February 7, 2014
I’m standing in the wings at the Dallas convention center with President George W. Bush, seconds before our interview in front of a packed house of 1,200. The president turns to me, leans in close and says, “This is important to remember. Have fun!”
With that, we were off and running. For over an hour, the president answered every question I had – including what he was thinking right after the planes struck the twin towers on 9/11, when he was in an elementary school classroom.
He got a lot of grief for not leaving immediately, but as he explained to our audience – which was so riveted you could have heard a pin drop – when he got the news, a little girl was reading out loud. He was angry, and his mind was racing, but he couldn’t show it because he knew it wouldn’t be helpful to the American people. As the little girl read on, he realized he was now a war-time president – that he had to protect her and protect America.
Of the many on-the-spot decisions he had to make in the harrowing days, weeks and months after 9/11, the president said, “History will ultimately judge whether I made the right decisions or not.” Whether you support Bush’s politics or not, being in the same room with any president is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The presentation took place on the last day of the ASI Show in Dallas, which ended Thursday after attracting over 500 suppliers (including 65 new to Dallas) and over 3,300 distributors from 43 states and seven countries. Despite crazy 20-degree weather and snow on the ground, it was a great show and the Bush presentation was definitely the highlight. (For more coverage, including blogs and videos, visit www.asicentral.com and the ASI Show Facebook page. Click here to read the press release. And click here for Fox news coverage of the show.)
Over the years, ASI has hosted many A-list keynote speakers, including President Bill Clinton, First Lady Laura Bush and Gen. Colin Powell. President Bush impressed me and I’d rank him right up there with Clinton. Bush was very charming, incredibly smart and extremely gracious, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since Bush is one of a mere handful of men ever elected U.S. president.
We talked before we went on and he asked a lot of questions about ASI and our industry. Once on stage, Bush thanked ASI’s owners, the Cohn family, and said of Matthew Cohn, who followed his father Norman into ASI, “I love people who follow in their father’s footsteps.” And several times during the Q&A he looked right at me – and winked.
As you can see from the photos, President Bush still works out a lot and still carries himself like a president. He recognized our audience as great marketers and entrepreneurs and said he hopes the government supports small businesses like those represented in the promotional products industry.
President Bush also didn’t shy away from any topic. When I asked if he’d always known he’d seek public office, and always wanted to be president, he confided that, if he’d known earlier, he would have taken his college years more seriously! (His GPA and a youthful drinking are well-documented. He hasn’t had alcohol for decades and told our audience he’s also stopping smoking cigars.)
He also talked about the hobby he took up after leaving office: painting. This was a surprising choice because, as he said, he wasn’t an art guy, he was a baseball guy. But he’d read a book by Winston Churchill that addressed taking up painting to smooth the transition from world leader to (almost) ordinary citizen. Today, Bush takes art lessons about once a week and paints nearly every day, largely because it’s relaxing.
One of my favorite moments took place at a meet and greet with industry people, where he spoke to every single person in the room. When Bush learned one man was on active duty with the U.S. military, he personally handed him a medallion
“Thank you for your service,” he said. I later learned he brings a bag of the medallions with him everywhere so they are always available as a way of thanking our military men and women for all they do to protect our nation.
To me, such gratitude is the true mark of a great leader – no matter the politics.
January 8, 2014
Despite near-record cold and the lingering effects of a horrific snowstorm that caused numerous flight delays, nearly everyone arrived at ASI Orlando in fine spirits, energized and raring to hit the show floor. Along with the stars of the ABC hit reality TV show competition Shark Tank, the first show of the 2014 show season attracted over 5,600 distributors from 27 countries and nearly every state in the union.
The suppliers, distributors and decorators I spoke to are very bullish on 2014 and heartened by preliminary ASI research showing record industry sales of over $20 billion for 2013.
The crowd included 805 suppliers (with 130 brand new to Orlando!) and numerous Counselor® Top 40, along with 20 distributor sales meetings. Lee Feinstein, from Bodek & Rhodes (asi/40788), described his booth as a “mob scene,” which is the ultimate compliment.
The event, which took place Sunday through Tuesday at the Orange County Convention Center, showcased thousands of the hottest products in the industry and featured a full slate of networking events, all-day education and a jam-packed show floor.
The highlight for me was Tuesday’s live Shark Tank-style “pitch slam” between four innovative entrepreneurs vying for a $5,000 cash prize for the industry’s top new promotional product, with our own vice-chairman Matthew Cohn as co-host. I was impressed by the professionalism of self-made tycoons Barbara Corcoran and Kevin O’Leary, who judged the competition.
Supplier Card Ninja (asi/95026) took home the big check after dazzling the judges with an innovative card-holder that sticks to the back of cell phones. “You have a phenomenal product,” Corcoran said. “I’ll offer you $10,000 right now for 30% of your company.” The winners, pictured at right with Barbara, are company co-founder Sunder Jambunathan (at far right), Rupa Mohan (center) and Christopher Page.
