DEVIN O'BRIEN, 34
O’Brien Corporation, St. Charles, Ill.
Devin O’Brien never reaches for the easy win. According to his nominator, he works hard to set himself apart no matter the task—from leading cost-reduction and process improvement initiatives for large companies to seeking out the latest trends and custom tailoring programs to ease customer pain points. He asks the right questions and seems to have the answers. But that’s not to say his journey didn’t come without challenges. As a fledgling student, O’Brien never planned on joining the family print business his father, Brian O’Brien, built even though he regularly helped out with administrative tasks and program fulfillment. He attended Purdue University unsure of his track, but after taking some general classes, he found himself on a psychology major’s path. He later completed his master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and took a consultant job. Eventually, O’Brien left the Windy City behind to support his fiancé, who was accepted to dental school in Indianapolis. The year was 2009, and the market wasn’t kind to job seekers. After a few months of unsuccessful searching, O’Brien’s dad offered him a sales job in order to pay the bills. “I was happy someone wanted me, so I hit the streets and worked through the coldest of cold calls in a place where I essentially knew no one,” he said laughing. “I learned a lot and eventually moved back to my hometown to continue the process and take a leadership role with the organization. Ever since, I’ve been in sales or administration, wearing whatever hat is needed at the time.” He climbed the ranks, and since December 2017, O’Brien has been a partner at O’Brien Corporation, serving as co-CEO and administrator alongside his sister, Keri O’Brien-Soukup. Titles aren’t that important to the O’Briens, but crafting O’Brien Corporation into a better workplace matters. O’Brien focuses on new business development, marketing, website design and administration, performance management and strategic planning.
Why he loves his job: It’s full of new and exciting challenges, and each day brings something different to the experience. I’m thankful for the diversity of projects I’m able to work on and I’m provided an excellent opportunity to be creative. I have a chance to challenge the status quo and apply my experience and skills in unique ways. I like the people I work with and the clients I’ve grown close to. More than anything, I love to serve and couldn’t be happier to make someone’s life easier, which I get to do a lot of in this industry.
Age roadblocks and advantages: At 34, I feel like I’m in a good place with regard to age. When I first started off, I was green and made a number of mistakes. I tried too hard to sell products instead of ideas, or solve problems. ... I took “no” or no response too personally, as they’re better lessons than disappointments. Most importantly, I looked at business development as a task as opposed to [relationship-building], staying real to my prospects and myself. We’re all in this together; it’s OK to be yourself. It’s how you find the right clients, and not just anyone to buy from you. ... I would have found it hard to trust and accept me as a credible source back then. These days, I’m close in age to the fresh faces, but am also old enough to be a valid resource for those with a deeper history than my own.
As an early millennial in high school, I used payphones and couldn’t rely on the internet for more than AOL. By college, I had a cellphone and Facebook. Having lived through the technological transition, I feel I have a unique opportunity to relate to both sides of the coin. It’s sort of a generational sweet spot, in my opinion.
His biggest career influence: My first and biggest influence was Sandy Gordon, our rep for Norwood at the time. She shared a “Selling Promotional Products” slide deck with me and it got me excited about working in the industry. Ever since, she has reminded me of what positivity and being genuine with people can do for a young person in a new career.
We had David Blaze’s introductory and training DVDs at the office, and I watched every minute, taking notes along the way. I’ve referenced those for a long time, and had a chance to meet him at an ASI show several years back.
Generally, everyone I meet in the industry has come from a different background, applies a different approach and has their own unique style. I find value in learning from others’ experiences, so I do my best to learn something new from each person I meet.
His most meaningful business accomplishment: I started my career in a new state, in a new industry, with little knowledge on how to develop business. My training was to “go sell” (as my dad put it), and while I resented it for years, I now appreciate that I had the opportunity to do it the hard way—the same way my father did. Sink or swim, win or lose, live or die. It was humbling.
I called on everyone. I joined networking groups, pitched my terrible pitches and experienced trials of integrity. It was hard, I wanted to quit, and couldn’t believe I ended up in the family business. (I told myself I would never do it.) I pushed on and generated enough business to stay relevant. In my second year, I proposed a print program to a local hospital and—despite all odds—closed it. The experience I gained from the opportunity drove me to test my capabilities further, expanding my confidence and knowing deep down that I had a chance.
