Counselor Hot 25
Meet The 25 Hottest Movers And Shakers In The Industry
>>See a full photo gallery of the entire Hot 25 here.
Who’s shaking up the industry today and making it a unique, successful, challenging and innovative sector? The members of the 2014 Counselor Hot 25. Check out their stories.
What’s hot today? Growing your business faster than everybody else. Creating new product categories. Transferring a career in TV news over to the ad specialty market. Bringing new items and cool designs from overseas to the North American market. Conceiving of innovative apparel designs and making it happen.
Those are all things that members of the 2014 Counselor Hot 25 are doing today. They’re sparking creativity and innovation in the ad specialty industry by approaching the business in highly unique ways. As a whole, it’s a group – this year ranked one to 25 for the first time – that stands out for its energy, vision and inspiration.
Tom Rector started his company in 2008 as a way to pay his graduate school bills, and he has quickly built Rector Communications (asi/305623) into a multimillion-dollar operation that was honored as Counselor's Fastest-Growing Distributor in the ad specialty industry last year. Now overseeing a company with 12 employees, Rector has instilled a never-say-no attitude among everyone at his company, and he’s built the firm by building strong relationships with clients. In fact, every employee is given a budget to take somebody – a friend, client, referral, family member – out to lunch once a month, so that the company can build up some good word-of-mouth traction and become an influential member of the Indianapolis community.
While Rector admits to being a workaholic who puts nearly all of his waking hours into his company, he does carve out time once a year to learn a new hobby. One year it was karate. Another year, he learned to play guitar – one hobby that has really stuck with him. “I keep a guitar in my office and will pull it out when I get stressed or for an office happy hour,” Rector says. “It’s a good way to stay creative and let go for a little bit.”
What’s on tap for this year, besides being the number-one ranked member of the Counselor Hot 25? “I have always wanted to write a book or I might try and train to run a marathon,” he says. “Regardless, it will be something to help me get away from the long hours I put into RectorCom.”
2-MICHELLE ARMSTRONG & HEATHER SMARTT
It’s like the premise of a promising sitcom: “Two out-going, fun-loving girls – one Canadian and one American – decamp to China…” Except in reality, the story’s even better: Toronto-native Armstrong (right) and Ocean City, MD-native Smartt moved to Shanghai and worked their way through language and culture barriers to dominate their field as part of the formidable sourcing team that hand-picks the items for each new iteration of the Leed’s and Bullet catalogs. It’s their years of overseas purchasing experience, ability to know what will sell and finely-honed eye for trends exfoliated from the global marketplace that keeps Polyconcept’s product line the one distributors covet for their clients. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Armstrong & Smartt – like all the great girl duos in history (Mary & Rhoda, Monica & Rachel, Tina & Amy) – have an uncanny ability to balance fierce, steel-trap intelligence with sass, cocktail-fueled silliness and style. Your move, HBO.
Nothing screams success like being the author of a New York Times bestseller at age 29 – but Anthony Flynn’s personal story is still far from being finished. Flynn founded YouBar (asi/98848) in 2006 – the same year he graduated college – and quickly grew the online company’s revenues beyond $1 million annually. The LA-based supplier lets customers design their own energy bars, mixing fruits, nuts, grains and almost any other ingredient imaginable. YouBar thrives on customization and attracts 1,250 unique visitors each day to its website. The company’s rapid rise has made Flynn a media star and, most recently, a publisher’s dream. Flynn’s book Custom Nation – which profiled companies like Vistaprint and Zazzle – has rocketed up the charts since it was published in 2012.
Weston Cotton was a competitive wakeboarder during his 20s when a shoulder injury put his career on hold. With nothing to do but rehab, he agreed to design shirts for some friends who had purchased a marina in West Palm Beach, FL. “I knew nothing about designing T-shirts or making artwork,” Cotton admits. But he struck up a relationship with his now-business partner Tom King and launched Cotton King (asi/169201) in 2006. Today, Cotton is entrenched in all things Florida: the marina industry, the collegiate market and the mega-yacht scene, where staff (10-34 people per boat) has to be outfitted with everything from chef wear to foul weather gear. As the business continues to grow, Cotton King looks to leave competitors in its wake.
