There’s no better prediction of our industry’s bright future than the bold attitudes and impressive achievements of PPB’s latest group of Rising Stars. For almost 10 years the magazine has been recognizing the up-and-comers to watch, and in that time many names on our list have gone on to serve the industry on the PPAI Board of Directors, committees and work groups, as regional association presidents, company presidents and vice presidents, and as business owners. 

From nearly 90 individuals nominated this year, 19 were selected and honored during PPAI’s North American Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., last month. 


Kristi  Catalanotto, 30
Office Manager
Fully Promoted of Mandeville

After high school, Kristi Catalanotto joined distributor Fully Promoted part-time to help pay for college. She had planned to be an ultrasound technician, but the promotional products industry won her over. In 2008, she went to work full-time for the company.

Catalanotto’s ability to learn quickly and her appetite for more responsibility recently earned her a promotion at the company’s retail location dedicated to decorating school uniforms, spirit wear and team apparel and cheer items. “Kristi was always great with customers, but her eagerness to learn helped her grow to a position where she is also helping with graphic design elements, some heat transfer production and order management,” says nominator Jessica Ibsen, director of sales and marketing. “In the past year she has even become a vital part of the team on project management with quoting and creating bids for large-scale opportunities.” Ibsen says Catalanotto taught herself graphic design and web store development, and in doing so, was key to the company’s ability to offer client web stores and school spirit wear stores.

Ibsen adds, “I believe in a few short years she will be a force in the industry responsible for a lot of our company success.”

Her Inspiration
My dad; he started his career right out of high school and grew in his position at his former company for nearly 30 years. In early 2017, he started his own company and has become extremely successful within his first year.

Most Difficult Challenge
In my first 12 years with Fully Promoted, it was an apparel and embroidery goods store selling logoed apparel and embroidery personalization. When current owner Michael Rosamond bought the company in 2015, he had a bigger vision. He turned the company from a local embroidery store into a one-stop shop for branded and marketing goods. I am very proud of what the company has become, but it took some adjusting for me to get used to it.

Change She’d Like To See
In the next five years, I would like to see more one-stop shopping from our vendors where you can login to the vendor site, pick the product, upload decoration instructions, add a customer logo and place an order right then.


Jake  Director, 28
Co-Founder Strideline, LLC

Jake Director launched sock specialty supplier Strideline nearly 10 years ago with co-founder Riley Goodman while they were still in high school. Both lacrosse players, they wanted to buy colored crew socks to wear during games. “Turns out those were hard to find,” says Director. “And just like that, we discovered our niche in the market.” Their partnership was destined early in life: he and Goodman were born at the same hospital, on the same day, just hours apart. They lived in the same town and attended the same schools. Their first aspiration to enter the wearable products industry was an idea for a t-shirt company cooked up on the school bus in the third grade.

The pair started by selling socks out of the back of an SUV and traveled to lacrosse tournaments throughout their home state of Washington. Relatively quickly, they received recognition from some large retailers and started selling to Nordstrom, Macy’s and Lids.

When they were approached by Microsoft to create custom socks for the company’s health initiative, it was the impetus to take the next step into the promo market. They bought a 40-foot by 40-foot space at The PPAI Expo in 2015 and launched Strideline. Today, it’s a multinational company with nearly 300 employees between the Seattle home office and the production team in the Philippines. Employee and nominator Molly Dietz says, “As the company grows, Jake and Riley continue to push the company to innovate and adapt to the changing market landscape, such as with their speed-to-market model. Purchasers are becoming accustomed to faster production and delivery, so suppliers need to keep up.” Director adds, “We really believe the future of custom apparel will be built on super high speed and high-quality products. That’s the system we are looking to build.”

His Inspiration
The most incredible people I interact with daily are our team members in the Philippines. We have our own production facility there and the way our workers approach their jobs is immensely inspiring. They come to work each day excited, determined and effective. I aim to go into the office each day with that same energy. On a business level, it’s LeBron James. He is the greatest of all time. His passion for becoming the best and his ability to motivate himself while already at the top of his craft is inspiring.

What’s Next
Our goal is to become the largest sock company on earth. Period. While we know this will take much longer than 24 months, we make all our decisions with that end goal driving us.

Best Advice
Just start! When we began Strideline we had no idea what we were doing, but it was incredible to experience how, by refusing to move anywhere but forward, we were able to make connections where we needed and find solutions to our problems.


Julie  Fritsch, 34
Vice President of Marketing
Starline USA, Inc.  

Julie Fritsch earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006 and studied 3D animation before taking a job at a diamond engagement ring manufacturer in New York City. When the company consolidated and moved, she happened upon an open position at supplier Jetline, and made the move to supplier Starline USA, Inc. a few years later. Coworker and former Rising Star Jon Norris, one of her two nominators, is glad she did. 

“Julie is one of the brightest and hardest working people that I have encountered in my industry career. And her passion is contagious,” he says. “Julie attacks marketplace weaknesses within our organization and uses her skills and passion to generate growth.” Her accomplishments, aside from being the youngest VP in company history, include developing and executing a plan to better attract marketing talent and new team members at the new office in New Jersey; leading a complete rebuild of the company website resulting in explosive growth; and developing a comprehensive marketing plan for a struggling sales region that soon saw positive growth. 

