At first, Michael Butler didn’t know what he wanted to do with his career, so he decided to go to Tulane University in New Orleans.

“I went to the best golf school in the south that had a golf team I could qualify for. I thought, ‘Let’s do this for a while,’” Butler says. “But then, I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional golfer.” 

Originally from Cleveland, Butler left the green for business school at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “I wanted to run a small business that allowed me to be entrepreneurial. That was important to me,” Butler says. 

After graduating, Butler went back home to Cleveland and worked for a developer. Two years later, he left to work for a property and casualty insurance brokerage firm. Butler says, “I developed sales skills and became a partner in that firm. Eventually, we sold the agency, and I began a search for a small business to buy where I could use my skills.” 

Butler says he was always preparing himself to become a business owner one day. “That was more important to me than how much money I made,” he says. “It was really [about] getting the experience and picking the brains of people who I thought were really smart.”

After a two-year search, he found his business. “I found it in the business opportunity section of The Wall Street Journal on a Thursday. That was before the internet,” says Butler. 

There was a small distributorship for sale in Arizona, and—wouldn’t you know it—they were manufacturing and selling gold-plated golf putters. “I said to myself, ‘With my background in the golf world, I should be able to sell gold‐plated golf putters to companies for promotional purposes,” Butler says. 

Since 1990, Butler has led Sutter’s Mill Specialties, which was acquired by distributor BAMKO in December. Keeping its distinct company name and brand through the acquisition, today Sutter’s Mill employs 130 people. “I was attracted to the industry because the people I met were very entrepreneurial,” Butler says.

Throughout his career, Butler says he’s seen how important promotional products are to companies. “They reflect the image and culture of the company to both its employees and customers,” he says. 

Employees work in the decorating section of the Sutter’s Mill Specialties’ facility. Above, right: An operator positions a glassware item to be engraved.

PPB spoke with Butler to learn more about the acquisition, and how Sutter’s Mill creates solutions for its clients. 

Becoming a part of BAMKO will… cement the legacy we’ve built here at Sutter’s Mill. We’ve been approached by a lot of folks over the years interested in acquiring our business, but none come close to possessing the culture, capabilities or energy that the BAMKO team is able to infuse into our business. 

We see where the direction of our industry is headed and BAMKO has proven that it is at the forefront of that change, which is very clearly transforming the future of branded merchandise. While the business side and growth opportunities are so exciting, what excites me most is the opportunity to join forces with such a talented, hard-working and high-character leadership team.

The future is extremely bright here at Sutter’s Mill, and I cannot wait to see how we shape that future together.

My clients’ biggest problem right now… is getting their projects completed with quality products on time. To do that, you must have inventory, quality decorating and great communication. The more control you have over those [factors], the better. 

We built our company different than other normal distributors. I keep a significant amount of inventory, and I have decorating machines here. We’ve done that from the very start. By doing it ourselves, we are not dependent on others.

We have our own graphics, decorating and shipping. We do everything here. If somebody calls me on a Wednesday, needing 500 pens by Friday, I can get that done. I don’t need to call into the industry. I just pull them out of my inventory, mark them and send them out. For us, the last year played right into our strengths. 

We connect with our clients by… sending samples out to prospective customers. But we send high-quality samples that are decorated with their logo on it. We pre-qualify them so that our conversion percentage is better than just doing a mass campaign.

We first try to win their confidence by doing a successful project. After that, we start asking questions about what else we can do for them and sharing our abilities. But we only do this after we’ve had success with them as opposed to just trying to convince them without ever doing business with us. 

We also go to trade shows. I go to industry trade shows where I might be the only promotional products company there. It could be a power generation show and we’ll go. The exhibitors and attendees are walking down the aisle, saying, ‘Wow, we could use these items.’ I also have proprietary products, so it’s not like they can go home and get our [products somewhere else].

Locally, we have people visit our facility because we are doing the work on the product here. When they see the product being decorated, they think that’s cool and like that it’s not being outsourced. Whenever possible, we have people visit. 

My advice is… never reach out to a customer unless you have something that will benefit them. The worse thing you can do is call them and not talk about anything, just check in. They’re not going to take your next call if all you say is, ‘How are things going?’

Many people get nervous when they feel like their relationship is waning or going in the wrong direction, and they’ll just call. But if you call them with something worthwhile, they’ll answer you next time. When things are going the wrong way, make sure you call with something that will benefit their company. 

My favorite product is… our ceramic mugs. You can find our ceramic mugs in just about every college bookstore in the country. We have different colors, and we have solid and speckle options. We laser engrave the logos. That process is very complimentary to the quality of the ceramics. 

A few years ago, we created a designer series with it. It’s been very popular because people will buy six of them and put them in their kitchen. We’ve expanded the line and we have new versions for this year. It’s also popular for corporate because people want to give away something that’s going to be used and a constant reminder.  

This 16-ounce layered ceramic mug is an eye-catcher thanks to the different shades of reactive color clay, providing the ideal background for your client’s custom-engraved brand and logo. This dishwasher-safe mug is an excellent gift for any coffee or tea lover.

Sutter Mill’s Specialties  /


Valdez is an associate editor at PPAI.