The trouble with publishing any kind of list is that someone is inevitably going to be disappointed.

I felt it earlier this year after being told a contact from PCNA (PPAI 113079, Platinum) had inquired about why the company was left off PPAI Media’s #Online18 list of standout organizations on social media.

And I’ll feel it again when the questions come from suppliers who slipped in this year’s PPAI 100 ranking while seeing the same PCNA jump from No. 7 to No. 3. It’s tops among all hard goods suppliers, despite its revenue being down more than $160 million from 2022 to 2023.The difference is found in the strength of PCNA’s sales growth percentage over the specific three-year period that PPAI 100 considers.

Its revenue was up 5% from 2019 to 2022, not overwhelming compared to many competitors, which cost it points in the Growth category last year. Because PCNA didn’t chase PPE products in 2020 and 2021, many other suppliers grew at a faster rate.

But from the roller coaster that was 2020 up through 2023, sales jumped 34% at PCNA, and it is riding high in Year 2 of this measure of industry leadership, which counts revenue growth over three years as the most important factor second only to the previous year’s total sales. On the flip side, some companies who benefitted from a strong 2019-2022 growth window in the first PPAI 100 came back to Earth this year.

As for the #Online18 thing, PCNA’s argument – a strong one – would be that the key function of social media for any company is to bring people to its website and convert sales. And, true enough, the supplier has just picked up new PPAI 100 High Marks this year in the Online Presence category, which counts a website’s pageviews. Stack that atop its five other High Marks, rewarded for 2023 Revenue, Growth, Professional Development, Responsibility and Innovation.

It’s hard to say that the company’s social media approach is failing in any way. But the #Online18 is curated from past winners and the companies or colleagues that they and other marketing experts from the industry recommend. The simple fact is that no one nominated PCNA. And when looking at its channels, this isn’t hard to believe. That list tends to reward promo brands’ quirks, their personalities and a firm’s willingness to put itself out there and lower its guard.

That’s just not PCNA. To my mind, it has always been something of a Stepford supplier. It is manicured in its presentation and perfect in its communication, a polished but faceless corporate monolith.

Here I am, though, sitting at the same table as CEO Neil Ringel, Chief Revenue Officer Holly Brown and Global Chief Merchandising Officer Liz Haesler. They all have faces, and those faces even have smiles on them. These are real people, and in talking to them, one quickly realizes that they care very much about other people, too. Their strategies are built not only with sales in mind, or to grind out margin for their private equity owner, but to serve their employees, their distributor customers, their communities and people in need around the world.

The concept of collaboration (from left to right): Chief Revenue Officer Holly Brown, CEO Neil Ringel and Global Chief Merchandising Officer Liz Haesler.

There’s a cultural reason PCNA is an industry leader on sustainability and efficiency, and why it is so enduringly successful. It’s the same reason, I think, it has developed this thick corporate veneer:

It’s not about PCNA – it’s about what PCNA can do for others.

Inspiring Pride

In advance of my mid-April trip to company headquarters in rural western Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes outside Pittsburgh, I’m sent every piece of background information and detail one could ask for, all neatly organized. The day of my visit is meticulously scheduled by PCNA’s staff.

We have a long interview portion to start, and then Executive Vice President of Operations Walt McMann leads a tour of two production facilities in the same industrial park, with several checkpoints along the way to show off this recycling initiative or that robot that increases efficiency on a particular process. Compared to many other supplier floors, it truly is impressive in its organization and cleanliness. I’m struck by how comfortable and quiet it is, like an open floor plan office that happens to have decoration machines instead of computers.

In true PCNA fashion, it’s all going exactly to script. Finally, we start to head back to the conference room where the day began, but not before I’m offered a drink of water. A tumbler is pulled from a breakroom cabinet, and I’m invited to fill it in one of those fountains with a digital counter displaying how many plastic bottles it has saved: 1,597.

PCNA's headquarters in western Pennsylvania was originally the home of supplier Leed's, which merged with Europe's PF Concept in 2005. Four years later, after the acquisition of Bullet Line and JournalBooks, the company began going to market as PCNA. 

That doesn’t seem like a high number until I realize that even in the middle of the week, this entire floor of office space sits almost empty. With more employees now working around the country, and local staffers only in office on a hybrid schedule, this floor isn’t as busy as it once was. And yet they’ve installed the new fountains anyway and done away with plastic bottles for guests.

