Person of the Year – Norman Hullinger

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Norman HullingerA name change for any company is major change. But how about for one that’s the largest in the industry? One that has had the same name for decades? And one that has integrated acquisitions and other brand names into its operation?

Under those circumstances, a name is so much more than a sign on the door. It’s a brand that has meaning to hundreds of employees and thousands of customers. So, changing that name is an undertaking that many executives and CEOs wouldn’t want to take on. Norman Hullinger, CEO of the newly named alphabroder (asi/34063), formerly known as Broder Bros., was also one of those fearful C-suiters. “If it was up to me alone, it wouldn’t have even come about,” says Hullinger.

Hullinger, though, bowing to his management style of giving his people latitude to make big decisions, got on board late last year when his marketing and sales chiefs presented a solid business case for making the change from Broder Bros. to alphabroder (yes, small ‘a’ at the beginning). “My concern was losing the history that branding brings and also bringing any confusion to customers,” says Hullinger. “But I also knew that the multiple branding we had previously wasn’t preferable for our business moving forward. We were deliberate about it, so clients knew exactly what we were doing when we made the announcement to re-brand and re-name the company, but yeah, I was real nervous about it.”

Hullinger had nothing to worry about. Clients have accepted the new brand positioning without confusion, and the marketing effect has only been positive. “It has been received unbelievably well,” says David Clifton, chief marketing officer of alphabroder. “It has given us an ability to refine our marketing messaging – one brand name is powerful for that and we really were missing that before. It has also simplified things for our customers, and that’s something we were hoping for.”

The re-branding comes at a unique time for alphabroder and Hullinger. The company’s business has rebounded significantly after being hurt by the economic downturn of 2009. Its sales in the North American ad specialty market have jumped from $329 million in 2009 to just shy of $700 million in 2013 – five-year growth of 112%. Of course, the back end of those results also include revenues from Ash City (asi/37127), which alphabroder acquired at the very beginning of this year.

In other words, Hullinger is trying to lead alphabroder to successfully unite his company with another Top 10 supplier in the market – something others have tried before and not always succeeded so well with. “We have a plan for integrating all of these companies operationally, so customers can buy from each one and know they’re going to get the same level of service, pricing and product selection from each one,” says Hullinger about alphabroder’s recent transactions that included purchasing Imprints Wholesale (asi/62486) last year prior to the Ash City deal. “It’s coming together, and I expect it will only get better.”

All In – Quickly
All of this, and he’s been in the CEO seat for less than two years. After working for Broder Bros. as chief operating officer for about 10 years, Hullinger took over as interim CEO in August 2012 after former CEO Tom Myers left the company. The ‘interim’ tag was then removed from Hullinger’s title in December 2012, and in the year that followed, he got busy with remaking the company. He hired a new president, Dan Pantano, in January 2013, acquired Imprints Wholesale that same month, brought in Clifton to head up marketing in April 2013, re-branded and re-named the company in January 2014 and simultaneously completed the Ash City transaction.

A dizzying amount of change, but Hullinger believes it’s all for the better. “I don’t want to comment on the past,” he says. “We’re a new company today. We’ve had the opportunity to invent a new company in many ways, and we’re different today than we used to be.”

For the largest company in the industry to enact so much change so quickly has been noticed. Jerry Mulligan, vice president of sales for Chamberlain Marketing Group (asi/160501), says the changes at alphabroder have resulted in a closer relationship between the two companies.

“The greatest change we have seen in our relationship with alphabroder over the past 12-18 months has been a much more proactive approach to understanding the challenges we face with ever-more demanding clients,” says Mulligan, whose company has purchased from the alphabroder organization since its inception 30 years ago. “As client marketing departments have been downsized over the past five years, they have relied on partners like us to take on greater roles. The alphabroder team understands that and works very proactively to support us.”

Those shifts in service attitudes, Mulligan believes, is also a testament to Hullinger taking over as CEO. “I have always found him to be a great listener,” Mulligan says. “We all know the old cliché’ of ‘the customer comes first,’ but when you meet with Norm you truly get a sense that he has put his own personal agenda behind and is laser focused on you the client. That same attitude seems to permeate the organization.”

Other clients believe Hullinger’s elevation to CEO and the hiring of a new management team at alphabroder have helped to enhance their business relationships. “Our already terrific relationship with alphabroder has continued to get even better and stronger,” says Ross Silverstein, president and CEO of Top 40 distributor iPROMOTEu (asi/232119). “Since Norm became CEO, not only have we enhanced our business relationship with alphabroder, but our personal relationships with Norm and his senior team have blossomed as well. Norm is a committed and thoughtful individual. He makes his customers feel special.”

That approach has also worked inside of the alphabroder organization. Hullinger has strived to institute as flat a company as possible, one in which collaboration and teamwork define the culture. “We’re a large company, but we try to be small in how we operate,” says Pantano, president of alphabroder. “We talk about being like a family business where ideas can come from anybody and teamwork rules.”

What’s next for Hullinger and alphabroder? “We’ll look at any opportunities that come our way, and we have the capital to do deals if we want, but right now we’re focused on integrating what we’ve already done and capitalizing on those opportunities,” Hullinger says. “We’re very bullish on the second half of 2014; 2015 will be the year when all of our pieces really come together well. We have every reason to believe 2015 will be our best year ever.” –AC