A 20-plus-year industry veteran, Fred Parker has returned to promo, joining Huntertown, Indiana-headquartered Certified Marketing Consultants (PPAI 110557) as a mergers and acquisitions specialist.

Parker previously served as president of defunct Charlotte-based distributor Activate! Promotions + Marketing from 1999 to 2015, and as CEO of defunct parent firm A Brand Company. In 2020, he founded PH Business Consulting, and will continue to act as consulting principal in addition to his new role at CMC.

  • Founded in 1981, CMC specializes in advising promo firms on M&A, private sales and business valuations.

In this exclusive interview with PPAI Media, Parker reflects on his career, explaining why he’s come back to promo and what value he brings to CMC.

PPAI Media: How did you get into the promotional products industry?

Fred Parker: I was in the sporting goods business right out of college. [Parker graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s in business and corporate communications.] Changes within the work environment led me to want to establish something where I had a bit more control of my own destiny. I burnt the candle at both ends before diving into promo completely in 1999.

PPAI Media: What was the promotional products industry like back then?

Parker: It was definitely an emerging industry with pretty significant year-over-year growth. The evolution of corporate branding combined with the traditional work environment going a bit more casual clearly generated significant opportunity for apparel and soft goods. Then, you had the emergence of technology on top of that and the need for significant branding.

PPAI Media: What’s your most cherished promo product?

Parker: The best promotional products are ones that while they may be unique, they serve a purpose where you use it every day. I know that’s a generic answer, but I still believe it to be the truth. You may get a really cool tech item that you probably wouldn’t have bought for yourself, and then all of a sudden, you’re using it every day. Guess what? That’s creating a brand impression exponentially more than what the average item would.
PPAI Media: You launched your own consultancy in 2020, which had to have been such a crazy time to start a business.

Parker: There was demand right away. At the time, I was contemplating various changes and felt like I had already built and ran a business. As far as fractional type work, whether that be CEO or just general management consulting, I felt there would be plenty of opportunity for that. An opportunity fell in my lap right in the heart of COVID and I didn’t look back.

PPAI Media: Why have you returned to promo?

Parker: I had worked with multiple folks at CMC, including Jamie [Watson, COO of CMC] and her father [Jeff Meyer, CEO of CMC]. They had a former partner that I had done deals with as well. So, I was very familiar with CMC in regard to opportunities in the market and how we grew Activate! over the years. We had always maintained a good relationship. The activity within CMC, which is obviously a microcosm of what’s going on in the promo world, led to Jamie and I having discussions on where her capacity was and if I would be willing to help her. It grew organically from very casual conversations.

PPAI Media: What are your goals at CMC?

Parker: To help the company with the activity they see in the marketplace. Our industry is a fragmented industry, and within that, there’s always consolidation opportunities. I want to be able to help business owners, whether they’re looking at acquiring or selling, make good, solid investment decisions. I want to leverage my knowledge of the innerworkings of the industry to give the best advice I can offer.

PPAI Media: What’s the toughest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Parker: A surprise with an acquisition that we made. Doing your own homework and performing due diligence is the absolute most important thing to do if you’re looking at acquiring. There’s the whole “trust, but verify,” well, I might just underscore “verify” two or three times. Where I feel like I can really make a difference for clients is that I’ve got experience, and some of that was looking at positive situations and some distressing situations. I’m hoping to be able to leverage that experience and offer really good guidance to my clients.

PPAI Media: What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the promo industry?

Parker: Be disciplined and structured with your financials right out of the gate and know your business from a metric perspective. At the end of the day, people who jump into the industry on the distributor side have a creative flair somewhere in their DNA, which is what makes the business fun. You’re working with multiple brands on a daily basis, and ultimately, what you’re selling are fun items. But you can’t lose focus that you’re running a business. You need to stay disciplined and understand the core business metrics, as far as building a foundation right out of the gate.