Executive Perspectives: Michael Levy of Compass Industries
As part of Print+Promo Marketing’s ongoing feature, Executive Perspectives, we get to know leading professionals in the print and promotional industry. This month, we interviewed Michael Levy, president of Compass Industries, New York City. Here, he talks about what motivates him, shares his rules for Zoom success and celebrates the power of connections.
How did you get started in this industry, and what path did you take to land in your current role?
Michael Levy: First and foremost, we are a family business. ... We’re actually also celebrating our 85th year in business. ... My father was Werner Levy. His partner and brother was Frank Levy. Frank’s son is Joshua Levy, my partner, and believe it or not, Frank Levy still comes into work every day. ... So, how I got involved in this, obviously, graduated [from Emory University in Atlanta] in 1985 and went into the business more to give my dad a break. He never took a vacation. He worked very hard. So, that was my reason for joining, more so that he could relax and try to take a break. And that was about the same exact time that we got the Maglite flashlight line, which led to an entrée into the promotional products business. And I absolutely fell in love with the promotional products business. I felt there was a tremendous sense of loyalty. I felt I could make a difference and really put Compass into this part of the industry full force. And that was my goal.
How do you set goals for yourself? For your business?
ML: My goals in the business have always been A) since I am a family business, I treat all the distributors as family, and I treat all my employees as family. It’s always been very important to me to be well-liked. And it’s very important for the company and myself to have excellent customer service because I think that’s the most important thing in the industry. From a business standpoint, my goals have always been to try to increase business. So, you know, the pandemic hit, and I think everybody got really scared. We actually had a phenomenal 2020, a great 2021, and first quarter of 2022 was already ahead of the previous two years, so we’re doing something right. And I would say in 2019, I set up a sales goal for all employees that if we increase our business from the prior year’s month’s sales, everybody would get a little bonus. And, at first, I didn’t think it would mean anything, and it’s unbelievable the satisfaction that my people get when I tell them at the end of the month, ‘You guys got it.’ And everybody feels good — whether it’s a warehouse worker to an order entry person to that art department, I always stress that I’m not getting these orders, we’re getting these orders. I’ve always made it sure that people love to work for me, but I always give my blessing when somebody chooses a different path, but I have lifers; they don’t leave because they love the company, they love the philosophy, and they know they have a really nice boss.
How does the economy continue to affect the industry?
ML: So, I mean, listen, if we don’t watch the stock market, I think corporate America is coming back to spending money, but they want to spend it wisely. They’re not having these lavish parties and giving out fancy gifts in these parties. I think that they are spending money. It’s a great way to advertise because you’re giving something that is well-received. And I really believe that the shift toward better products, lifestyle products, consumer products is where they want to put their money to. The days of having a party and inviting 400 people or having a sales conference with 600 people and wining and dining them for three days, and training during the day and giving them a swag bag in their hotel room … when you can do this sales training by Zoom and then maybe send a gift afterwards for their attendance, it saves the client money, and the gift is so much more appreciated. I refuse to believe in doom and gloom. You have to be optimistic, and you have to love what you’re doing, and you have to realize we’re going to get through all the tough things that we’ve had, and everything is going to be good at the end of the tunnel, and it will.
What do you expect to be some of the biggest changes or challenges the industry will face?
ML: We’ve seen a change in the trade show philosophy over the years because I think with the advent of the internet and creative marketing, I don’t know if everybody needs to do a trade show. I think it’s very important to have representation that services the clients. So, it’s very important to me that I have a very active multiline group. I think they’re great. They’re all phenomenal at what they do. They all work very, very hard. But it’s hard to be everywhere at once, so I think that’s very important to constantly be reaching out to people. Now, we’re very careful with our email marketing. We don’t want to overload people, but when we send out something, it’s a phenomenal piece of marketing.
What keeps you up at night?
