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Promotional products firm thrives on reputation - The Business Journal of Milwaukee: by Katie Schmitt

January 26, 2007

National Premium Inc. is one of the largest promotional products companies in the nation and has been in business for 40 years, but many of its prospective -- and existing -- customers are more focused on price than reputation.

"One of the biggest challenges we face is the tendency for our customers to look at this as a commodity-driven business," said Warren Lillund, vice president of sales for the Pewaukee firm.

Thus, in recent years, the management of National Premium has put more of its resources into promoting the family-owned firm's commitment to customer care, custom products and meeting deadlines. The strategy seems to be working -- sales at National Premium continue to grow and the company plans to add an office in the Netherlands.

National Premium's 2006 revenue was $23.4 million and is projected this year to be $23.6 million. Sales have increased more than $7 million since 2000.

The company has 72 employees and offices in Chicago, Minneapolis and two locations in Florida. The Netherlands office is in the works to accommodate an existing customer in Europe and expand the company's international customer base.

President and chief executive officer Dick Schmidt, 72, and his wife, Kay, started National Premium in 1967, working out of their house. Dick Schmidt worked part-time in the promotional products business and saw a demand for more businesses, so with his savings and a small loan from First Wisconsin Bank, he started his own company. Three years later, it became a full-time operation and moved to its first office in Elm Grove.

Family roles

The business in 1999 settled into its current leased office and warehouse in Pewaukee. Schmidt's son, Steve, is vice president of major accounts and his son, Scott, works in sales.

Dick Schmidt said he is considering several options for his succession plan but has not decided on one yet.

National Premium is ranked in the top 0.5 percent of the nation's promotional products and marketing companies by industry publications such as the Counselor. Its clients range from small businesses to major corporations, including Rexnord Inc., Snap-on Inc., GE Security and Dreyer's ice cream.

National Premium supplies customers with branded merchandise and services as well as awards and incentive programs for their employees.

The firm's services consist of account management, customer service, product and project management and marketing support. The staff of National Premium also conceptualizes designs, finds suppliers and assists with production of printed materials.

The firm can tap hundreds of promotional products available from suppliers including such brand names as Columbia, Cross and Titleist. A brief list of some of the items available includes yo-yos, wearables, backpacks, mousepads, coffee mugs, sports bottles and wristbands. National Premium customizes them to carry the identity of a given client's company.

National Premium emphasizes getting to know its customers and learning their needs, their budget and their marketing goals.

"We want to be a valued resource for our customers, not just a vendor," said Kim Rivest, vice president of operations.

Bevy of competitors

With an estimated 16,000-plus promotional products distributors in the country, National Premium management is well aware that numerous competitors can woo customers with lower prices.

Some of National Premium's larger customers vouch for its customer service.

Jenne Meyer of Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Milwaukee, said she has worked with other promotional products companies but said National Premium is significantly better in terms of service.

"National Premium is very good at building relationships," said Meyer, who is Harley's manager of experience development and product development. "It's not often that you find a company that is truly service-oriented anymore and they are."

Plaudits also come from an executive with Snap-on Inc., Kenosha, which relies on National Premium to supply calendars and dealer-direct catalogs. Snap-on has been a customer of National Premium for 30 years.

"So to me that's saying a lot," said Linda Miller, who is category manager for licensing.

Miller said National Premium's pricing is competitive and moreover, its staff helps out when other suppliers are unable to meet orders.

"They'll drive down in a second to make sure everything's right," said Miller. "I can count on them."

National Premium keeps up with the latest in marketing trends and products and technology, said John Gleason, vice president and chief financial officer. Even the promotional pen is no longer just a pen -- it can be a voice recorder and a laser pointer.

There are hundreds of thousands of things one can apply a logo to, from bobbleheads to luggage tags, and National Premium's staff seems eager to think of many more. Rivest said she enjoys it when clients want custom-made products and National Premium's staff develops a concept. Two examples are a coffee mug in the shape of a parrot and a bank in the shape of a company's mascot.

National Premium is committed to fulfilling every customer's needs has created a loyal customer base.

National Premium provides products for Rexnord's online company store as well as events like golf outings. Rexnord has worked with other promotions companies, but National Premium's local presence and personal touch give the firm an advantage, said Robb Clawson, Rexnord's director of marketing communications.

"I've never had them tell me they can't do something," Clawson said. "They're looking to build and maintain a relationship, not make a sale."

How to Increase Your Sales with Promotional Products While Saving Time and Money

When it comes to making an unforgettable impression on your target audience, nothing gets your message across quite like the right promotional products. Promotional items can be gifted out to current customers or potential clientele at trade shows and events to help you achieve visibility.


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