If Sherri Lennarson, MAS, met herself 40 years ago, she says she’d be awestruck. “I would have been two years into my career at Bankers. I think I’d tell myself, ‘You go, girl,’” says Lennarson. From countless awards and accolades to unrelenting advocacy and volunteerism, Lennarson’s contributions to the promotional products industry are immeasurable. “I think I would have been pleased with the path that I had taken, not only in my career, but also in life,” she says. “I would say to myself: you’ve met a lot of people, cared deeply and worked really hard. I think I would be happy.” 

Lennarson’s entrance into the promotional products industry started with a serendipitous encounter with her seatmate during a business flight in the 1980s. “One chance meeting resulted in a long and satisfying career where I have had the opportunity to pay it forward and encourage others. Perhaps, it wasn’t chance at all,” she says. On a flight from Iowa City, Iowa, to Lincoln, Nebraska, Lennarson made a lasting first impression on Bill Bywater, then-president and CEO of Bankers Advertising Company and a future PPAI Hall of Famer himself. “One year later, he called to offer me a position as his executive assistant, and the rest, as they say, is history,” she says. “Bill had an incredible impact on me as a mentor and advocate. When Bill asked if I, someday, wanted to be president of our firm, I had a goal to reach for. He coached me every step of the way. Seeing the example he set as a leader, I wanted to serve our company, community and Association, too.” In 2003, Lennarson became president of the company, breaking “the glass ceiling” as the first woman and non-family member to lead the company. Today, she is retired and lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband John.

While Lennarson has accomplished many of her goals, she doesn’t measure success by what she has done. “I think you’re successful when you get up every day with a smile on your face, ready to face the world,” she says, adding that everyone has their own “measuring stick” for success. “Looking back, my measuring stick would be seeing someone else succeed and knowing that I had, somehow, nurtured, encouraged or educated them,” she says. “I think it’s through other people that I would measure my own success.” 

Above: Sherri Lennarson and her husband, John, have been married more than 30 years and currently reside in Tucson, Arizona. Right: As PPAI’s Board chair, Sherri Lennarson interviews political consultant and keynote speaker James Carville onstage during The PPAI Expo 2010.

To Lennarson, her most meaningful contribution to the industry is teaching the importance of advocacy and engagement with elected officials. “It was a focal point of my service as board chair. I played an instrumental role in the development of GRAC, the Government Relations Action Council,” she says, adding that advocacy is one of PPAI’s fundamental pillars. Lennarson was also elected to the PPAI Board of Directors and served as PPAI’s board chair in 2009-2010. “My passion and repetitive, consistent and clear messaging led to the mobilization of hundreds of members. It also resulted in the development of easy‐to‐follow, easy‐to‐understand tools to help others become advocates for our industry,” she says. “These tools are still being used to this day, and they guarantee PPAI’s calls to action can be answered in timely and effective ways.” Lennarson often quotes humanitarian theologian Albert Schweitzer in saying, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.” She says it’s important for everybody in the industry to use their voice. “We’ve been able to change language in a bill so that it’s more favorable to our industry. It’s so simple to send an email or make a call, and by doing so, have an impact. You’ve made a difference and made your voice count. Your voice doesn’t count if you don’t use it.” 

Lennarson also credits her visualization skills as fundamental to her success. “I really believe in visioning and thinking through anything you are trying to accomplish,” she says. “Keep the end result in mind. Know what you want and then figure out how you are going to get there.” But she notes that it’s perfectly okay if your vision doesn’t turn out exactly how you imagined it. “Sometimes, it’s really exciting, going down a path that you didn’t expect, because you end up with unintended consequences or results you couldn’t have imagined—and they’re often better than what you could have predicted.”

Nominator Paul Kiewiet, MAS+, says the honor of Hall of Fame is reserved for people, like Lennarson, who have put a “dent in the universe.” He says, “Starting as an Association volunteer, she quickly assumed committee chairmanships, was elected to the board of directors and became the chair of the board. As board chair, she steered the Association to higher levels of advocacy with state and federal government. She saw a need and created a solution; a solution that has proven valuable and an important aspect of PPAI.” For Lennarson, volunteering has always been something that came naturally. “I grew up with parents who were involved in the community, the church and the neighborhood,” she says. “Volunteering was a way to share my time and talents. It was and seemed like the right thing to do. My personal motto is: having fun and getting things done. Volunteering is the perfect way to do both.” 

Lennarson was recipient of the PPAI Distinguished Service Award in 2013 and was honored with  the PPAI Woman of Achievement Award in 2015. “One opportunity to volunteer almost always leads to another,” she says. “Whether it was the Chamber of Commerce, the rehab center, the men’s homeless shelter, the HIV/AIDS network, my church or PPAI, I was always stretched, stimulated, humbled and gratified by volunteering. It brings richness to life that cannot be achieved in any other way.” Lennarson wears her giving heart on her sleeve for all to see. Kiewiet says, “All of these accomplishments have been achieved with a level of kindness and caring that inspires. Many in our industry have received cards of appreciation and encouragement from this serial card-writer and blessing-giver.” 

Sherri Lennarson with her four younger brothers, (from left) Scott Cress, Russ Cress, John Cress and Daniel Cress, during a University of Iowa Hawkeyes football game tailgate in 2011.

For Lennarson, the proverbial glass is not merely half full, it’s overflowing. “There may be difficult circumstances and things we have to endure, but the one thing that I can control is my attitude. If you are concentrating on the positive, you can turn any situation around or at least, the worst of the situation can be made better.” She says hard times don’t last forever. “I envision that things will change. Patience is not a soft skill. It takes a lot of courage to patiently wait. You learn about gratitude during tough times and about the abundance that you have. You have to look at the bigger picture. If you look beyond your struggles, there’s so much more.” In 1996, Lennarson’s internal “Believe Attitude Counts” campaign won a PPAI Gold Pyramid Award. 

To someone just getting started in this industry, Lennarson says to go all in. “Be prepared to work hard. Never, ever lose your thirst for knowledge. Find a mentor and reach out to your regional association,” she says. “One thing about our industry is that people are so generous with sharing their experiences. I don’t know if there’s another industry where a competitor will share a lot of their secrets. So, if you can’t get involved with your regional association for whatever reason, call a competitor. More likely than not, they’ll share some tips. The industry is stronger when all of us strive to improve what we aredoing.” 

And while working hard, Lennarson says it’s important to never stop visualizing. In fact, it’s crucial to true success in the industry. “Plan your work, then work your plan. Those are the people who I find are successful. Commitment is really important. We can all have a dream, but it doesn’t come into fruition if we don’t take steps toward it.”

If there’s one thing she wants people to take from her, Lennarson says, it is that one must “believe attitude counts.” 


Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.