The Innovator  Behind The Scenes

Tom Mertz was a bit reluctant to be interviewed. Although he has built an illustrious career in the promotional products industry and holds a high-profile position as chief executive officer for TradeNet Publishing Company, he prefers to stay behind the scenes and let his employees shine in the spotlight. But Mertz’s life and career are too remarkable to gloss over.

Growing up on a farm near Manhattan, Kansas, Mertz and his family put in long, hard hours. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Kansas State University and then returned to help his father and brothers on the family farm for 10 years. It was here that his gift for innovation was first realized. 

His childhood exposure to machinery and mechanics, combined with his interest in the introduction of computers at Kansas State, motivated him to try his hand as an entrepreneur. Or, as he humbly puts it, “I got bored and wanted to try new projects.” As a side business to farming, Mertz started a machinery and livestock locator service.

“The service started out as a toll-free phone number with operators,” Mertz explains. “I then learned typesetting and printing, and I hired several artists so we could evolve to [produce] a paid circulation shopper.”

In 1986, Mertz left farming and interviewed for a job with a company that sold ads on phone book covers. He didn’t take the job because he felt strongly that the ads would work better as part of a wipe-off memo board. Using his design experience, he began building and selling erasable message boards with business card-sized ads around the outside of the board. 

It was a manual and tedious process that he ran from home. “I started out designing boards at night and selling during the day. I printed and cut the ads, then I would laminate them and attach magnets. As the business grew, I hired some home-based workers to help me, and after a few months we moved to a small office,” he says.

The message boards were a hit with insurance and real estate agents, and the business took off. To better understand the business, Mertz turned to Charles and John McNeer at Newton Manufacturing. “They taught me how the promotional products industry worked and got me started selling through distributors,” he says.

For the first five years, the 8 ½ x 11 memo boards were TradeNet’s only product. Priced at 99 cents apiece, they were in high demand. Mertz continued to innovate, building his own laminators with magnet material on the bottom, which is how he transitioned to the magnet business. Always ahead of the game, Mertz says, “I introduced full-color offset magnets when everyone else was silk screening.”

Like most new businesses, TradeNet experienced growing pains (“Managing cash is always an issue when you are broke,” Mertz jokes), but the company experienced double-digit growth for 20 consecutive years. TradeNet later added sticky notes, wall calendars and direct mail capabilities to its product offerings, but the company has never strayed far from its roots.

Mertz says, “We have always tried to not tackle too many things but instead, do a few things really well. Most of our products come from a few common substrates. Even though we have very low inventory, we’re able to make a lot of items.” In addition, they continue to manufacture products using proprietary equipment designed to meet their specifications.

True to form, Mertz credits his employees with much of the company’s success. He says his hiring philosophy is to “keep wages in the top quartile of the labor market, hire good people and get out of the way.” He actively seeks out people who genuinely care about making their customers happy. “We are aggressive about putting together a highly trained team that wants to work together and serve our customers,” he stresses.

Another crucial contributor to TradeNet’s success is Mertz’s early adoption of technology. In fact, he says the company was one of the first suppliers in the promotional products industry to offer online order entry, proofing, tracking and order status updates on its website. “I believe we had all this functionality in 1999,” Mertz remembers. “After a couple of years, distributors were telling me they wished every supplier had it. I decided to start changing our code to support multiple suppliers, and we started [business services company] DistributorCentral.”

“Growth of DistributorCentral has been tremendous, and we hire additional programmers every quarter,” says Mertz. “We have pretty much every product a distributor needs from top-rated suppliers.” In 2017, DistributorCentral will tally over one billion product searches for over 6,000 distributor websites, he adds.

About five years ago, Mertz opted to take a step back from leading TradeNet. However, he was disappointed in the results and the diminishment of the company culture he had built. Three years in, he canceled the experiment and was met with much applause when he reestablished himself at the helm.

Today, Mertz continues to drive TradeNet with his characteristic work ethic and continuous improvement approach. “We are really focused on eliminating anything that slows down orders and requires time from both the distributor and supplier,” he says. “We ship exact quantities and strive not to have any hidden charges or surprises. We pride ourselves on doing what we say we are going to do.”

In addition to his work at DistributorCentral and TradeNet, Mertz has his hands full at home. He and his wife, Donna, have six children and five grandchildren, and they spend a lot of weekends watching the grandkids participate in activities. 

They also like to jump in the car and drive without a plan, finding themselves at places such as Glacier National Park, a scenic overlook in Oregon or along the coast of California. “We’re road-trippers,” he says. “When we drive to The PPAI Expo in Las Vegas, we always like to stop in Arizona or Colorado for a few days.”

Despite potential obstacles such as stainless steel refrigerators that do not support magnets, Mertz is optimistic about the future and adding capacity at his company. “There is a lot of growth opportunity in the consumer market, and we are going to be a significant player,” he asserts. With his history of growing TradeNet from a laminator and an X-ACTO knife to a $20 million enterprise with 95 employees, there is absolutely no doubt. 

Terry Ramsay is  associate  editor of PPB.