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 Robert T. O’Connell, president of Vanguard, New York. Here, he talks about shifting consumer habits, the two sides of technology and his company’s decision to diversify.
How did you first get started in this industry, and what path did you take to land in your current role?
Robert T. O’Connell: I wish I could say that working at Vanguard was the master plan, but that just wasn’t the case. I was an auditor for a large public accounting firm and realized that I had an “entrepreneurial” fire inside of me that I wanted to pursue. At that time (early 1980s—yes, I’m starting to look like a relic), Vanguard was a small family business run by my father and two older brothers. They were doing great with sales, but needed someone with a financial background. I was hired to be the controller, and [I was] responsible for all financial matters. Since my dad and brothers didn’t think much of accountants at the time, they gave me a sales book and told me to go out and make cold calls in my spare time. Whether they realized it or not, this turned out to be a pivotal moment in my career at Vanguard. Not only did I learn to manage the money, I also learned what it took to sell and support customers. In the early ’90s, my two older brothers went to pursue other business opportunities, while one of my brothers, Donald, stayed on with me and we began the re-engineering [of] Vanguard. Even though I became president and Don the executive vice president, we are really partners that share in the duties of managing and growing Vanguard. We have a first-rate senior management staff that is vital to our continued success.
How do you set goals for yourself? For your business?
RTO: Each year, management conducts budgeting and planning sessions for the following year. We monitor the progress, at least quarterly, on our progress. We don’t get too concerned about monthly goals since much of our work can come cyclically. We try to be big-picture planners even though we micromanage the financials. Personally, I get input during the year from management and staff as to how I can be of better service to them. I see my job as simply keeping things moving forward, so that my staff can be successful. I never lose sight of to whom I report: our clients.
What do you expect to be some of the biggest changes the industry will face?
RTO: On the print side, we are continuing to integrate print into our digital offering instead of just selling print as the solution. With respect to digital, Vanguard has built an offering that starts with delivery of killer creative ideas and solutions. We operate with expertise in all of the digital medias, be it social media activation, web, or a traditional TV or video spot. This allows us to be client-centric with respect to the best use of their budgets. For instance, an activation to increase membership in an organization may result in an integrated campaign of print and social medias with a creative and targeted approach. Today, our clients are much more open to do campaigns and projects that integrate print and digital.
What keeps you up at night?
RTO: The choice is whether to be really good at one thing or pretty good at many things. We’ve chosen to try to be really good at a few things (e.g., creative, print, promo and digital). Not easy to do, but we have the right staff to do it. This plays into what keeps us up at night, industry-wise. The cost and attention necessary to stay ahead of the technology curve is significant. We have been committed to this for a long time, as we always want to have the proper solutions for our clients. The cost of this learning curve and the staff necessary to succeed is significant. Sometimes, I jokingly wish we sold one type of widget only to our clients. But that would be boring, right? Yes, we do like to complicate our lives.
What do you think is the most exciting, cutting-edge thing your company is doing right now? Why?
RTO: We built a robust e-commerce system for promotional branding that allows us to sell globally. We made significant key hires in our promotional division that allow us to provide clients with great ideas rather than just products. Equally exciting has been the simultaneous elevation of our creative division that now allows us to provide “agency-level” work to our clients with both digital and traditional medias. This division supports clients with award-winning and impactful campaigns. We are also working on some proprietary technology developments that will have a huge impact on the industry we are serving in the very near future.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
RTO: Even though I’m from New York, I’m actually a nice guy. Seriously, I attribute much of my personal success to the balance I have in my life. My wife and I are very active with golf, tennis, hiking and biking. As difficult as it can be for a business owner, I try to leave my work at the office at the end of a day, so I can enjoy my family.