Preferred Vendors

Corporate buyers want strategic partners, not only suppliers

Ralph Weaver turned his passion for collecting decorative accessories into a lucrative business venture. Headquartered in Pittstown, New Jersey, East West Connection (EWC) is a provider of promotional and custom merchandise, business gifts, and event planning.

Established in 1990, the firm has become the preferred vendor at several corporations, with its revenues reaching $15.4 million in 2004. Weaver, 50, attributes his success to the business relationships he has formed with corporate clients. Inspiration to pursue corporate accounts came after a customer made a request for 500 crystal bowls. “At that point, I realized that businesses not only had the money, but also the need to purchase hundreds of specialty items,” says Weaver.

After an unsuccessful bid to a Response for Proposal, Weaver learned that corporate contracts required a higher level of proficiency. As a small business, it is important to have the infrastructure in place to serve corporate clients both domestically and internationally. In addition, having the ability to deliver large quantities of goods quickly gives small businesses the competency to compete against larger companies. “Even though EWC did not win the contract, the review panel did provide me with insightful feedback as to why my company was not selected, says Weaver.” He used this advice to refine his business. Weaver hired more people, bringing his staff up to 23 employees with specialized skills in accounting, sales, and customer service.

Bunni Wheeler-Young, a senior specialist in the supplier diversity unit at Freddie Mac, has developed a strong business relationship with EWC. “EWC is what I consider a ‘blue-chip’ company because it understands our company, our needs, and is able to execute our requests to the fullest,” she says.

Bennie F. Giles, president of Creative Advertising Techniques, says knowledge of the industry can help businesses gain large clients. Giles and Weaver offer the following advice:

Be Open to Feedback. Take a hard look at your organization’s strengths and weaknesses and improve upon them, suggests Weaver. Giles adds, “Even if you lose a bid on a particular project, look at how it evolves and see how you could have enhanced it.”

Do Your Homework. Giles recommends that custom merchandise vendors become members of the Promotional Products Association International. He also suggests learning the language of the industry, “so that when you do approach a company, you’ll have an understanding of the things that it considers to be important.” Weaver suggests that you understand your client’s history, culture, and product needs.

Stay Focused and Persistent. Have the personal fortitude to do what you need to do to succeed.

Form Strategic Alliances. Weaver suggests working with other entrepreneurs to pool resources, talent, and opportunities. Giles adds, “A strategic partnership with a larger promotional products company within the industry may be beneficial to a small business.”

Also, contact firms that offer minority outreach programs and your local Small Business Administration. Contact the Promotional Products Association International (www.ppa.org; 888-426-7724).

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