Nominator and coworker Brian Porter adds, “She’s got an outstanding background, is a forward thinker, never settles and works harder than anyone I know.”

Her Inspiration
The movie Moneyball. It’s the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. He has to rebuild his team with a limited payroll and he does it by throwing out the conventional way of recruiting and uses analysis and statistics instead. It’s all about challenging accepted procedures and completely reinventing how things work to improve success. Adapt or die: That’s an especially relevant message for a creative thinker, for a marketing professional and for the industry. 

Best Advice
Learn as many aspects of the company as you get the chance to, and work your tail off. Everything is interconnected—from proofs, to customer service, to art, to sales and printing. Ask questions, attend education sessions and join webinars. It will not only give you a greater understanding and respect for the process (and for your coworkers), but it will help you improve the job you’re performing and grow within the company. If all else fails—just work hard. Work smarter and harder than everyone.

Change She’d Like To See
The industry is undergoing a generational transition and I’d like to see younger people step up and take leadership roles.


Britney  Godsey, 30
Vice President of Sales
Gold Bond 

Before Britney Godsey joined supplier Gold Bond in 2010 in sales support, she was a promotional products buyer for three Tennessee locations of a national restaurant chain. The job not only taught her the value of promotional products but also helped leverage her creativity in developing client programs. However, it’s her enthusiasm, energy, confidence and ability to be memorable that has won her fans over the past eight years, ranging from clients and coworkers to business services partners and even her own competitors. 

Eleven industry pros nominated Godsey as a Rising Star, including Cathy Cummings, director of strategic development for The Magnet Group, who met her while managing the supplier relations department for a large distributor group. She was immediately impressed with Godsey’s outgoing personality, determination and drive to succeed. 

When Gold Bond was looking for a national sales manager, Godsey wanted the job but had no experience managing people. So, she read books, listened to podcasts, studied on the web and observed other managers—and got the job. She built a powerful sales team in less than a year. Then she set her sights on her next goal to become VP of sales. She now manages more than 40 individuals including inside sales, outside sales and customer service—and spends much of her time on the road to ensure satisfied customers. Godsey is also highly skilled at using social media to improve her personal brand and her company’s, and as a result is quickly becoming the face of Gold Bond. 

Her Inspiration
The approximately 300 employees at Gold Bond. All of them have families, birthdays, life moments like weddings and broken bones—kids going to college, dream homes, vacations, cars. None of that can happen until I lock in an order that requires their support in production, art, warehousing and order entry. I would do anything to not let those people down.

The Next 24 Months
I have a deep-rooted passion for the way we nurture our clients. That means constantly evolving who we are and what we do—then pushing the envelope on what has not yet been done. Technology is an arena that will change the way we interact with and serve our clients, such as sending text message updates on orders and other proactive tactics that make life easier for distributors.

Best Advice
Constantly self-assess. If you’re struggling, ask for help. If you have an idea of how to make your enterprise even more electrifying, give productive feedback. If you can find a way to take yourself out and stand on the outside looking in, ask yourself, where is my value the greatest? When you start locking in on what that looks like, you’ll be able to pave your own path.


Eric  Granata, 37
Vice President of  Business Development

“He’s quickly becoming one of the most knowledgeable technology experts in the industry,” says nominator Bobby Lehew, chief content officer at commonsku, and former CEO at ROBYN, who hired Granata in 2012 as ecommerce director. He was working in print, web and video for an Oklahoma City church and was developing an app for audio books when he was introduced to Lehew. “Eric transformed our company stores and ecommerce solutions for clients, and he built some of the most significant tech solutions for large clients that I’ve ever seen, including tools for print and promotional products, digital and video,” Lehew says. 

Through Granata’s innovation, client store sales at ROBYN skyrocketed. He’s also quickly adapted to the promotional products industry in one of the most unappreciated but most important areas of any business—technology. Lehew calls him an entrepreneur at heart, a proficient business development person and a brilliant and compassionate leader. 

Best Advice
Find a mentor in the industry. is a good place to start. I am fortunate to have a group of friends who love to collaborate and are enthusiastic sharers of knowledge.

His Inspiration
The hustle. I am inspired by the businesses and entrepreneurs we get to serve. Each one is different and has a unique set of needs, but they all come to us because they need help. It feels good to help. This is going to sound like hyperbole, but becoming a part of their success is a high privilege that is sacred in a way. They’ve entrusted us with their brand. The stakes are high, but we have fun, too.

How He  Recharges
I like to cook Tex-Mex. I follow the recipes in my cookbooks to the letter. No improvising or creativity, just following the plan and sharing in the reward. I also love the zoo. We’ve got one of the best here in Oklahoma City. 


Justin  Gukeisen, 39
Chief Operating Officer

After earning his MBA in 2013, Justin Gukeisen worked at a medical device manufacturer until Roseanne Webster, a former Rising Star and CIO at SnugZ, hired him away as director of quality control. In January, he was promoted to COO. “He’s helped us reduce lead times to be more competitive in the market, source a lot of new equipment, develop new lines and laser focus on quality,” she says, adding that because of his outside perspective, he questions everything—and that’s what makes him so valuable. 

