The PPAI Expo 2024 provided ample networking opportunities, including a “meeting of the minds” between leaders of distributors at businesses generating eight figures in revenue.

Hosted by Joseph Sommer, founder and president of fully remote distributorship Whitestone (PPAI 666851, D4), the forum was designed to cover profitability strategies, the sales cycle, customer service, e-commerce 2.0 and the future of the promotional products industry.

“When I’m talking with other owners is when I’m most inspired and learn the most,” Sommer says. “Getting a group of us in a room together to talk shop can only help ourselves and our businesses.”

Mistakes In 2023

To kick off the meeting, everyone went around the room explaining what they would’ve done differently in the beginning of 2023 and how they plan to correct that in 2024.

“I made a lot of decisions that cost the company money that wouldn’t have happened had I had the proper data,” says Steven Holden, CEO of Dallas-based Holden Brand (PPAI 101738, D7). “Hiring the wrong people is one of those, so I’m starting to outsource my entire accounting department. I always gave my intuition more credit than I probably should’ve. Hopefully, I now have the data I need to make the right decisions.”

Dave and Ben Grossman, co-presidents of Sommerville, Massachusetts-based Grossman Marketing Group (PPAI 281988, D3), detailed the struggle of acquiring three companies in rapid succession in early 2021 and finally feeling comfortable about the integration, which added roughly 50% to their revenue, last year.

“We’ve done about 10 acquisitions over the past decade, so we’re used to it, but absorbing three different cultures and systems so close together was more complicated than we had anticipated,” Dave says. “It took our eye off of new business development, so that’s really going to be our focus in 2024.”

Like many companies, 2022 was a record year for Toronto-based Genumark (PPAI 266066, D11) – ranked the No. 38 distributor in the inaugural PPAI 100.

“We were so profitable that overhead got away from us,” says Mitch Freed, CEO of Genumark. “I found myself just saying yes to a lot of people, and stress levels were high. In 2023, we budgeted lower, but it probably wasn’t low enough. We didn’t relook at things super critically, which we’re doing now.”

Talent Woes

Personnel issues was a common theme during the discussion, as several business leaders regretted passing on a talented applicant, retaining a poor-performing employee for too long or not filling a position sooner.

Sommer said he waited three months too long to fire his director of sales.

“After three months, we knew she was wrong, but because we made such a big investment in her, we wanted to give her a shot,” he says. “We grow through the sales talent that we groom and develop, and because of that individual, a few people left the organization. We know that culture is important, but seeing it first-hand deteriorate your company was a big blow.”

To get back on track, Whitestone has instituted sales incentives competitions for 2024, in which everyone is incentivized by business development for the first time. “We’re also recalibrating the business development manager role to be less of a lone wolf hunter and more of a cross-divisional manager who helps the team try to hit their individual goals,” Sommer says.