ML: Probably the wrong guy to ask that, but one thing I like to say is I like to at least relax at night, and each night I know that I’ve done the best I could do during the day. I know I’m going to have to wake up early the next morning to catch up. Unfortunately, you’re always getting emails, but one thing I do tell people, and I do tell customers, is you’re never bothering me. Email me 24/7. I want you to ask questions. I don’t mind an open-ended email that says, ‘Hey Mike, I’m really stuck. I have an engineering client that wants 25 items for a picnic in three weeks. Any ideas?” I love those emails because what we tell people is, ‘We’ll be able to show you items that you’ve never seen before.’. ... My marketing department is right on top of that. My art department is right on top of that. Send us the logo, we’ll send you a presentation of items to offer that will be different than what you’re used to thinking. And I think people really appreciate the fact that we are accessible all the time. It’s not like you get an away message at 5:01, OK?
What do you think is the most exciting, cutting-edge thing your company is doing right now?
ML: We’re very proud of the Zooms and webinars we do. ... There are a couple of rules of a Zoom that I think distributors need to understand: A) I want you in and out within 30 minutes because I know you’re busy, you want to be selling, so I’m fine to make this a 30-minute session. B) You have to be interesting, and I like to say I’m fairly entertaining, but I think the key thing is I am educating and informing. We have such a niche product line that people are amazed what we’re showing them in these Zooms. So, I can be the world’s greatest salesman, but if I was selling pens, I can’t promise you I’m going to be that interesting. But because I’m showing them Leatherman tools, Zippo lighters, Maglite flashlights, MPOWERD lanterns, and I’m explaining why these are all working, people just have a great time with our Zooms.
We’re [also] constantly adding name brands to our mix of things, and I think that helps and it gets us excited. A lot of manufacturers in the retail industry, they look at this industry and they’re like, ‘How do we do it?’ and it’s not the easiest thing to do because if you try to do it yourself, it’s a lot of cost involved and it’s very hard to get known right away. So, I love when a manufacturer reaches out to me and they say, ‘Hey Mike, I’ve heard some crazy things about your company. I see what you do. Let’s get together.’ I love those conversations, and like one of the new lines we added, I’m going to say was September 2021 was Vapur. It is a water bottle that is meant to be folded, and it is doing unbelievably well. And when I feature it in my Zooms, I like to say one … right away, that the orders we’re getting are from Fortune 1000 companies. So, I think what’s happening is giant companies are realizing that they want to be sustainable. This is an incredible usable product. It is the best in its brand-focused product, and I’ve got to start giving out this Vapur stuff. To me, I have to tell people that because we’re not getting orders from Bob’s Garage, we’re getting orders from Pepsi, we’re getting orders from Amazon, we’re getting orders from Chevrolet. You know, we’re getting orders from these giant companies. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 100-piece order or a 1,000-piece order. It just shows that this is a brand that people are understanding, so I do get excited about new products. One of our designs has done very well — No. 4361. It is a Snowflake Tool that we have an incredible video that we urge distributors to share with their clients and I know this sounds very basic, but it is a really cool item. And to us, that’s what sells. When somebody takes an item and goes, ‘That’s a really cool item’ or “Wow, that’s an amazing item,’ the distributor is 90% of the way to the sale when somebody says that. It’s very easy to show seven items and say, ‘Pick one you like.’ But when you show one item and the client goes, ‘Wow, this is a really neat cool item,’ you’ve got them hooked. Now you just say, ‘Hey, I can laser engrave your logo on it, your minimum is 100 pieces,’ and you’re there. So, we are always trying to help the distributor…once they place their orders, they know it’s easy, but we’re also helping them get their orders as well.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
ML: I’m related to Albert Einstein. I think my grandmother was his cousin. A second one would be I’m a diehard sports fan. ... Here’s an interesting story. When I was a youth, I was looked upon as being a very good baseball player — not from the skill aspect, but from the mental aspect. I just knew the game backwards and forwards. And at that time, my gym teacher at school was a scout for a Major League Baseball team, and then he told me he’s leaving, and I should write him a note every year, because this is many moons ago, on my height and my weight. So, I think when I was in 11th grade, I wrote him and said, ‘4’11”, 97 lbs.’ And he wrote back, ‘No need to write anymore.’ So that was the end of my supposed baseball career.