Later, the judges – who bicker onstage like an old married couple – told me they were thrilled to appear before a cheering crowd of genuine entrepreneurs instead of the boring executives they normally speak to during similar corporate events. Best yet, they loved our industry.
“It definitely works,” Kevin told a reporter from the Orlando Business Journal who interviewed him after the event. “This industry has grown every year. And as a business model, it works.”
The greatest advice he could offer entrepreneurs is to watch cash flow. “The lifeblood of a business is cash,” Kevin said. “People run out of it too quickly and that’s the reason most small businesses fail.”
Judging by the line that started outside the keynote at 7:30 a.m. and the standing-room-only audience of nearly 1,200, the hyper-interactive event was a huge hit for everyone involved. And I’d like to especially thank our other competitors: SSAM Sports, who showed off their “Putterwheel” golf product; BamBams, with “WeLuvABanner”; and Semco/Americraft, with the “Gap Stick.”
I knew this crowd was party hardy when I saw the attendance numbers for our gala celebration at Disney’s Animal Kingdom: 1,900 people braved near-record cold to enjoy thrill rides, a DJ dance party and tons of meeting and greeting. In the pic at right, ASI Show’s new VP and general manager, Rita Ugianskis-Fishman, wards off the chill at a heat lamp with exhibitor and screen printer Jeff Nieball, of N Designs in Fayetteville, TN. Rita really hit the ground running – she started her ASI career this week in Orlando and I’m sure you’ll see her at our upcoming shows so please say hello.
The celebrations continued during the annual Counselor Distributor Choice Awards, which applauded winners in 60 different product categories. Seattle-based iClick (asi/62124) was named 2014 Supplier of the Year. As I said in my congratulatory speech, “I think the real reason iClick is tonight’s winner has a lot to do with founder Lon McGowan’s mantra: ‘Do whatever makes the distributor look good.’”
January 6, 2014
We’re kicking off the New Year with a great big three-day show in Orlando, the first of the 2014 show season. In addition to thousands of the hottest products in the industry, we’re showcasing creativity, entrepreneurship and good old-fashioned competitiveness during a very special keynote presentation on Tuesday by the stars of the ABC hit reality TV show, Shark Tank.
The show, taking place at the massive Orange County Convention Center, got off to a great start Sunday, with a full day of classes offering something for everyone – whether you’re already a million-dollar superstar or an industry newbie. And classes continue both Monday and Tuesday, so it’s not too late to attend one.
This show features a ton of “firsts.” Monday morning, ASI’s products expert Joe Haley hosted a live Joe Show on stage with suppliers showing of their coolest items. Monday night, we celebrate suppliers during the annual Counselor Distributor Choice Awards. I love these awards because distributors across North America choose which companies we’ll honor by voting for their most-valued ad specialty suppliers. Winners are selected based on real votes and data from ASI’s Supplier Performance Ratings.
Another first – the ASI CTO Summit, hosted by our Chief Technology Officer Armughan Rafat. We decided to bring together tech leaders from some of the largest distributors and suppliers in the industry to discuss ways a technology culture can influence an organization’s bottom line. I’m sure we’ll enjoy heady discussions of a front-burner topic of keen interest to us all.
In another first, we’re hosting a pitch slam called “Swimming with the Sharks” on Tuesday – with four top suppliers competing for $5,000 to help them launch a cool, new product. The judges are none other than self-made tycoons Barbara Corcoran and Kevin O’Leary, who know just what it takes to run with a million-dollar idea. This presentation should be a lot of fun – and it’s free, so be sure to come and cheer on your favorite supplier.
Before the presentation ASI Chairman of the Board Norman Cohn and Matthew Cohn, the founder of The ASI Show, join me on stage to “pin” the latest recipients of certifications from ASI’s education program. I’m proud to say ASI recently hit a major milestone – awarding over 1,000 industry certifications through our free Online Learning Center since November 2010 alone.
This year’s gala celebration takes place at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, complete with rides, a DJ, dance party and plenty of food and drink. It’s the perfect opportunity to meet new people, have fun with old friends and relax a little in the midst of a very busy show.
I’m also happy ASI Orlando has attracted 20 distributor sales meetings, including American Solutions for Business, which brought 300 of their top sales reps. It’s always a pleasure to attend their events and to say hello to their CEO, Larry Zavadil, who’s celebrating both a birthday and the arrival of a new grand-daughter. Congrats, Larry!
If you see me at the show (I’m the one walking the fastest, though it’s hard to beat the guys on those segways zipping around), please say hello. As always, I’m interested in what you think of the show, so feel free to post a comment or e-mail me here. I’m also on Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.