Gukeisen has also brought something else of value to the Salt Lake City-based supplier: kaizen events, a tool that focuses on small, problematic processes to help improve efficiency and effectiveness. Gukeisen assembles kaizen teams comprised of subject matter experts and employees. The events have been wildly successful for both the production and administrative areas of the business, Webster adds. 

His Inspiration
People who participate in the grind every day. I watch employees who come in and give their all for the overall success of the organization, and it inspires me to give more. I am surrounded by such good people; people who want to win and want to succeed; those who are willing to work a little extra and are willing to give of their time and talents to provide our customers with the best possible experience. We truly have an amazing group of people here at SnugZ.

The Next 24 Months
I see myself here at SnugZ, helping to launch the next product line and finding new ways to be successful. In the next 24 months I want to see an increase in product flow throughout our facility and see our turn-time decrease significantly. I want to continue to add to the SnugZ reputation of amazing customer service.

Change He’d Like To See
I would love to see standardization in the way information flows between suppliers and distributors. There is so much waste in the [current] process. Suppliers are spending significant time trying to understand the customer’s needs and distributors are spending time following up and clarifying. Both sides are losing valuable profits, and this extra time does not enhance the end customer’s experience. We need to figure out how to “lean up” these processes.


Michael J.  Harper, 38
Summit Group

Michael Harper always said he’d never go to work for his family’s business, but after graduating college and working in inside sales for technology company CDW, he decided to give it a shot. He worked hard and generated annual sales of more than $2 million for 10 years before being promoted to group president in 2016 and to CEO last year. As the third generation to work in the promotional products industry (his grandfather co-owned a distributor that his father and uncle later merged with Summit Marketing, now Summit Group), he’s aware of how tricky it can be to navigate the generational transitions. 

Under his leadership as CEO, profits increased 150 percent, says nominator Cari Miller at Summit Group. “What is most striking about Michael is the way he has brought a 21st-century approach to Summit’s culture and strategic thinking,” she says. “Without hesitation, he began assessing systems, processes and the very foundations of Summit’s mission.” Under his leadership, Summit has launched a cutting-edge recognition and employee engagement technology called LuME and an innovative award fulfillment platform named Rewards xChange, which were recently recognized in CIO magazine. Miller says he’s also realigned company processes to focus on customer-centric outcomes.

His Inspiration
The costs of raising three children! Seriously, I am inspired each day by the extraordinary lengths to which our associates go to help our clients achieve their goals. We have incredible people helping incredible clients. My job is to help both our clients and associates create a better future.

Best Advice
Pursue your passion. Find what it is you love to do and make a career out of it. Life is too short to spend most of your waking hours doing something that doesn’t make you happy.

Change He’d Like To See
As an industry, we need to make huge strides in providing a more seamless client experience. This includes vastly improved integration and a hard look at how we all make money. Our industry will experience marked change over the next several years. If we all focus on enhancing the client experience, we can ensure the change comes from within.


Tim Howe, LLB, MPA, CAS, 30
Spectrum Designs Foundation

From his first job as a CD assembler in his home country of Wales, to selling hotel rooms, insurance and software, and even managing an airport, Tim Howe has done it all. The U.S. is the eighth country he’s worked in, where after studying at King’s College London Law School, he earned a master’s in public administration with a focus on nonprofit management at CW Post in New York. In 2013, he joined lifelong friend Patrick Bardsley at Port Washington, New York-based distributor Spectrum Designs Foundation, a nonprofit apparel customization shop that predominately employs teens and young adults with autism. 

Howe was immediately hands-on with every screen printing machine, embroidery machine and piece of software in the business. He learned every job and is never above helping print, fold and ship thousands of t-shirts at the shop—even on weekends—where he has helped grow sales from $200,000 to $2.5 million. It was Howe who recently added promotional products, along with pad printing, to the company’s offerings. “With Tim as the driving force, spending late nights reading books, consulting industry experts and watching webinars, Spectrum’s non-apparel promotional products sales went from zero to $150,000 in a year simply with determination and upselling,” says nominator Mackenzie Jameson, office manager at Spectrum Design Foundation. “This year we are forecasting to almost double that, predicting [promotional products] sales in excess of $250,000—nearly 10 percent of Spectrum’s sales from a brand-new sales avenue.”

A lifelong learner, Howe is constantly looking for more. In March, he worked with the Nassau County District Attorney’s office to embroider over the crests of 10,500 counterfeit jackets that were then donated to the poor. In April, he collaborated with Google to create a virtual tour for potential employees. In May, he appeared in a feature-length documentary discussing the company’s role in employing people with autism. He also serves on the Board of Governors of the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives and is active in the Specialty Advertising Association of Greater New York. This summer he earned his Certified Advertising Specialist designation.

His Inspiration
I have always drawn inspiration from those closest to me, so the biggest and best are my Mum (Carol) and Dad (Trevor), who taught me to never stop learning and improving myself, my fiancée Sherley whose tireless work ethic is a daily inspiration, and of course my boss and lifelong friend Patrick Bardsley, Spectrum Designs’s resident visionary blue-sky thinker who recognized something in me that made him choose me to be his right-hand man.

