done. She says the most important lessons she’s learned are to always keep your sales pipeline full, never say never, always maintain your integrity, and most importantly, it takes a great team to be successful.

Best Advice
“It’s not about working with clients every day, it’s more about establishing relationships and getting to know your customer as a friend. That makes it so I never work a day in my life.”

Industry Changes She’d Like To See
“I would like to see continued progress regarding relationships between suppliers and distributors. Also, I believe we should have a stronger focus on bringing production back to the USA.”


Marci Schwartz Taran
Bradley Company
Detroit, Michigan

Marci Schwartz Taran, 30, grew up in her father’s distributorship but had to truly excel to step out from his shadow and prove her own talents and abilities. She earned her position there after obtaining a solid education (she holds a degree in communications and public relations from Michigan State University) and experience outside the industry (she previously worked at several marketing agencies including PrizeLogic and Duffey Petrosky/Embark Digital). “Those experiences groomed me as a professional and provided me a well-rounded understanding of marketing,” she says. “My father and I both agreed that the breadth of my marketing knowledge and understanding of the bigger picture would be beneficial in assisting Bradley Company’s clients in not just thinking about products, but about the full campaign and how branded merchandise can lead to results.”

She joined the family business in 2014 as chief operating officer and shortly afterward was named chief executive officer and majority owner. Later that year the company obtained its WBENC (Women’s Business Enterprise National Council) certification. Joining the business as the boss’s daughter came with a number of difficulties to overcome. “I was not only a new person coming in as upper management and ultimately, as CEO, and daughter of the owner and founder, but I was a woman and younger than almost everyone on the current team.”

Taran rose to the challenge and her leadership abilities quickly caught the eye of her nominator, Paul Kiewiet, MAS+, executive director at the Michigan Promotional Professionals Association, who she met at a dinner for distributor principals in Troy, Michigan. Taran was later recruited to run for the MiPPA board, and once elected, she took on critical tasks related to the regional association’s trade shows.

“One of the most identifying characteristics of a leader is the ability to see a need and immediately envision the best ways to fill that need. Marci demonstrates a strategic vision and is able to energize the people around her to work to make that vision a reality. She can gently nudge members, volunteers and her fellow board members to see possibilities and pitch in to make them a reality. Like most great leaders, Marci is never shy to be the first to volunteer to make great things happen.”

He also notes her role as a young female CEO leading one of Michigan’s larger promotional products distributorships and is impressed by her ability to earn the respect of the business world and ensure that her accomplishments not only stand out but stand on their own. Her Inspiration “My dad is a huge inspiration for me; he is an inspiration for how he lives life. He lives each day fully. His ability to balance work and life is astounding. My dad puts 100 percent into everything—work, his family, friends and his hobbies. He inspires me that life can be balanced, and that working hard and playing hard isn’t just a saying. His passion for the promotional industry and his creativity is unmatched.”

Best Advice
“Believe in yourself. Don’t question or concern yourself with what everyone else thinks to a certain extent as it can limit your potential and stunt creativity. If you do what everyone else does, then you will just fall in with the pack.”

Industry Changes She’d Like To See
“I would like the industry to move away from ‘product selling’ and be focused more on marketing strategy and solutions leveraging the products. I also hope the industry’s reputation will be elevated from what many just see as a ‘stuff and tchotchke’ industry to a marketing medium that can drive ROI.”


Chris Vinci

Western Regional Sales Manager
San Diego, California

Chris Vinci left his medical sales career to join supplier Aakron five years ago—a move that has proved to be a very smart one for himself, his company and his clients. “I can say the change was well worth it and I haven’t looked back since,” says the 37-year-old Buffalo, New York, native. “There is something to be said about working for a family-run company vs. a Fortune 500 company.”

With an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master’s degree in physicaleducation and health, he worked in pharmaceutical sales for five years and then in cardiac medical device sales for three years. But the industry suffered mightily during the recession and, despite being a top sales performer, he was laid off twice. He says it took a heavy toll on him both emotionally and financially, but they layoffs challenged him more than ever on a personal and professional level. “I still keep a chip on my shoulder as a self-motivation tool to work hard even when things are not always in your control,” he says.

Vinci was also influenced by the strong work ethic of his father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Italy at 16. Despite not speaking English when he arrived, the elder Vinci finished high school in three years and achieved high honors in English. He went on to become a successful small-business owner, husband of 38 years, father and grandfather. “He still motivates my siblings and me to work hard and never take things for granted,” says Vinci.

Among those who admire Vinci’s positive attitude is Ann Marie Baker, vice president of sales at Aakron and one of five who nominated him as a Rising Star. “We’ve had multiple compliments on Chris through the years but one that stuck with me was from a distributor sales rep who told me ‘… that’s just Chris. It doesn’t seem to matter if the order is big or small. He’s always grateful and treats it like it’s the best thing that’s happened all day.' Chris wants his clients to be successful and truly appreciates all the orders they entrust with us. He doesn’t take anything for granted.”

When Vinci decided to take a job with Aakron, he left strong family ties in Buffalo, New York, to move across the country to San Diego with his wife, Sarah. The move impressed nominator San Diego-based Kim Bakalyar, director of vendor relations at PromoShop, who says starting a new career in a new place takes guts and ambition. “Learning the ropes of this crazy business is hard, but Chris immediately jumped in with a passion and excitement that I have rarely seen in my 36 years in this business,” she says.

“Chris takes the time to really listen and then offer solutions. He stops by with ideas for our clients—not just to show a product. He is constantly going the extra mile. As a direct result, our business with Aakron has tripled.”

Another client and nominator is Whitney Horn Guthrie at distributor iCoStore, who says, “I might not be his No. 1 distributor or even his favorite, but he sure makes me feel like I am.” Nominator Heather Comerford, president of 1338Tryon, adds, “Chris has become a pillar in our industry and has raised the bar for supplier representatives.”

Nominator Jill Rogers, field sales manager, Pacific Northwest at PCNA (Trimark), says that Vinci has made a measurable impact over the past four years, putting Aakron on the map on the West Coast. “He singlehandedly covers the amount of territory that typically three to four supplier reps would handle. Chris is relentless in making sure his clients are well taken care of.” 

Best Advice
“Never overpromise or underdeliver. Know your products, know your customers and go the extra mile.”

Industry Changes He’d Like To See
“The term ‘partnership’ needs to be treated with more respect between suppliers and distributors. This term is constantly being thrown around on both sides to achieve a short-term gain instead of having mutual respect for one another so we can grow our business over the long term. A business model with a strong supplier/distributor partnership will help our industry continue to grow in a positive direction and allow for a more streamlined and efficient way of way of doing business together.”