And be sure to check out our website for complete coverage of the show, including blogs and videos, at www.asicentral.com. And if you haven’t already, register for our upcoming shows in Dallas, Long Beach, New York City and Chicago.
December 6, 2013
Distributor Stephanie Jackson is usually up and out of the house by 5 a.m. six days a week to work out. But on quiet Sunday mornings, this serious athlete has made it a habit to relax, coffee in hand, and take classes in ASI’s Online Learning Center.
After taking a few courses and “actually learning important information about the industry and our products, I got even more committed,” says Stephanie (at right), who went on to earn her Bachelor of Advertising Specialty Information. What’s more, she has the distinction of being the first distributor to complete her certification requirements and pass her final exam on ASI’s brand-new Online Learning Center platform.
It’s because of dedicated industry pros like Stephanie that I’m so proud of the major upgrade we’ve made to ASI’s education hub. The revamped site, powered by the latest in learning technology, is designed to help distributors, suppliers, decorators and screen printers quickly and easily access more free classes, additional resource tools and new social media sharing.
“The best part of achieving my BASI is the confidence it provides,” says Stephanie. “I’ve been in this industry a little over a year and what I’ve learned via actual experience, coupled with my ASI Education training, has provided me a firm foundation. I’ve always been a fan of continuing education, and would wholeheartedly recommend it to both industry newbies and veterans.”
Super-motivated Jackson describes the ad specialty industry as a hard business due to online competitors and price wars. But her fun job title – The Inquisitive Marketing Advisor at Signature Services & Promotional Products – reflects her commitment to really listening to her clients and delivering top-notch marketing campaigns for them. “I’ve won a lot of business that would have gone to an online competitor,” she says. “The deciding factor for my new clients was the service I delivered and my quick response to their needs.”
To better serve dedicated pros like Stephanie, the ASI Education Team and I focused on creating an entirely new, user-focused learning experience for our members via this upgraded Online Learning Center platform, which features:
ASI’s Online Learning Center houses more than 350 on-demand courses in a variety of industry-specific curriculums, such as sales, marketing, wearables and decorating, which are free to members and automatically tracked electronically. Courses range from introductory to executive level, making them ideal for both newcomers and industry veterans.
Finally, I’m happy to say that, to date, 1,151 professionals (including Stephanie) have been certified through the ASI Education Certification Program, with nearly 30,000 enrolled in ASI’s free Online Learning Center.
Stephanie, who can’t wait to receive her BASI pin from ASI President and CEO Timothy M. Andrews at the ASI Show in Orlando, plans to continue taking courses to keep her competitive edge. “I love that I get tested on the material I learn and that there are always new courses being added,” she says.
Please login to our new Online Learning Center soon at www.asicentral.com/onlinelearning and experience it for yourself. I welcome your feedback, so drop me a line anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy learning!
– Nicole Rollender is ASI’s executive director of professional development
November 27, 2013
Filed under: Community
On my way to the airport a couple of weeks ago, I was picked up by a taxi driver who was the happiest guy I’ve met in years.
Born and raised in Ethiopia, three years ago he won one of about 50,000 “green cards” granted annually through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program to nationals of countries we consider to be under-represented in U.S. immigration. To qualify to submit an application, people must have either a high school diploma, or two years of work experience within the last five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training and be otherwise admissible.
Each year, many millions of people from around the world apply for this visa. Only about 1% of all qualified applicants “win” the lottery, which is just the first step. Then there’s another selection process, and only about half of the winners actually end up with visas.
With odds like those, it’s no wonder my taxi driver described his visa as “a gift from God.”
In Ethiopia, most people farm in the face of tremendous obstacles like deforestation and drought. Crop failures and famine persists and life expectancy is only 59, compared with 79 here in the U.S. Despite recent gains, the country’s GDP per capita is only about $1,200, compared with $50,000 here.
The driver is thrilled to be in the United States. “I have a car I drive nice people around in, I can have my Starbucks with me if I want, I dress up every day in clean, nice clothes, and I can do anything here I want to do,” he told me. “Most countries aren’t free, and people here seem to not realize that and how much better it is here.”
I teared up. In a taxi.
This heartfelt story was told by someone who couldn’t speak English when he landed at JFK. It made me realize all over again how much we need comprehensive immigration reform that will allow us to continue welcoming such wonderful people to the United States. The truth is, most immigrants work long hours for low pay at menial jobs many citizens sneer at – and they want nothing more than to become legal and work without fear of deportation or exploitation.
Whenever I meet someone so clearly appreciative of the chance they’ve been given to change their life for the better, I think about how much, in turn, they can contribute to our understanding of the world at large and to our culture and success. Who’s to say this taxi driver won’t one day contribute as much as many other immigrants have, from Albert Einstein and John Muir to Madeleine Albright and Irving Berlin.