With a subtle British accent and A-list appeal, Benjamin Bartley looks primed for a part in the next James Bond movie. In the meantime, though, he’s taking on another role – polishing the BIC Graphic (asi/40480) brand after a multi-year integration with Norwood. Bartley joined BIC in 2010 after a lengthy stint at Heineken, where he streamlined price strategy and helped turn around the beverage company’s business in South America. With a global career that’s spanned 80 markets, it’s not surprising that Bartley – BIC’s VP of marketing – speaks three languages (and a fourth if you count sales lingo). Something you might not know about him: Bartley is passionate about shark conservation. Just a little more fodder for the screenwriters.
One thing’s for sure – Zara Rupani knows how to make an entrance. At her very first industry show at ASI Orlando, Rupani turned Promotion Group’s (asi/80004) booth into a head-spinning free-for-all, piling colorful product samples on the floor. It was a gamble that could’ve incited a distributor grab-a-thon, but it turned out to be a clever marketing debut that netted her company steady show traffic. It’s obvious that Rupani – Promotion Group’s vice president of marketing – revels in being different, sporting big, vintage glasses and everything pink. She also has a master’s degree in mental health counseling with a knack for making corny sound cool. “I give out great promoscriptions,” she jokes. Don’t be fooled, though – Rupani is all business at the core and she’ll tell you she’s just getting started. “My goal is to personally double our company’s revenues by the end of this year,” she says.
Bravefriend Apparel & Design
Patrick Donovan was sleeping, and his house was on fire. In the cauldron, he was woken up by his dog Tanner, who licked his owner’s face. Donovan had mere seconds to break his roommate’s door down and pull him to safety before the house collapsed. Almost everything he owned went up in flames. Tanner could not make it out. In the aftermath, Donovan found equilibrium by returning to his love for drawing. Illustrations of his favorite band Widespread Panic became shirts that sold out at their concerts. That success spawned the creation of Bravefriend Apparel and Design (asi/145162), so named to honor Tanner with the slogan “Sometimes a dog is as good as any man.” The company has expanded beyond apparel into promotional products and has even become a vendor for his favorite band, Widespread Panic. Bravefriend’s apparel is accompanied by a drawing Donovan made of his dog. “I thought I would never see my dog’s face again,” he says, “but with all the fans’ and the band’s support it has allowed me to see his face wherever I go.”
At the age of 15, Tobias Roesch joined Elasto Form KG (asi/51817), one of the top hard goods suppliers in Europe, as an apprentice. Now, 13 years later, the 28-year-old seasoned industry vet is the company’s purchasing and import manager, in charge of its strategic buying and product management. More than that, Tobi is the one you’ll see, along with owner Marcus Sperber, dressed in the traditional lederhosen of their Bavarian heritage at the PSI Dusseldorf Show, where their booth is fashioned to look like a classic brauhaus. And Tobi, the life of every party, is the type of host who makes sure your stein is never empty, as he ordered 500 gallons – that’s not a typo – of beer to serve visitors to the company’s booth. And for those who worry about the lack of young people joining – and staying in – the industry, take heart with Tobi. “There are always new, exciting challenges,” he says. “I love it.”
9-NARA & ZAHRA KURJI
Promotional Manufacturing Group of America
There’s sales growth and then there’s 1,000% sales growth – something supplier PMGOA (asi/79982) enjoyed between 2011 and 2013. So what’s behind the company’s rapid rise? The short answer is family, led by the striking sisters-in-law duo of Nara (left) and Zahra Kurji. The multi-talented pair – Nara’s background is in publishing and Zahra’s is in medicine – helped build PMGOA into a top supplier of custom silicone wristbands. The Texas-based company also offers hundreds of other items – all USA-made, with same-day turnaround and virtually no minimums. “Our clients are constantly looking for the next big thing,” Nara says. “I’d love for PMGOA to be known as that company that distributers can go to for anything and everything their client may dream up.”
A 20-year industry veteran, Danny Braunstein grew up in his family’s distributorship thinking it was normal for kids to spend their spare time gluing broken lapel pins back together and hand delivering message-in-a-bottle client party invitations dressed as a pirate. Currently the vice president of sales & business development for London, Ontario-based Talbot Marketing (asi/341500), he oversees the company’s Western Canadian sales partners and its corporate programs. Braunstein is also a key reason the company has become a mainstay on Counselor’s Best Places to Work list, as he – who tends to show up to industry parties in badass attire like vintage Beastie Boys T-shirts – is not unfamiliar with the concept of a good time. Of course, his sardonic, insouciant wit and even-keel demeanor – he’s so laid-back he’s practically horizontal – belie how plugged in to the industry he really is. He’s not the loudest guy in the room, but he doesn’t miss a trick.