On the mug is a PCNA logo and the firm's newish tagline: Inspiring Pride.

Clearly the foundation of PCNA’s branding around its flagship responsibility initiative, ProudPath, this tagline begs a question. How did it all come about?

Oh!” Ringel says when I bring it up. “Thanks for asking.”

Part of an overall rebranding, the new motto came after Ringel was tapped to lead Polyconcept, parent of the North American division, and PF Concept in Europe, in 2019. He was fresh off a 23-year run at the office supplies giant Staples, where he led massive sales forces, including for the promotional products division. Stepping into the new role, he found 12 corporate values displayed everywhere on signs. No one could recite them, he says, so five new values were carved out:

  • Delight Customers
  • Work Smart
  • Think Team
  • Own It
  • Say It Like It Is

“And we said, ‘As a company, why do we exist?’ It can’t just be to make money,” he says. “We ultimately said it’s what our products do. They’re either used internally or externally to create some level of pride. And we thought, what should it do? It should inspire.”

       READ MORE: See the full 2024 PPAI 100 supplier rankings.

Walking through facilities, Ringel saw products being decorated for brands like Microsoft and Amazon. Eventually, he thought, one of these may end up on Jeff Bezos’s desk. “He’s the richest guy in the world. So take pride in your work; you never know who is going to see it,” Ringel says. “Inspiring Pride is really what we wanted the industry to understand that we were trying to help them do.”

In the process, Ringel abbreviated the name Polyconcept North America because of negative connotations with Poly – it could mean many, for instance, or be associated with polymers (the chemical compounds that make up plastic). It didn’t tell the sustainability story that the company has developed into an ethos.

A refresh was in order.

Purpose And Profit

When Ringel first arrived, the company sold 19 products that it called eco-friendly. It now sells over 600 through the ProudPath channel, in the meantime reducing its overall product offering to eliminate items it considers likely to be thrown away.

PCNA is, unsurprisingly, proud of the results: over 35 million plastic bottles upcycled, more than 2 million pounds of cotton recycled, 6 million+ trees planted, and more results on the way. The company is striving to boost its EcoVadis rating from Silver to Gold in 2024 and aims for zero waste at the New Kensington, Pennsylvania, facility by 2025.

Some of the best-selling retail brands in the lineup are attached to give-back causes, like Lauren Bush Lauren’s FEED bags. Printed inside each bag as a reminder of its impact is the number of meals donated to schoolchildren thanks to the purchase. Often, these donated meals are their only food for the day.

Products from the ProudPath catalog make up 26% of PCNA’s overall sales so far in 2024, and the number is growing.

In marketing materials, PCNA calls this “maintaining the balance between purpose and profit.” It’s owed in large part to the collaboration between the company’s two most senior women, Brown and Haesler, and their teams.

Haesler was Ringel’s first hire after taking the job. The two had worked together at Staples in the early 2010s, and he knew she was up to the task of curating PCNA’s offerings.

Haesler set about not only reducing the product count with a new focus on sustainability, but also bringing more retail brands to the line. She gives her team credit for the improvements, calling them “zealots” of eco progress.

The company has learned the importance of storytelling about its ProudPath products. An end user receiving a bag or piece of drinkware may not know that the product is fully recycled unless a tag or label tells them. PCNA has learned to celebrate those features on the product and trumpet it internally. The progress would not be so impressive if Brown’s teams didn’t buy in, making sure that sustainability sells. She and Haesler speak every day, and both have been encouraged by the increasing interest of industry distributors.

“They’re asking us about it,” Brown says. “They’re asking us about PFAS. They’re asking us about bluesign certification. There is some movement. Not with everyone, but with some pretty significant players. Their feedback is obviously incredibly important to us. You’re starting to see the momentum now, which honestly was not there a few years ago at all. I mean at all.”

In 2019, sustainable products represented under 1% of PCNA’s revenue. “I’ll never forget someone said to me, ‘Come back and talk to me when you have a real business,’” Haesler says. “The reason why that’s happened is because the whole company is involved. It’s the power that PCNA brings to the table. The sales team, they are all in and excited. Our marketing efforts have been exceptional.”

Brown arrived in 2021 following two years at Honeywell, and two years before that at Stanley Black & Decker. Ringel says she spends more time talking to customers than anyone else in the organization, which allows PCNA to serve distributors with platforms and tools that simplify things. Brown’s wins include Givee Select, the PCNA platform for online gifting and ecommerce stores that offers print-on-demand powered personalization. Her fingerprints are also on the recently announced loyalty and rewards program PCNA+, which is aimed at providing small and medium distributors a suite of tools and resources designed to accelerate their business growth.

