Carol Aastad, MAS, is as good an example as any to prove that it’s not about when or where you start, it’s about where you end up.

Compared to the majority of people in in the PPAI Hall of Fame, Aastad got a late start in the industry. In some ways a product of her time, she spent the 1970s as a stay-at-home mother with a college degree. She was bright and enthusiastic with a knack for the organizational leadership aspects of her various volunteering groups.

She was over 40 before she began working in the promo world in 1980, and nearly 45 before starting her own company. That company would grow from a small fish in a small pond to a successful business that navigated mergers before becoming part of one of the biggest distributorships in the industry, with Aastad driving the ship for the entire journey.

That same journey led her to chair numerous boards and committees and receive plenty of recognition, including her 2023 induction into the PPAI Hall of Fame. Some people in this industry – in any industry – can look at their careers at 35 and wonder if they should be further along, having spent a decade or more in the business. At that age, Aastad was still more than five years away from getting started. But she would eventually change the industry.

A Familiar Tool 

Aastad wouldn’t need an explainer on the role and value of promotional products when she ventured into business.

Her father worked in marketing for an oil company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Aastad was young, and one of his secret weapons was promotional products, at that time still referred to as advertising specialties. Aastad remembers umbrellas, scarves and coffee urns with her father’s oil company logo prominently featured.

“He used a little Swiss Army knife, and it was the hit,” Aastad says. “We called it his little DX [the name of his company] knives. They were so popular.”

The strategy was so successful that when he retired, he and his wife opened their own small distributorship, with many of his former contacts in the oil industry serving as his clients. It was a mom-and-pop shop run by Aastad’s literal mom and pop out of their home.

A few years later, when Aastad’s son, Scott, was about to graduate, her father recruited her to the business. One of his selling points was that 7% of distributors were women, a paltry number by today’s standards, but a sign of progress, he argued, that the door was opening for her.

So, in 1980, Aastad joined her parents’ company, Ben Davis Advertising, which was based out of Oklahoma. She remained where she lived in the northeast and built a client base in that region.

A Growing Fish In A Growing Pond

In 1984, Aastad founded her own distributorship, Harlan-Davis, Inc. which she presided over. She was a natural. Wilmington, Delaware, near the company’s base, had plenty of large corporations with big budgets that headquartered in or near the city. Aastad capitalized on that by convincing each one to use their marketing dollars on promotional products.

It was a pre-digital era, and all Aastad needed was an opportunity to sit down in an office with a potential client and a sample product, and the story usually played out the same way.

“The thing that I loved the most [about the industry] was meeting my clients and sitting with them in their office,” Aastad says. “The joy I got out of coming up with a creative idea that would meet the customer’s needs, and then see their eyes sparkle when they would see the coffee mug or the shirt or the product with their logo on it.”

After a decade of growth and steady business, Harlan-Davis, Inc. merged with the larger Forrester-Smith, and Aastad became the VP and general manager in 1995. Another decade of success with Forrester-Smith led to the final step: merging with Geiger, one of the industry’s largest distributors.

Years into a career that had already started late in life, Aastad was division manager for one of the most recognizable names in promotional products. Her rise was an achievement by any standard.

“Coming from the era that I was in when I was a young college graduate, where women weren’t supposed to work and not working until my oldest son was ready to graduate, I was in my 40s already before I started a career,” Aastad says. “It just didn’t seem possible that I would be both a stay-at-home mom and a career woman for 29 years.”

A Legacy In Promo

Merging with larger companies opened opportunities for Aastad to be part of the industry’s various boards and committees, to which she committed countless hours, helping individuals and pushing the promo world forward. She was the PPAI Board chair from 2004-2005.

“I never believed that I would have been honored like that to have been chosen chair,” Aastad says. “I not only enjoyed it, I thrived on it.”

Geiger president and CEO Jo-an Lantz, one of many esteemed industry leaders who nominated Aastad with personal letters, remembers joining three other women to bring the idea of the PPAI’s Women’s Leadership Conference to Aastad in 2004. Aastad delivered on the idea the very next year, and it’s happened annually since.

“Thousands of women have participated,” Lantz says. “I believe it has contributed, along with other factors, to so many women becoming chair of PPAI.”

Along with a multitude of roles, titles, accomplishments and boards and committees that she has served on, Aastad won the 2009 PPAI Distinguished Service award, the 2009 PPAI Woman of Achievement award and the 2016 PPAI Fellow Recognition award, topped off by her 2023 induction into the PPAI Hall of Fame.

“I knew all these stalwarts in the industry who had been in the Hall of Fame, and I held them in such high esteem,” Aastad says, “and to think that I could stand next to them and be a Hall of Famer is just almost indescribable.”

Three years after her company joined Geiger and Aastad got the opportunity to thrive as a big fish in a big pond, it was time for her to retire in 2009. She had done everything she could do in promotional products, more than anyone would have asked.

“This industry has been such a joy for me,” she says.

Forever Chairing Boards

After volunteering countless hours of her promotional products career to chairing industry boards of all kinds, you’d think that retirement might have opened a lot of free time for Carol Aastad.

“Interestingly, I have been still chairing boards,” Aastad says. “All my life I have been a volunteer, since the day I was a Girl Scout.”

A few boards she has chaired include:

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA): Advocating on behalf of foster children to find permanent homes.

Milagro House: Focusing specifically on mothers who live in poverty as members of marginalized communities.

A Memory Care Center campaign: Aastad is fundraising to build a facility that addresses dementia in the retirement community where she resides.