I am thankful today for the friends and family I have, and for all of the comfort and success I share with my colleagues at ASI and throughout our industry.
I am thankful, too, for this young man, his enthusiasm for life and the life he will someday build as a proud citizen of the United States.
November 21, 2013
Thanks to strong Q3 results, distributor and supplier sales in the promotional products industry have now risen for 15 straight quarters, which is solid proof that companies big and small continue to buy what we’re selling: The enduring power of promotional products.
These days, ideas and innovations are what make the world go ’round. Bloomberg Businessweek says we need look no further than Twitter’s $24.9 billion valuation as evidence we’ve officially entered the “ideas economy.” Lucky for us, ideas and innovations are at the heart of this industry, where new products coupled with inventive branding can hit the market – and seize the imagination – faster than ever before.
If we capitalize on innovation, as Bloomberg suggests, our industry will continue to grow. This year alone, if ASI’s indicators are correct, total sales will surpass $20 billion. I know that anything – a political coup in a far-off land or even a devastating weather event – can cause unexpected economic havoc, but I’m pretty comfortable in our predictions.
What’s your take on 2014? ASI’s Counselor magazine recently asked Power 50 members if their companies would hire additional staff in the next year and 63% said they would. I take that as a strong indication of overall industry health. Is your company hiring? Are your clients spending more? Are you?
As Dan Taylor, president of BamBams (asi/38228), which increased sales by 8.5% this year, told ASI: “I think the value factor of promotional products in the marketing space has contributed to this growth. Companies are working hard to expand, so there is a need for advertising in the marketplace.”
Today, promotional products are used by virtually every business and major brand in America, and for good reason: They work! For proof, you need look no further than ASI’s most recent global advertising specialties impressions study, highlighted by tons of easy-to-share stats on everything from the impressive CPI to strong advertiser recall.
It’s clear we have the right products and the right message at the right time. So ask yourself this: What will you be selling in 2014? Products? Or ideas?
November 5, 2013
When college students tell you you’ve done something right, you want to share it with the world. That’s how we felt when we heard from Babson College students who recently dipped a toe into the promotional products industry through a unique initiative spear-headed by ASI’s education department.
ASI and Babson College worked together to help instructor-led student groups spend about $3,000 in seed money to buy, imprint and sell promotional products. As part of their immersion into the business world, these budding entrepreneurs were granted access to ASI’s ESP®, where they could source and order products from our suppliers. By using ESP and reputable ASI member companies, students told us they felt confident they were selling quality products.
After the program ended, the college surveyed participating students. Here are a few of their comments:
The inaugural program was so successful, during the 2013-2014 school year ASI and Babson will expand it to enable up to 40 student businesses to show and sell their products through an ESP Websites™ e-commerce company store.
Our long-term hope is that these future business leaders look to their positive experiences with our suppliers and our industry when embarking on their careers. We plan to continue outreach to other colleges and universities to convince other business, marketing, advertising and new media students to join what we all know is an exciting, creative industry, which more people need to discover.
After announcing the program’s results, we received a number of accolades, along with feedback worth sharing.
The owner of an Illinois company that’s sold promotional products since 1975 applauded the program and shared his own story about a paid internship program he offers for marketing and advertising students. He started the program to mentor students and help them gain valuable, real-world business experience – and to help spread the word about our industry.
As he points out, “Wherever they pursue their career, they will have a very strong background in the power of promotional products as well as how to integrate promotional products into a given target market to help build brand awareness, new product intros, etc.”
He added, “The younger generation will become the backbone of our industry in the near future.”
I couldn’t agree more. As I explained to a distributor who is concerned programs like this one could hurt our industry, any worries about possible student competition should be outweighed by the need for greater exposure.
As it stands now, the industry is too invisible to business students who are learning how to make smart marketing decisions once they’re business professionals. They learn about buying and using TV, radio and internet advertising, direct mail and everything else under the sun, but marketing programs rarely mention the power of promotional products and the incredible return on the investment of marketing dollars. We need to change that.
In terms of the next generation of leadership in the industry, we need people to understand and be excited about promotional products as a potential career or the industry will wither and die. As I walk around trade shows and other events, I am very concerned about the aging of our distributor sales population, the invisibility of the profession to anyone who didn’t grow up in the industry or stumble into it by accident, and equally concerned that we have little or no racial diversity. We are 90% white in a world that isn’t. Exposing our industry to entrepreneurial students from every walk of life has the opportunity to inject new enthusiasm among those who decide to join.
While I appreciate the feedback, my larger concern is about an invisible industry, lacking new youthful entrants and racial diversity. We plan to continue to pursue programs similar to Babson’s at other colleges and universities and hope to have several such programs next year.
We’ll keep everyone apprised moving forward. My hope is that after considering what more exposure, education and diversity can do for our industry in the long run, everyone will become more enthusiastic about our shared future.