Proforma Communications Group
Many people come to the ad specialty industry through previous marketing or sales jobs. Or, they begin their businesses after recognizing a good opportunity. Well, Bryce Fulton isn’t “many people.” Fulton came to this market after a successful 14-year run as a television news anchor and reporter. That’s right, reporting the news, reading teleprompters and being the go-to person for daily information in the Palm Beach, FL, television market prepped Fulton for a successful run in the world of promotional products. Now executive vice president of sales and marketing for Proforma Communications Group (asi/300094), Fulton is helping to transform the family business she joined in 2008. She spearheads aggressive and creative marketing tactics that include twice-monthly self-promo campaigns designed to attract new clients and garner more business from current clients. The efforts are clearly working: The company has grown by nearly 50% over the past three years. This show is far from a wrap.
You can call him a supplier, but Hemal Ratanjee operates much more like an artist. The head of Costa Mesa’s LTL Imaging (asi/65987), Ratanjee has designed hundreds of vehicle wraps, custom banners and graphic murals, some for brands like Google and Major League Baseball. Berkeley-educated, Ratanjee continues to expand LTL’s reach into direct mail campaigns, custom packaging and trade show displays, using equipment that’s able to print eight-color pieces at speeds of up to 2,000 square feet per hour. “Our print capabilities far exceed our product offerings,” Ratanjee says. “We can create, manufacture and install most any wide format item you can imagine.” What’s Ratanjee’s best work? It’s splashed all over the walls, windows and cubicles at Adobe’s Lehi, UT, office. Let’s just say no two spaces there are alike.
As a teenager, Tom Davenport, now president of Motion Textile (asi/72662), was passionate about graphic arts and music. He successfully merged the two early on by creating his own music tees, allowing him to design new pieces of art. He printed for his friends’ bands and the word spread. Eventually, he was printing for small clothing lines and local businesses, and dabbling in licensing. He founded a contract production company, named Motion Textile, and now he works with promotional marketing firms, merchandisers, retail clothing brands and other decorators.
Davenport also started a blog called The Ink Kitchen with friend Rick Roth, which is a resource for decorators with candid accounts of successes, tricks of the trade and, of course, the horror stories.
In addition, Davenport makes it a point to grow and maintain an extensive industry network of colleagues and potential clients. Coming down the pike: new technique samples that are, in his words, “off the charts.”
POP Solutions Group
Nicole McNamee has one of the most unique stories about how she got her start in sales: Being the famed University of Tennessee mascot, Smokey the Dog, during her tenure as an undergrad. “It helped me learn how to win people over and motivate them,” she says. Now with eight years in the ad specialty industry, McNamee – who has an MBA – creates promos for clients in the U.S. and Europe as varied as small start-ups to Fortune 100 entities like Apple and Hilton. How does this mother of two young sons “lean in” to do it all? She keeps running – literally. “Exercise is my Zen,” she says, explaining that she recently ran 200 miles in 33 hours across the state of FL, a goal that can now be struck from her bucket list.
15-VICTORIA NEWTON-DUNN & SYLVAN FABER
The motto at Eyevertising LLC (asi/57371), based in glitzy Miami, is simply “Make it Happen.” And, husband-and-wife team Sylvan Faber, president/owner, and COO Victoria Newton-Dunn, focus 100% on making it happen for promotional sunglasses. To date, they are the only company that owns a patent on pinhole lenses, which have proved very versatile: The same construction that accommodates a clean, prominent logo allows the wearer to see clearly while sporting a pair at nighttime and indoor events.
Faber and Newton-Dunn continue to expand their business to new markets, while recognizing the importance of making adjustments. In fact, they regularly reassess their entire business model to make sure it’s keeping up with a constantly changing marketplace, and focus intently on both the scalability of their core business and their bottom line. The couple knows the importance of deadlines, expectations and quality in the promotional space, and makes sure their team provides innovative solutions customized for each project that comes through their doors. And their diligence has paid off in spades: They’re working their tails off to expand the business by 300% in the past couple of years.
