During the Counselor Awards event at ASI Show Chicago last week, Advertising Specialty Institute chairman Norman Cohn was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his 70 years of contribution to the industry.

ASI’s staff had kept the honor a secret from Cohn and his wife Suzanne up until Gene Geiger, board chair of distributor Geiger, took the stage to introduce him. Historically, ASI has made its own personnel ineligible for the awards.

“I am humbled and honored, and surprised, just to say the least,” said Cohn, 90, following an extended standing ovation from the industry leaders in attendance. “I have tears. I will not forget this ever.”

As a senior in high school, Cohn started his industry career working as a distributor in Iowa, selling company Christmas gifts. His family, which had been in the grocery store business, later began to purchase promotional products suppliers, and in 1962 sold off its position as the industry’s largest supplier in order to purchase ASI from founder Joseph Segel.

The family relocated to Pennsylvania to fully embrace the company and industry, and five years later Cohn was named ASI chairman. Since then, the promotional products industry has grown some 50-fold, from roughly a $500 million industry in the United States, to $25.5 billion last year, according to PPAI research.

“Given his genius for enabling suppliers and distributors to know and do business with each other, no single person has played a more significant role in our mutual success,” Geiger said in his introduction.

In recognition of Cohn’s achievements, PPAI Media offered more veteran promo leaders the opportunity to share their reflections on his contribution to the industry, and to them personally.

Dale Denham, MAS+, President and CEO, PPAI

“From firsthand experience, I know just how smart Norman Cohn is, and what an impressive leader. Of all the people I have met during my career in this industry, he is among those I respect the most. I tried to learn all that I could from him during my 10 years working at ASI. He is an aggressive competitor, while still remaining kind and deeply caring about people.

Every time I see Norman, I am amazed by his energy. His passion for our industry is always evident, and we are all lucky that he has devoted so much of his life to this business.”

Gene Geiger, Board Chair, Geiger

“No industry person has his span of work and accomplishments. For more than 70 years he has known, worked with, mentored and inspired virtually every key player and has been involved with every change and inflection point.

Norman Cohn has been one of a very few who helped shape our industry and embody it. He has earned his place on our industry’s Mount Rushmore. And each of us has benefitted from his vision and his life’s work.”

Jonathan Isaacson, Executive Chair, Gemline

“After I bought Gemline in 1994, I happened to be attending a trade show when I saw Norman Cohn across the hall. I did not really know him, but I managed to catch up with him, and after one conversation, I decided that I would somehow find him at any event that he and I were at together. That turned out to be a great decision, and I have now done it for almost 30 years. I remain grateful for the time together and hope to continue these conversations for as long as possible.

Norman Cohn is smart, thoughtful, a gentleman, and a fierce competitor. He has been very successful, yet he is grateful for what he has. He genuinely appreciates the industry, which manifests in his deep personal commitment to his customers.”

Paul Lage, MAS, TMInternational, PPAI Hall of Fame

“Norman has been one of the most influential people in our industry during our lifetime. He has been an innovator and a driver of growing our profession. We all know him for his smile and words of wisdom.

We are all so happy that he is being honored with this special award!”

Jeff Lederer, Co-owner and CEO, Myron

“I remember Norm from the first ASI trade show I attended when I first got into the industry working side by side with my father, Bob. Norm would always use the traffic at Prime’s booth as a barometer of how the overall show was.

“He was so friendly, down to earth and supportive from the first day to my last show, and even to personally congratulating me on buying Myron recently. He’s the true epitome of what a successful businessperson – industry friend – looks like.

A special congratulations, Norm, from me and my father, Bob Lederer.”

Cliff Quicksell, MAS+, President and CEO, Cliff Quicksell Associates, PPAI Hall of Fame

“I have had the pleasure of knowing Norman for nearly 40 years. What a unique human being. Those who don’t know him may find him quiet and reserved, but he is an amazing force of leadership, humanity, compassion, caring – he is a giving soul.

I often tell the story of watching Norman walking the concourse at the ASI Orlando Show about 10 years ago. There were four people – you could tell it was their first show – rearranging their samples and catalogs in a suitcase, sitting on the floor. Norman walked over and said hello, asked them how they liked the show, and thanked each of them for attending. No grand entrance. No major introduction and fanfare, just a genuine approach and a kind word, the true sign of a leader.

Congratulations, Norm, on your most deserved award.”

Marc Simon, CEO, HALO

“As Gene Geiger was delivering his beautiful articulation at the Counselor Awards dinner of all that Norman Cohn has meant to the industry as a whole and individually to the many industry participants, I reflected on Norman and all he meant to me and to HALO.

When I joined HALO in early 2001, HALO was beleaguered and in a near certain death spiral. The easy thing for Norman to have done, popular with much of the ASI membership, would have been to join the chorus and pile on. But not Norman. Instead, he took the time to learn who HALO’s new management was and what its plans were. He gave us a fair chance and remained intellectually honest when he could have put the final nail in our coffin.

All else that Norman has accomplished aside, I will forever be grateful to him for this. That is why I approached Norman when he came off the stage with Gene to thank Norman for all he has meant to me, to my family, to my company and to the industry.”

Mary Ellen Sokalski, MAS, PPAI Hall of Fame

“Back in 1981, I was hired as a copywriter at ASI and began to observe the magic conjured up by its chairman Norman Cohn among our employees, clients and his pioneering ventures to advance the industry.

A decade later, I was lucky to be on his team who launched ASI’s first digital technology service, ESP, to the market. I worked side by side with him, watching his vision become reality, in a technology-hesitant industry. He was the Jedi Master at selling, and even without a working product at our trade show launch, had distributors drooling to be one of the first to try it.

I was in awe of how he understood his customers, his dedication to serve them and keep our industry growing in this competitive market. He was an amazing boss. He listened, took your advice, let you do your job, and continually thanked you for a job well done – one of the greatest mentors in my career.”