Best Advice
Make yourself indispensable. New machine? Learn it. New process? Be the first to understand it. Something breaks? Be able to fix it. Executive or line worker, you should understand every single job in the shop. I got where I am today because I read manuals, I ask tough questions and I’m never satisfied with “I don’t know.” You shouldn’t be either. The promotional products industry is vast, but it is incredibly supportive. Watch PPAI webinars, call people with more experience than you, draw on any resource you can to become an expert in your field—and don’t stop at 9 to 5.

Change He’d  Like To See
For me, social responsibility is the future. Don’t just think about who makes your t-shirt, but who prints it. When buying a promotional product, where does that money go? Make sure that your supplier and distributor are doing their part for the local community, for the U.S. and our industry. I would also love for the documentary featuring us, This Business of Autism, to reach a worldwide audience and help spread the word about these hard-working individuals with disabilities who can be incredible assets when just given a chance. 


Aaron Kucherawy, 32
Manager Of Customer Service

“Aaron represents all of the qualities our industry wants to be associated with for the future— he’s forward thinking, committed to an excellent client experience and thinks strategically about how our medium plays a role in the advertising mix,” says nominator Mark Graham, chief platform officer at commonsku. “Aaron is also deeply involved in the strategic planning at commonsku and works alongside the executive team to improve the product as well as how we position ourselves in the market.” Graham adds that Kucherawy’s two defining characteristics are humor and patience—both vital skills that were tested recently while onboarding a 20-person distributor that moved to commonsku from a legacy software platform. “Aaron single-handedly walked them through the new processes and spent time with each department to make sure that everyone was comfortable with the change,” Graham explains, adding that he gets frequent customer compliments about his young employee.

Kucherawy, who has a degree in psychology, was working as a customer service rep at a rental car agency before joining the Toronto-based business services company three years ago. Since then, he’s mastered his knowledge of the commonsku platform and become proficient in how the promotional products industry works. “In addition, he had to learn to work with distributors in a very senior capacity … right from the start, he was dealing with distributor principals at a very high level,” says Graham. “This was a remarkable achievement for a young employee without any background in the promotional industry.”

His Inspiration
On a personal level, my mom. She has had to face some adversity in life and has never lost her sense of humor. I like to think that my style of customer service, my demeanor and how I handle new challenges come from her. At work, Mark and Catherine Graham are big inspirations. Mark is incredibly forward-thinking—always pushing the envelope and working to be 10 steps ahead of everyone else. Catherine is a fantastic leader, does everything she can to help people excel at their position and is a fountain of business knowledge. Oh, and LeBron James. I mean, he’s an insane athlete, but if you don’t know anything about his personal life or charity contributions, check them out.

Best Advice
If you are a distributor, get to know your clients. In my experience dealing with hundreds of distributorships, the ones who are the most successful are those with great client relationships. Learn who your clients are and try to give them a great experience and sell them products they’ll be proud of. The difference isn’t the price you give, it is the relationship you have.

Change He’d Like To See
I would love to see the industry put more emphasis on technology. I find it incredible that this multibillion-dollar industry is so far behind on tech. There are so many inefficiencies in suppliers’ and distributors’ daily processes, and in communicating with each other, and I think it stems from lack of technology. I’d [also] like to see the younger generation get involved in leadership roles. Companies (and people in general) get stuck in the way things are because “this is how we have always done it.” I really believe with an industry as old as this it could benefit from new perspectives on how things are done.  


Meghan Kory, 28
Territory Manager
Hit Promotional Products

Meghan Kory graduated from college unsure about her career direction, but, following the advice of her father, supplier veteran Paul Kory, she sent her resume to several suppliers. CJ Schmidt, president of Hit, immediately responded. Kory flew to Tampa for an interview and came away with a job offer. She worked in customer service and inside sales at Hit for almost two years, then moved to a position in outside sales at supplier Admints & Zagabor. Her career came full circle when, less than two years later, Hit acquired Admints & Zagabor and she came back to her original employer as territory manager for five southeastern states.

Kory’s quick grasp of the industry and ability to build critical business relationships has made an impression on many—including David Shultz, vice president of industry service provider DistributorCentral. Shultz has worked with her as a customer, as an exhibitor at the Promotional Products Association of the Mid-South (PPAMS) trade show (Kory is a PPAMS volunteer leader in charge of the show) and as a colleague in regional board volunteer service. Shultz first met Kory at PPAI’s Leadership Development Workshop and spent two hours listening to Kory’s ideas about how to better the industry and regional associations. 

“She is a rare combination of salesmanship and intelligence, with a volunteerism mindset and an overall positive attitude,” says Shultz. “Meghan has blazed her own path and earned the respect of her customers, colleagues and industry peers, and has continued to add value to this industry in ways that were born from her own work ethic and desire to succeed rather than any doors that were opened by her father.” 

Her Inspiration
I have been very blessed to be surrounded by many mentors and friends who offer unconditional support. The people I keep close in my life—my family, friends and colleagues—are my true inspiration. I am also inspired daily by those I work with in our industry. I keep in constant communication with friends on each side of the business and have no hesitation to pick up the phone when I need advice.