16-ALBERT VAN DER VEEN & RYAN MCSORLEY
With its wow-worthy design, commitment to social change and ability to innovate, Xindao is downright Apple-esque – and it’s also the company from whom all your favorite suppliers buy their products. Holland-born CEO Albert van der Veen (top) is adroitly steering the company from being one that’s merely great to one that could be a world-class trailblazer. With him at the helm, Xindao is committed to making 100% of its items sustainable by 2020, its employees are given paid days off to do volunteer work and starting in 2015, for one week every year he’ll instruct his design team to stop working for Xindao and focus their attention on creating small-scale solutions for society’s big problems, such as water and energy conservation. And like Steve Jobs had Jony Ive, Apple’s Design God in Residence, van der Veen has Ireland-native McSorley (shown here with the company’s Sunflower solar charger), who at the age of 29 oversees Xindao’s design team and creates items that are breathtaking in their curvy, sexy, sleek and tactile originality. The next time someone uses the pejorative phrase “trinkets & trash” in your presence, direct them to Xindao’s website and wait for the inevitable jaw drop.
Risa Fernando is vice president of a company built on hard work, risk-taking and an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. Her father, a Japanese immigrant, started his own packaging company 35 years ago. It’s now called Promotional PSI (asi/81465) and offers packaging in an enormous variety of shapes, colors and sizes enhanced only by its printing capabilities, including ink print, silk screen, heat transfer and hot stamping.
When designing and introducing new, unique products, Fernando considers cost, product and delivery times, the three main factors that determine distributors’ success in selling Promotional PSI products. To make the selling process a little smoother for distributors, Fernando constantly looks for quality factories that can meet design expectations at an affordable price. And, to maintain excellent customer service, Fernando makes sure her team always strives to hire the right people for the right job. In all, she’s blending traditional business strategies with a flair for creative design in a product category that’s growing quickly.
Cindy Brown started at API (asi/147450), based in Lanham, MD, as a part-time bookkeeper making her way through school at the University of Maryland. Fast-forward to 2014, and she is president & CEO of a rapidly expanding woman-owned distributorship that continues to add capabilities and employees. Her responsibilities have run the gamut, from hiring and training to business development and long-term strategic planning. Over the years, the company has added multiple departments, including fulfillment, in-house screenprinting and embroidery and e-commerce. This hands-on leader maintains an open-door policy because she believes it’s important to know the needs of the company and the people, and to respect and value their motivations and ideas.
Most recently, API invested in a new round of equipment for its decorating department and is looking to expand its capabilities and resources for clients. What Brown’s doing is clearly working. Since she took the helm, the company has seen 25% to 35% growth each year.
College Hill Custom Threads
When you’re doing business at over 150 college campuses across the country, thinking young is not optional. Tony Poston has built College Hill Custom Threads (asi/164578) with ambitious artists and salespeople, all in or fresh out of college. “They’ve never had a middle level manager tell them no,” says Poston, himself 28. “I didn’t want that mentality from anybody at the ground level here when we were starting up. I wanted us to create the company culture and actually live it.”
After realizing his days as a rock star band manager were not to be, Poston went back to his alma mater of Washington State University and opened up shop three years ago. Providing on-trend specialized prints has wowed the kids, but leveraging social media and racking up frequent flyer miles got College Hill into the dorm rooms. At one point Poston took 30 flights in 30 days to 30 different campuses. “We didn’t have credibility in the beginning,” says Poston, “so we had to get in front of people and grow this company organically.”
Spring Break trips don’t tend to be the sites where successful businesses are hatched. But that’s exactly where Eric Weinstein had the idea for his company. The lightbulb for him went off about 30 years ago when he was on a very windy beach in South America and his towel kept blowing away. So, he decided to create a beach towel with stakes at the end that would keep it nailed to the beach. “I named the product 'the Stake Out Beach Kit,' and took it to retail,” he now says. He talked to a distributor, who convinced Weinstein to explore the promo product market. Towel Specialties (asi/91605) was born, and the company has been providing high-quality towels and robes to the industry ever since. “We strive to develop and deliver unique, high quality products that will create a lasting impression,” says Weinstein, who today remains as active as possible with hobbies that include kiteboarding, flying and sailing. “Since its inception, our company’s tagline has been ‘A Quality Impression That Lasts.’” It’s lasting rather well since that fateful day on a Spring Break beach.