After several years in Indianapolis, I moved back to Chicago to take a leadership position with the organization. My biggest accomplishment is giving up everything and then learning how to get it back. It’s possible. We can all do this with our proper roles and organizations; never make excuses and live every day like your last. You’ll find yourself less worried about social media and TV, and more focused on the essentials in making yourself the best person you can possibly be.
His differentiating factor: While we’re always working on our processes and technology to keep up with the big boys, we still hold true to what makes our organization great: the basics. What’s fundamental is directing all activity toward customer satisfaction; if the customer is happy, they’ll prefer working with us and will continue to do so for as long as they’re able. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Be good to people and you’ll find yourself surrounded with constructive, positive relationships.
It doesn’t have to be surface level either. Here at O’Brien we do everything we can to treat our staff well, who, in turn, treat our customers well. We take pride in being people-first, as opposed to profits-first. While we have to obviously stay in business, O’Brien is a small part of the world where my colleagues and I can truly be ourselves and live our best lives. We spend so much time at work; why not make it great? It doesn’t have to be a grind; when we focus on the right activities, we feel good, and our clients ultimately prefer it.
What he hopes to accomplish in the next year: My vision for 2020 is a more ecological-conscious print and promotional products industry. Though difficult, I will steer clients toward USA-made, biodegradable and eco-friendly items for their projects. We waste so many resources shipping goods that will ultimately facilitate the erosion of the world as we know it.
Have you seen the giant pile of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean? It’s an ethical dilemma knowing and working in an industry that contributes a significant amount of waste. I believe if we don’t do something soon, our industry is going to become an artifact of the old world, and I would hate to see us distract ourselves further from what we know is right. We can sacrifice short-term gains for the sake of the industry’s longevity. I expect myself to contribute to a more robust and interesting future.
Why he believes the future is bright: With foreign tariffs, peak shipping and a call to action to give our environment a breather, it can, at times, look bleak. Then again, we’re an industry of creative problem-solvers, and there is nothing that drives excellence more than a humbling challenge. I personally think the industry is going to radically change over the next five years. We’re already seeing the shift to higher-end and name-brand goods, more targeted communications and, of course, our industry’s integration with the internet and digital marketing.
Change can be difficult, but I welcome the newness of 2020 and the excitement of the future. There are some amazing people ready to change the world out there. They’re in our industry, and I can’t wait to see what they bring to the table. It’s going to be a fantastic decade for us.
How the industry can better recruit young talent: Our industry, for better or worse, is extremely easy to get into. When it comes to marketing (and let’s say, post-grads), there are a lot of more prestigious opportunities out there. I personally find our industry incredibly interesting, as you can do literally anything with the resources available to us, but many young people don’t know it. In one sense, our industry has a branding challenge. We’re not all tchotchke salesmen, and one can get extremely creative in an industry as custom as ours.
The environment, however, is top of mind for our younger colleagues. Our brand should be that of conscious marketers as opposed to “waste slingers.” I can’t speak for everyone here, so forgive me, but I know we’ll have to shift our image if we want younger generations to continue joining the ranks as print and promotional products professionals. It isn’t going to be easy. We have to show them that our industry is built for longevity and will continue to grow in an ethical and thoughtful manner. They, [along with] my organization, are dedicated to a sustainable future—for our business’ sake and for that of our shared society at large.
What he does for fun: I like to read and practice philosophy, journal and play music. I’m a drummer in a local band and I enjoy hiking and exploring the world. Other than that, it’s a daily self-improvement journey to figure myself out and be the best person I can with the resources available to me. There are only so many things we can control in the world, and I’m trying my best to make the most of those I can with the time given to me.
Additional thoughts: Whether she knows it or not, my sister has been a massive influence in my life—from my youth to the present. We’re opposites in a way and she can speak to the genuineness of people better than anyone I know. Where I can get caught in the clouds, she’s grounded and has people’s best interests at heart. I’m very lucky to have her in my life and I am thankful for the opportunity to build a business with her.