Best Advice
Be a sponge. This industry is unlike any other and it takes some time to become accustomed to how it operates. I am a firm believer in reaching out and utilizing the resources available to help you grow. There are many people, programs and outlets to help those entering the world of promotional products. Volunteering for regional associations, participating in industry trade shows and attending educational sessions are a great way to build your network and tap into your resources. I have learned that if you live your business and immerse yourself in this world, this industry will become second nature to you and it will show in the way you work and operate.

Change She’d Like To See
I would like to see our industry work on bringing in the next generation of promotional professionals. I believe that we can work through our regionals to implement processes that will tap into the post-grad market and attract a new round of young, educated individuals who will bring a fresh perspective to the industry. I am also hoping for more uniformity in our order processes. Every company has their own method of sending in purchase orders to suppliers, whether it’s through some type of API, integration, email or fax. In turn, suppliers must configure a way to get each method entered into their system [and that can] cause transactional issues. Processes like PromoStandards will be influential in the next five years.


Ben Taylor, 35
Chief Marketing Officer

Following in his father’s footsteps at supplier BamBams was never Ben Taylor’s plan—and it took working at six other jobs before he joined the company in 2016. 

After earning a business and computer science degree from George Washington University, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for seven years and then worked in digital marketing for various corporations, including Gallup Consulting. His father, Dan Taylor, founded BamBams in Manassas, Virginia, in 2002 and the younger Taylor was eventually drawn in by the opportunities the company presented. “My dad has always been my hero,” he says. “He tried hard to teach me to never be outworked, but I wasn’t mature enough at the time. The Marine Corps helped me bridge the gap.”

During his short time in the family business, he’s been making things happen by infusing the business with practical marketing strategies and driving discussions about the value of content marketing, analytics and marketing in general. “Before Ben, BamBams was viewed as a very solid supplier of cost-effective noisemakers,” says nominator Bill Petrie, president of PromoCorner. “Since Ben joined the organization, he has crafted and executed a very well thought out marketing plan that has resulted in BamBams now being viewed as an integrated partner for custom sourcing for a wide variety of products, including knitwear and apparel.”

Petrie adds, “It is truly extraordinary for a son to build on the legacy of his father’s business without completely disregarding the accomplishments of the past. Ben has been able to navigate this very challenging situation with great aplomb.”

Most Difficult Challenge
Overcoming my ego. As a young man, I often thought I was the smartest person in the room, so I would just skate through things doing the bare minimum. I could have never been more wrong. It caused me to be dishonest with myself and others. The three biggest lessons I have learned the hard way in life are to listen first, keep my ego out of it and be transparent. 

The Next 24 Months
I still see myself here at BamBams in my same role. However, my goal is to finish my book on digital guerilla marketing and business development and have it published by July 2020.

Change He’d Like To See
I would love to see the industry bridge the gap between suppliers looking at each other as competition/enemies and really beginning to collaborate and share with each other. When I first joined this industry, I often asked why everyone holds their cards so close to the vest instead of working to improve supplier-side relationships and collaborate together. We’re an extremely fragmented industry. There is so much opportunity for all of us. We should be working together instead of against each other. Earlier this year, Adam Walterscheid of T-Shirt Tycoon and I started a program called CoLab—to bring other like-minded suppliers into the group to work with distributors to provide a true system of innovation and service so that all of us, together, can provide a greater level of creative services with a consultative approach.


Ashley Moore Fens, 34
Weyh Roberts & Associates/American Solutions for Business

Ashley Moore Fens got her first exposure to premiums during a class in her senior year at Radford University. After graduating in 2006 with a degree in media studies and a concentration in advertising, her job search turned up a temp job with distributor Weyh Roberts & Associates in Tysons Corner, Virginia. She took the job and spent the next 12 years learning everything she could as an account executive, researcher and manager. In April, she bought the business when the owner retired. 

“Ashley gained enough confidence to get out of her comfort zone and take on more risk than she once thought she could handle,” says nominator Justin Zavadil, president of American Solutions for Business. “She has worked incredibly hard to get where she is and is an impressive up-and-comer in our company and industry.”

Fens acknowledges her own efforts in building her career but gives substantial credit to her parents, who encouraged her, and to the company’s former owner, Donna Weyh Roberts, and her husband Brian. “They took me under their wings and really taught me the business,” says Fens. “It’s great having their support and advice to help guide me with making important decisions.”

Best Advice
Don’t be afraid. There is so much to learn in this industry. It is certainly overwhelming, but fun. Start small; learn who your key suppliers should be based on what you sell. Ask them for help. You are their client—they should be wowing you and making your job easier. Ask what their top five products are, get samples and ask for virtuals.

Be prepared. Always bring something to the table or phone conversation. Ask clients how you can make things easier for them. Sometimes you can win business just by fixing a “pain” or issue. Lean on others in the industry. And the biggest one I am guilty of, don’t be afraid to ask for the business.

Biggest Challenge
When there was talk about Donna’s retirement and they approached me to buy the business, I was caught off guard. But the more I thought about it, I thought, I could do this! Making the leap was a challenge, but so far everything has worked out well.  