21-KATIE & MIKE COULLARD
The husband-and-wife team of Mike and Katie Coullard head a Louisiana company founded over 30 years ago by Katie’s father, Grady Brown. The former president and CEO created the company with the local community in mind: Back then, Lake Providence, LA, had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Brown took his mother’s recipe for gourmet pepper sauce and established Panola Pepper (asi/75787), providing much-needed jobs. When Brown handed the reins over to his daughter Katie and son-in-law Mike, the couple moved their young family to Lake Providence to run the business; without their relocation, Panola Pepper would most likely have been sold, taking employment away from the area. Today, Mike is president and CEO and Katie is director of marketing, and together they continue to expand a product lineup that includes a variety of hot sauce, BBQ sauce, marinades and chicken wing sauce.
And they’re dedicated more than ever to the well-being of their community; even with the automation technology used to bottle and label the products, the Coullards have never allowed it to replace employees. They continue to bring on new people in their expansion process and to meet the challenge of staying competitive in a market that’s increasingly automated and outsourced.
Hanes Branded Printwear
Like a politician, Rachel Newman makes the rounds, whether it’s laying out programs for corporate bigwigs or hearing thoughts from active moms who participate in the Hanes4
Education box tops program. Unlike a politician, however she enjoys each and every encounter. “One aspect of this industry that I love,” says the director of sales for Hanes Branded Printwear (asi/59528), “is the incredible diversity of businesses and people with whom I get to connect.” That top-to-bottom-and-back perspective has been crucial for Hanes as it shifts its product focus to retail-inspired style. By identifying key trends and what buyers want, Newman has been an essential figure in recasting the apparel brand’s image. A recent move has the mother of two discovering the outdoor recreation that North Carolina offers, which is fitting – even on the clock, she enjoys exploring what lies ahead.
An inventor who never seems to stop creating new items, Tony Maglica, 83, is still at it every day trying to come up with the next cool thing for his company, Mag-Lite (asi/68449). Growing up in New York City in post-Depression America, Maglica’s first machine shop designed parts that were aboard America’s first satellite in space, the Vanguard. Eventually, Maglica decided to become a product manufacturer, rather than just a shop that creates parts for other companies, and he saw a need for better flashlights. “Most flashlights at that time were cheap throwaway items, flimsy plastic or stamped tin,” says Maglica, who still arrives at his factory by 7 a.m. most days. “But I asked myself, ‘Why not a flashlight that will last you the rest of your life?”
Mag-Lite was born, and the company’s Mini Mag-Lite item became one of the best-selling gift items in the U.S. in 1985. Today, the company has expanded its line of flashlights and housewares, and Maglica continues to create new concepts and products. “I try to spend time every day developing ideas and improvements,” says Maglica, who currently holds hundreds of patents. “I’m very visual. I have computerized drafting programs loaded on my computers at home and at the office, and I sketch a lot of ideas.”
American Solutions for Business
A newcomer to the ad specialty market, Cathy Armando made the leap from her 15-year teaching career to this industry a little over a year ago. No doubt a quick learner, Armando’s 2014 sales have already doubled her results for 2013. Her secret? Unique ideas for clients. “My success to date can be contributed to my innovative thinking and ability to provide my clients with outside of the box ideas,” says Armando, who likes to work the concert, travel and restaurant scene when she’s not cooking up cool concepts for customers. “I meet with my customers regularly and provide them with catalogs, e-commerce solutions and custom product collections that appeal to their individual marketing needs.” Now, that’s an approach she could teach others in the market.
Shockwave Promotional Apparel
Mixed media is the holy grail of apparel decoration – the ability to combine different techniques to create something truly unique. Greg Gaardbo discovered his knack for it by accident, stumbling upon apparel as a “lucrative fix” for his art school training. “Mixed media has been very popular for us,” says Gaardbo, who started Shockwaves Promotional Apparel (asi/87144) 22 years ago in a basement. “It’s not something everybody can do, and it takes a different creative mind to put the pieces together.” The Chicago-area resident is a relentless experimenter who continues to devise new apparel applications and is not afraid to be different. When he’s not engaged in the craft beer movement, Gaardbo is impressing clients with designs they never thought possible. “We can take a basic shirt,” he says, “and make it worth $60.”