Some say you don’t truly know the promotional products industry until you’ve attended The PPAI Expo in Las Vegas for the first time. When alphabroder president and CEO Dan Pantano came into the promo world a decade ago, he took in the event during his first week on the job.

Talk about a crash course.

“It was a way to truly get connected in the industry and start to build relationships,” says Pantano, who is now halfway through his first year on the PPAI Board of Directors.

At the time, Pantano had already built up a prominent career in the healthcare industry, serving as president at companies such as McKesson and ThermoFisher Scientific. While alphabroder is one of the behemoths of our industry, the supplier has grown considerably under Pantano’s leadership. The companies he had worked at previously were massive, on a different scale than even alphabroder.

Entering promo was a pivot for Pantano, one that meant leaving a good career. But while a presidential role at a large healthcare company can mean a lot of responsibility, the odd sort of dynamics that make healthcare both complicated and rigid in different ways means that it didn’t always come with what felt like a lot of creative influence.

At alphabroder, and in promo, Pantano has seen innovative decision-making affect companies and people in big ways. Now, he’s taken that responsibility and impact to PPAI, having been elected to the Board of Directors. Pantano stopped to chat with PPAI Media about the board’s most important responsibilities and where he sees the industry going forward.

PPAI Media: You spent multiple decades working in the healthcare industry. What prompted the move to alphabroder and the promotional products world?

Pantano: It was time for a change. I had worked for three large Fortune 50 publicly traded companies in the healthcare distribution and health care services arena for 20 years when this opportunity presented itself.

I spent a good six months just trying to understand this industry before I took the job. It was a big leap of faith and a big risk for me to make a career change like that. But I’m glad I did it. It’s been everything I thought it’d be and then some.

PPAI Media: Did it feel like a steep learning curve?

Pantano: Yes, but there were a lot of parallels to my former career. A distribution business is a distribution business. It’s about providing great service, innovative products and solutions to help customers solve problems and grow their business. I was able to apply things that I had learned in the healthcare distribution world to what we do at alphabroder.

alphabroder was coming out of the difficult times of 2008 and 2009. So, in a lot of ways it was kind of rebuilding. We’ve made about a half a dozen acquisitions since I started, so there was that kind of excitement, which was different for me, to be able to be with a [relatively] smaller company and directly impact the strategy of acquisitions and building a business. When you’re with such huge companies, you have less autonomy to do things.

That’s part of what attracted me here – the ability to have more of an impact. That’s really important to me. I’m a huge believer in building the right culture, the right team, the right environment.

PPAI Media: What have you enjoyed about the promo industry the past 10 years?

Pantano: I think what I enjoy most – a lot of people will describe this to you when you first start out – it is a relationship-based industry more so than other industries, more so than where I came from. We have relationships with our supplier partners and our customers, of course, but we have relationships with our competitors as well. We all go to the same trade shows. From that perspective, that’s what makes it so rewarding and refreshing and different. I love that aspect of it.

I think business and life are all about relationships. I think the relationships are more collegial in this industry than most places you’ll find.

PPAI Media: What do you attribute that friendly atmosphere to in the promo world?

Pantano: I don’t know, to be honest with you. It was that way when I got here, and I think it was probably that way long before then. I think a lot of people have worked for different distributors and different suppliers. People have moved around a lot over the decades. I think that’s helped build relationships and networks. I think most people in the industry want the industry to succeed, as that benefits everyone. That’s really what PPAI is all about and why I am so excited to be on the board.

We do a lot of industry events, more so than some other industries, so we’re together a lot. I do think people are genuinely all very supportive and trying to drive success for the industry. Rising tides lift all boats. The industry is healthy. The industry is growing. Everyone’s going to rise with that success.

PPAI Media: Being on the PPAI Board is no small time commitment. What motivated you to join?

Pantano: I believe strongly that we all have to be committed to driving success in the industry, and we all have to be a part of helping the industry navigate through change, whether it’s digital transformation or regulatory challenges. There’s a lot happening.

The one area that I really want to be focused on is our small distributors or small customers that don’t necessarily have the resources and the scale that some of the larger companies have and making sure that we are listening to them or being a voice for them. We need to provide resources and tools and solutions and content, things that are going to enable them to be successful. Because that’s the bulk of our industry, the bulk of the customers that are members of the Association, and we have got to make sure they have a voice and a seat at the table.

PPAI Media: In all sorts of industries, there’s a fear of the growing trend that big companies are getting even bigger and small companies are struggling to survive. Do you believe it takes conscious action to avoid that?

Pantano: I don’t know if you can avoid consolidation. Companies have capital or access to capital to invest and make acquisitions, so that will happen. But the acquisition is a two-way street. Somebody has to be willing to sell, and somebody has to be willing to buy. Those that sell can have success in selling their business. If they built a successful business, that’s a good exit for a lot of people, so I don’t think that’s going to diminish.

But those that want to stay and compete and thrive and have a successful livelihood, even with a small company, should be able to do that. Part of our job as an association is to provide them with the tools and resources that will enable them to be successful. If they decide to sell their business, that’s great – as long as no one is forced to sell their business and it’s a decision they make on their own.

PPAI Media: Almost a half a year into your board tenure, have you enjoyed the process so far?

Pantano: I’ve learned a lot. I wasn’t that familiar with how the board worked and how it operated and the intricacies around the strategy and the other things that we’re trying to do as an association, so the learning side of it has been really fun and exciting for me.

And then it’s the relationships and getting to know the other board members and PPAI management team. I’ve really enjoyed that. We just had our offsite board meeting a couple weeks ago and spent two days together. It feels like a team with PPAI. It has been pretty rewarding.

PPAI Media: Seeing the industry from the board perspective a decade after joining alphabroder, how do you feel about the state of the industry in 2023 and onward?

Pantano: We’re seeing change happen at a more rapid pace than when I first started. Industry consolidation, adoption of technology and the push for sustainable products are just a few examples of that change.

We’ve been talking about this for 10 years, but this industry has been slower to change from a technological perspective. The digital transformation that’s, frankly, been happening more quickly in other industries – I think those dynamics are starting and going to continue at a more accelerated pace than what we’ve seen in the past.