Change She’d Like To See
I’d love to see the industry close the gap in getting hot retail-inspired products in our hands faster. I hate missing out on business because we don’t have a direct contact in our industry to produce the items that our clients see in retail. There appears to be a six to 12-month lag time.


Zack Ottenstein, 35
Senior Living, The Image Group 

After graduating at the top of his class from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Zack Ottenstein has enjoyed an unusual journey as a storyteller. First, he became a TV reporter for a major network and then an investment analyst for a public real estate company, where he helped develop the investment thesis and executed over $3 billion of transactions. 

Nominator Jon Levine, president of The Image Group, first met Ottenstein when he was handling marketing communications for the same public company. Levine saw something special in the young man and hired him a year and a half ago to lead the Holland, Ohio, distributor’s Senior Living Division. 

“Zack grew the business $750,000 in his first year and is on pace to add an additional $1.5 million in year two,” he says. “Few people have the impact in an organization our size so quickly. Most individuals take time to learn the industry, become familiar with the company and understand the systems required to maneuver our supplier network. Zack contributed from the moment he joined and continues to build on his knowledge every day.” Levine adds, “Zack has put forth a plan to add an additional $12 million over the next three years and has a pipeline three times that size. We have all the confidence in the world that Zack will meet his plan.”

Best Advice
Master the basics. As you grow and gain responsibility, you’ll need to be able to handle certain work efficiently. If you develop good habits and teach yourself to do things the right way, it will pay off for the rest of your career. Don’t take shortcuts for short-term gain. Invest in yourself by building a great foundation for future success.

Find mentors and a personal board of advisors. There are so many generous people who are willing to share their experiences. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have a handful of mentors who play a significant role in my life. And I now relish the opportunity to pay it forward with a few people that I’ve started to mentor.  

Never stop learning. 

To Relax And Recharge
I practice yoga four times a week. It helps me push through long days and keep calm during fire drills. It makes me better. I’d recommend that every person looking to advance in their career commit to some sort of physical activity. 

Change He’d Like To See
I want to see the industry invest the time, energy and resources necessary to recruit top talent from diverse backgrounds. There’s a great deal of change coming. We aren’t only competing with the macro factors that are well covered by PPB, we’re also competing with the things that we don’t know about today. To win, we need great thinkers and problem solvers. Our clients will choose to work with us because we have the ability to innovate. If we lack these skills, they’ll look elsewhere, and they may never look back.


Robert Russell, 32
Owner and CEO
Strike Promo  

Strike Promo entered the promotional products industry in 2015 with a single item, the BOLT LED Wristband. Today the company sells 16 LED items from wristbands and keychains to glow sticks and flashlights. “Rob’s idea for Strike Promo’s next great product is generally in the works before the last new product has been fully stocked,” says nominator and employee Megan Salm. “Clients, employees and especially his business partner are always eager to see what new designs and products Rob is preparing to launch.” 

Russell’s passion for promotional products started in college when he worked tournament operations for a PGA event and interned at Major League Baseball’s Manhattan front office where he spent the summer working on sponsor contracts for the All-Star Game. After college, he worked as a season ticket sales account exec where he saw the effect great promotions could have on fans. Later, he began designing products, and manufacturing, sourcing and consulting for inventors to bring their ideas to fruition. One day a friend, now his business partner, showed him an LED wristband he had designed and asked if Russell would run a promo company to sell it. The pair spent two years building custom lasers and opened the Wilmette, Illinois, supplier three years ago. 

Using sheer creativity, intellect and plenty of hustle, Russell has taken one winning product and built a champion of a business. 

Biggest Challenge
I think the hardest thing has been finding a balance between ambition and controllable growth. There’s a part of me that is eager to fully develop and launch every new idea coming out of our think tank. I want to expand our product line, our decoration capabilities, our stock colors—you name it. I’m the kind of person who gets out of bed in the middle of the night to sketch a product idea or make notes so I remember it in the morning. I desperately want to show the world exactly what we are capable of creatively, but at the same time, there is something far more important at stake—providing the best customer service possible. Keeping our feet under us has and always will be my No. 1 priority, and I’m immensely proud of the job my staff does.

Best Advice
Be calculated. In business, acting in a calculated manner is simply understanding that for every possible action, there are any number of potential outcomes. If we accept that as fact, then we also must conclude that each potential outcome is a function of our own actions. So, if the last two concepts hold true, then to most effectively elicit our desired outcome, we need to understand the “why”—who we are talking to, and where they are coming from. Seek first to understand your customer, and together you will uncover opportunities that otherwise may have never been unearthed.

Change He’d Like To See
I’m a big proponent of challenging the status quo and finding new or better ways to accomplish a goal. I love getting out of my booth and walking around shows to meet and congratulate suppliers who are doing things I’ve never seen before. Over the past year or two I’ve seen more innovation within the industry, specifically from young, creative minds. I’ve been the new guy, with a brand-new product, and I know exactly how challenging it can be. I’d love to see some sort of mentor system available to help newcomers. There are brilliant minds on both sides of the industry [and we can] help develop these innovative, passionate individuals and keep them around to see what amazing things they will bring to the promo market next.