“She cares about the customer,” Ringel says of Brown. “When we’re around a table as a leadership team, she’s the voice of the customer. Liz will be the one who has to provide the right products. Holly’s job is to make sure that our sales team is armed and engaged to meet the customer’s changing needs, whether that be ProudPath, or whether that be data or just someone to answer the phone faster. Her job is to make sure that we’re dialed into what the community wants and needs.”

If Brown represents the customer, Ringel seems more attuned to the needs of employees than most CEOs.

‘It Just Makes You Feel Good’

When he arrived in 2019, one of the first things Ringel noticed is that the firm was not paying its employees well. He’s focused efforts on changing that. Digitization has led PCNA to reduce its head count in the past five years, but the company has converted that savings into extra money for salaries, aimed at retention. Ringel says that any production employee who wants a raise is able to get one as part of a Pay For Skills program that provides the opportunity for upskilling.

Other perks include an employee assistance program – the PCNA Cares Share Fund – for times of financial hardship, English as a Second Language training in the Miami facility and more.

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The company has made inclusion core to its behavior, too. It has a second chance hiring program to support people who have been incarcerated and has welcomed 15 immigrants from Afghanistan to its factory ranks. There refugees were displaced when the U.S. withdrew from the country three years ago, leaving the Taliban to resume power. Working at PCNA gives these new members of the community a chance to establish themselves.

“It just makes you feel good,” Ringel says.

From all accounts, the CEO is interested enough in the details to dive in and understand things like the chemistry of sustainability, but he also has the touch to allow employees to lead in their areas of specialty without being too hands-on. Nick McCulloch, PCNA’s director of ESG, describes a recent meeting among himself, Ringel, Haesler and a 4imprint contingent that included Suzanne Worwood, the distributor’s senior vice president of merchandising and supply chain, who wanted to get into the deepest of sustainability conversations. Ringel barely spoke, McCulloch says, instead giving the expert the chance to lead the discussion for PCNA.

McCulloch credits Ringel for driving the sustainability initiatives. “For a CEO, it is about recognition of the fact that sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have,” McCulloch says.

In addition to the likes of Haesler, Brown, McMann and McCulloch, Ringel also collaborates closely with Ralf Oster, CEO of PF Concept, PCNA’s sister organization based in the Netherlands. Given Europe’s increased emphasis on sustainability, both culturally and through legislation, having a partner in PF Concept creates the advantage of foresight on this continent.

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“By exchanging experiences and ideas, we’re not only improving our own practices but also pushing the industry forward as a whole,” Oster says. “Collaboration like this shows the power of sharing knowledge and resources across borders. … While our operational environments may differ, our overarching commitment to sustainability and leadership remains unwavering.”

Whereas PCNA is angling toward a Gold EcoVadis rating with future improvements, PF Concept is already Platinum – the highest possible rating.

“They by far have led the way for us as a company,” Ringel says. “Frankly, they were inspiration in us doing what we did here in North America.”

Leading The Way

During the interview with PCNA leadership, I express admiration for the branding thought that went into the development of ProudPath. The name itself tells the story that the company is on a journey. On responsibility, things are in better shape than they were five years ago, and they’ll surely be better tomorrow with continued focus.

There is no end point to the progress that can be made.

Maybe most encouraging for the overall prospects of the promotional products market is that a company like PCNA – one that is a corporate behemoth and does have an equity partner that expects profitability and growth – is willing to deal with intermediate setbacks for the greater long-term good. Did PCNA’s sales drop from 2022 to 2023 because distributors and their customers weren’t fully ready for a product lineup that is more focused on being better for the planet? PCNA certainly wouldn’t admit that, but we all know there is such a thing in business as being early.

Ringel gives an example of plush toys, which PCNA has removed from its line because the stuffing inside does not align with sustainability goals. He’s comfortable with sacrificing those orders to other suppliers. This takes some getting used to for a sales department, Brown admits.

“Of course it’s hard,” she says. “But we have so much to offer.”

No one in this business or any other is seeking to be a martyr. But the industry – in fact, the planet – cannot make the necessary progress on responsibility fronts without sacrifice.

We must choose to lead.

Ellis is the publisher and editor-in-chief of PPAI Media.