Executive Perspectives: Gregg Emmer, chief marketing officer, vice president of Kaeser & Blair Inc.
As part of Print+Promo’s ongoing feature, Executive Perspectives, we get to know leading professionals in the print and promotional industry. This month, we interviewed Gregg Emmer, chief marketing officer, vice president of Kaeser & Blair Inc. (K&B), Batavia, Ohio. Here, he talks about industry concerns, being mindful of business lexicon and why we need to abandon the commodity-based mindset.
How did you first get started in this industry, and what path did you take to land in your current role?
Gregg Emmer: I ended up involved in graphic communications when I was given the OK to take a non-college-prep printing class my senior year of high school. Using what I learned, I was able to get a part-time job in printing when I was at the University of Cincinnati, and planned to be a printing teacher. But I ended up on the commercial side of the printing industry and eventually opened my own business. That business included distributing promotional ad specialties. I eventually (18 years later) sold that business and went to work with an old-line industry distributor. After [I had put in] a short time with them, an industry associate suggested that I talk to Richard (Dick) Kaeser about working with K&B. That talk went quite well, and now 28 years have gone by.
How do you set goals for yourself? For your business?
GE: My personal goals have always been to be moving forward and upward. This models my business goals, by the way. Life is a bell-shaped curve, and there’s no plateau ... either you are ascending or declining. Momentum may make things look steady, but the downward part of the curve is always just ahead. It has never been a hard target for me—just higher, faster, bigger, further than where I am now.
How does the economy continue to affect the industry?
GE: Too many people and organizations in this industry have put emphasis on the products we use rather than on the work we do. That has allowed us to be an easy target when businesses want to tighten their belts. After all, it is just promotional products. ... By putting the focus on the tools we use, much of it disparaging, a sluggish economy will have businesses and governments cutting out what we sell. Fortunately, the overall economy has rebounded with enough strength that we are seeing companies re-embrace promotional advertising and specialty marketing.
What do you expect to be some of the biggest challenges the industry will face?
GE: Distributors and salespeople [who] approach this as a product industry [had] better polish up their résumés, as they will surely be out of work in the near future. Retail and the strange little corner of retail [that] specialty advertising [is] generally thought to be in [are] being eroded by online mega-players. If it is only about selling “stuff,” they can do it faster, better and at [a] lower cost. So, the biggest challenge is to be something more. We have to be a valuable asset to our business customers and clients, bringing them concepts for continued business growth. We have to make products a secondary focus. And, we have to stop making negative comments about the products. Any slang derogatory reference (e.g., swag, trash and trinkets, etc.) is not cute, campy, “in,” modern or clever. If your customers use these terms, correct them. Sell great business outcomes, not products.
What keeps you up at night?
GE: Between Prop 65 and U.S. tariffs, publishing six catalogs each year is getting to be a real uphill battle. Both have an element of a moving target. Not knowing when things will be added to the “65” list or if tariffs will be added or eliminated makes it an impossible task. The significant liability both these issues represent has cost me a few hours of sleep.
What do you think is the most exciting, cutting-edge thing your company is doing right now? Why?
GE: The information technology and systems people at K&B are both amazing, cutting-edge wizards and a big pain in the neck. Technology moves quickly and K&B has been at the leading edge. Unfortunately, that means having to learn new programs, training systems, processes and more. The trade-off is worth it. Our remote dealer organization is better able to manage their businesses with the online tools K&B provides to them, giving them real-time information and making it easier to place their business with K&B than [with] any other distributor. More business is always the most exciting thing.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
GE: I was a working magician at age 14, working in Greenwich Village. I have owned a business consulting company listed with D&B for 36 years. I was (am?) a gunsmith and small arms mechanic mostly focusing on antique arms. I collect 18th- and 19th-century canes and other antiques. I was the president of two different musical theater production companies and won awards for set design. I ride bicycles and motorcycles (more motorcycles than the self-powered, two-wheel vehicles lately). I’ve been hugged by Linda Carter, and I’ve shaken Rudy Giuliani’s hand (and I’m happy it wasn’t the other way around).