Sarah Smith, 26
Senior Account Executive
Pop! Promos

Sarah Smith’s take-charge resourcefulness and go-getter style have made her a standout at supplier Pop! Promos since she joined the company in 2015. Those characteristics combined with a perpetually upbeat attitude have won her numerous fans among clients and coworkers. But it was a life-altering car accident on Christmas Eve in 2014 that prompted her to focus on what was really important in life—including working at a job she loved. At the time, Smith was selling copy machines in Westchester, New York, after graduating the previous May. It paid the bills, but she wasn’t happy there. After the accident, she moved back to the family home in New Jersey for several months to heal and undergo therapy. Once back on her feet, returning to copier sales was out of the question. Her brother’s friend told her about a sales support position at Pop! Promos in Philadelphia, and with a degree in marketing, she interviewed and got the job. “Sometimes it takes a tough moment to realize what matters in life and I am so thankful for it,” Smith says.

“She gets it and she delivers,” says Ashley Salvi, a client at Ward Promotional Marketing and one of four nominators. 

Another client and nominator, Kate Poulson, account director at Canary Marketing LLC, remembers a time when a large order of sunglasses was delayed in customs. “She kept me updated on the situation and did everything in her power to get them released--which they were,” she says. “They made my customer’s in-hands date with a day to spare. She is a rock star!” Another nominator, company president Sterling Wilson adds, “She’s 26 years old and wrote over $1.5 million in sales last year—a spectacular start.”

Best Advice
It’s okay to not have an answer right away. I struggle with always feeling like I need to have the answer immediately and it always comes back to bite me. If you don’t understand something or don’t feel confident providing someone with information, ask for help. This will help you seem more educated and confident, and the people who you are working with will appreciate it so much more.

Next 24 Months
I hope to help those working under me to have fully developed books of business and move into management-type of roles.

Change She’d Like To See
As decision makers, we are all trying to target the Millennial generation, and we have a responsibility to adjust our products and selling strategies to appeal to this audience. I can’t wait to see the industry evolve with some fresh faces and ideas. Hopefully I’m still relevant!


Dustin Wicks, 37
Director of Business Development
The Vernon Company

Dustin Wicks started his career in computer software before making the unlikely move to promotional products. After graduating college, he joined a software startup and helped build it into a viable operation before selling a portion of the business. Ready to move on, and with an uncle in the promotional products business, in 2007 he went to work selling calendars for supplier Norwood, which was eventually acquired by BIC Graphic. A year and a half ago, he joined distributor The Vernon Company in Newton, Iowa.

“We have given him the responsibility to work closely with our best account executives as well as our best customers and suppliers,” says nominator Dave Regan, MAS, Vernon’s director of sales. “He has done a terrific job in a very short period of time. No stage is too big or small. He is a leader and a team player who is able to pull people together to find common goals and then work to develop and execute plans to get the goals accomplished.”

Regan says Wicks has also been charged with looking at all aspects of the 116-year-old family business. “He is not shy about constructively criticizing things that don’t look right,” adds Regan. “And, he is equally adept at offering up solutions to improve the very processes he criticized. Many people are good at one or the other, but it is a special person who can do both and bring people together in the process.”

His Inspiration
Anybody with passion for what they do inspires me. Early on in my career, I was focused on making as much money as possible, but I met a professor in school who was responsible for my decision to focus on business. He told me that he became a professor after leaving a tech company making more money than most would see in their lifetime because he didn’t have passion for the work. He wanted to help others achieve their own version of success—something that inspires me to this day.

Best Advice
My best advice was given to me in a speech we received in school from a former CEO. “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls. You name the balls work, family, health, friends and spirit. You’ll eventually understand that work is a rubber ball—if you drop it, it’ll bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends and spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they’ll be permanently damaged or even shattered. Always strive for balance in your life.”

Change He’d Like To See
Buyers will continue to become more demanding as buying processes outside of our industry continue to become easier. We’ll need to mimic this change and work to increase efficiencies and reduce redundancies through the ordering process of the supply chain. Blockchain and other decentralized ledgers, along with machine learning, will become necessary tools of implementation, and those that adopt these changes will dominate the promotional landscape.


Joshua White, 36
General Counsel and  SVP Strategic Partnerships

Joshua White was working as an attorney in private practice and counted Los Angeles-based BAMKO among his clients when President Phil Koosed recruited him to join the company in 2013. Today, he spearheads the distributor’s strategic growth and brand strategy initiatives focused on the singular goal of turning BAMKO into the best distributor in the industry. 

White knows what’s required to achieve big goals—seven years ago he was 100 pounds heavier than he is today and he set his mind on making a dramatic change. “By focusing on what was simple but hard to do, I was eventually able to overcome my own self-imposed limitations and transform my body and my life. That experience completely changed my perspective on the ability that I have to shape my own destiny,” he says.

His nominator, Stephanie Bass, BAMKO’s senior manager, global human resources, says, “What impresses me most about Josh is a relentlessly positive attitude that places any goal within his grasp.”

White leads BAMKO’s mergers and acquisitions efforts, and in a brief two-year window the distributor has made major headlines. In 2016, it was acquired by the publicly traded supplier and uniform manufacturer Superior Uniform Group in a $15.8 million cash deal. A year later BAMKO capitalized on its backing by Superior to complete two acquisitions of its own: Los Angeles-based Public Identity and Chicago-based Tangerine Promotions.

“BAMKO continues to set out new challenges for Josh, and he continues to conquer them, no matter how audacious,” adds Bass. “The common theme to all of those successes has been hard work, persistence and an irrepressibly positive attitude that embraces all challenges that come his way.”

Best Advice
Do not try to substitute complexity for hard work. Most things worth having are actually pretty simple, but they require hard work. The combination of positivity, persistence, focus, and effort applied over a long enough period of time are almost always enough to accomplish anything you set your sights on.

The Next 24 Months
BAMKO is going to become the best distributor in the promotional products industry. I intend to play a significant role in helping make that happen. We are building the industry’s best company by attracting the best talent, developing the best suite of core competencies, and working tirelessly to cultivate an environment where individuals can grow into the very best versions of themselves.

Change He’d Like To See
I would like to see a paradigm shift in how our industry thinks about what we do. Our industry’s myopic product-specific focus fails to adequately convey the value we can bring to our customers. We should see ourselves as brand builders, unlocking the power in brands. Promotional products are the means by which we build brands, foster connection and inspire action. Promotional products are a tool, the means by which we accomplish those ends. I’d like to see the industry shift its perspective in that direction.


Jason  Lucash, 34 and Mike  Szymczak, 35

Business partners Jason Lucash and Mike Szymczak opened supplier Origaudio in 2009 with little experience but with a clear mission and plenty of determination. Lucash had previously worked in collegiate and promotional marketing for backpack company Jansport. He says he was buying millions of dollars of promo items from the promotional products industry but was extremely aggravated with the process. “So, I decided to start my own company in this industry and disrupt it,” he says. 

Szymczak was working for a boutique experiential marketing agency in Chicago and running national campaigns for NAPA and MillerCoors. “The founding of Origaudio was a no-brainer segue into this industry,” he says. “Origaudio’s mission was to create not only a top-notch product offering, but also to eradicate a lot of the surcharges and ease-of-ordering hurdles that existed. I feel since entering the industry that we have set new standards for the supplier side.” 

The duo initially made a name for themselves by appearing on Shark Tank in 2009 to introduce the Fold ‘N’ Play Recycled Speakers and the Rock-ItTM 3.0 Vibration Speaker, and they struck a $150,000 deal with shark Robert Herjavek.

“Jason and Mike are challenging the norms of an industry that no one thought was shakable,” says nominator Brookelynn Graditi, sales and marketing coordinator at Origaudio. “If it’s new, different and a little bit scary—they’re going to try it.” 

This year, they launched backpacks that are cut and sewn in California with a 72-hour turnaround time, and their fun and different FlyingtonTM Selfie Drone was a hit at The PPAI Expo. “Every year, the focus is on elevating the business,” she adds.

Lucash: I’m inspired by the constant need to innovate and develop amazing products for the promo industry. I feel like the industry has really embraced Origaudio for being the leader in terms of innovation and for constantly pushing the limits of the industry. I’m inspired by being able to give distributors amazing tools and products in order for them to take their business, just like ours, to the next level.
Szymczak: Creativity inspires me. It can come across various mediums: advertising, comedy, technology, art and design. Whenever I experience and recognize superior creativity, it inspires me to get my own creative juices flowing.

The Next 24 Months
Lucash: I’d really like to see even more growth here at Origaudio. We’re in the process of adding key leadership personnel to help with the company’s growth trajectory. I’m constantly working on new product development, creative, sales and marketing for the company, but I’d love to see additional people come in to help fuel the growth. Also, I’d like to continue on the path of domination we’ve had within the industry.
Szymczak: I hope to interrupt at least two more product categories and significantly contribute to the growth of Origaudio domestically and on an international level. We still have such a high ceiling of potential to achieve, and we keep dangling new carrots in front of ourselves.  

Best Advice
Lucash: Don’t take yourself seriously, but take your business very seriously. I live by this motto that I learned early on from my mentor, Skip Yowell, founder of Jansport.
Szymczak: Never give up. You are going to hear “no’” nine times for every “yes” you get. You cannot allow that to get you discouraged; you have to keep firing away. When failures and setbacks do occur, how you take your next step is what truly defines you and will show your true colors.

Change They’d Like To See
Lucash: Over the next five years I would love to see the industry become more technologically advanced and not so old-school. I like to think we’re pushing the limits of advancing the industry, but it would be phenomenal to see other suppliers doing the same. Whether it’s streamlined ordering, sales strategy or a more robust way of doing business, this industry needs major change, and as long as I’m in it I’m going to continue to make that a priority, just as I always have—to change it for the better and advance it for the future.
Szymczak: Eliminate a lot of the unnecessary waste that occurs from the industry. Whether that comes in the form of overruns in China that end up in a landfill, over-ordering of cheap giveaways that recipients truly do not want and throw away immediately, reducing physical paper catalogs or various other examples that affect our environment.


Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.