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Counselor Senior Editor Michele Bell's slanted view of the world.

PPAI’s NALC in NOLA: Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!

Filed under: Editorial, Fun, Travel

Well, hey there!

I’m just back from PPAI’s fantastic North American Leadership Conference, held from August 12-14 at the OmniHotel in New Orleans and wowza, was it a time!

With the tagline, “Innovative. Inspirational. Insightful.,” PPAI’s event — panel discussions, keynotes and networking events — scored on all three counts, starting with Bridgeworks’ Seth Mattison, the keynote speaker who opened the event and discussed how to market and sell to four different generations: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials. I thought he was just spectacular, with truly eye-opening insights into each group. (Fact: Gen Xers are difficult to control as employees. Who knew? Well, probably everyone who works with me…).

Another favorite was Great Place to Work’s Sarah Cooke, who offered practical tips about how any company can attract and keep great employees and motivate them to perform at their peak. She then led a panel discussion with Sunrise Identity owner Mitch Mounger, BrandFuel co-owner Robert Fiveash and 4Imprint president Kevin Lyons-Tarr. Most interesting moment? When Mitch Mounger noted that his business got better when he decided to start sharing the company’s financial information with his employees. The transparency, he maintains, makes all the difference.

Unfortunately I had to miss the keynote from economist Loren Scott — who I hear was hilarious — and ending presentation from John Foley because I had to dash off to my room write/edit ASI’s supplier magazine that I handle. As my managing editor, Joe Haley, constantly reminds me when I travel, “deadlines stop for no one, not even you, Michele.”

So, in closing and before we get to the array of photos (aka “the evidence”) taken each night on Bourbon Street, four thoughts:

1. If you’ve never seen my pal Sharon Willochell, COO of Leed’s, speak on operational metrics, do so the next time you have the chance. She kills it.

2. Sitting through just one session on product safety during the NALC, my head was spinning and my brain started to cramp. Distributors, you might consider sending suppliers — who are on the front lines of the product safety issues — flowers and Godivas every week. They deserve it.

3. I’d like to give a special nod to BrandFuel’s Robert Fiveash, who wins the award for person I had The Best conversation with. Just the two of us, at the bar in the Omni Hotel. I could have sat there for hours, basking in his wit and wisdom. He is the cat’s meow.

4. I’d be remiss if didn’t thank PPAI’s president/CEO Paul Bellantone, executive vice president Bob McLean and their fantastic staff at PPAI for not only making Rich and me feel so welcome, but for inviting me to speak at the event. Your hospitality was much appreciated!

And now, without further ado, tons of photos from the event. You know, there’s a famous film called Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa that posits how a group of people who experience the same event together can have a completely different memory of it. That’s a little what a night on Bourbon Street is like … Just sayin’.


— M

Two of my favorites in the industry, Sweda president Jim Hagan (left) and Activate Promotions + Marketing president – and this year’s Counselor Distributor Entrepreneur of the Year — Fred Parker. From left: The lovely Nikki Stella, editor of Promo Marketing magazine; Rich Fairfield, ASI’s Chief Revenue Officer, publisher and — most importantly — my handler; and the one and only Mary Ellen Nichols, director of marketing at Bodek and Rhodes. Seriously, who’s more vivacious than Mary Ellen???
Trade Only executive vice president Bob Hechler (left), who delightfully calls me his favorite “strumpet,” and Logomark’s Nicholas Rubin. I just met Nicholas for the first time earlier this month at the SAAC Show, and he literally burst into verse upon being introduced to me, serenading me with a song from Grease. Kid. You. Not. (His voice, incidentally, is strikingly good.) (From left): Grapevine Designs’ Janie Gaunce; PPAI president/CEO Paul Bellantone; and Shepenco’s Natalie Townes, who’s also a PPAI board member and one of my BFFs. A word about Mr. Bellantone: We’ve both been in the industry for 15+ years and have always been friendly. But when my Mom was sick two summers ago and I had to take a leave of absence from work for two months to be in Tampa to take care of her, Paul, who follows me on Twitter, would periodically check in with me just to make sure I was okay. And for that simple, classy gesture, he will always have a special place in my heart.
(From left): Activate’s Fred Parker; Sunrise Identity’s Mitch Mounger (more on him later…) and BDA’s Rick Rayl at dinner the first night of PPAI’s NALC. (From left): BDA’s Rick Rayl; Bag Makers’ Christopher Duffy and HALO Branded Solutions’ Jamon Heller.
Oh, my. Look at these three amigos. Where they go, fun and wackiness follow. (From left): Gateway/CDI’s CONRAD FRANEY (in all caps because he is such a larger-than-life presence who’s as loud as I am!), PromoShop’s Memo Kahan (love, love, LOVE him!) and Norwood/BIC’s Dave Saracino, the only man I know who has a drink named for him. Have you ever had a “Saracino”? Trust me: It’s delightfully refreshing yet surprisingly potent…. A lot like its namesake. WorkflowOne’s suave Roger Burnett (left), a member of this year’s Counselor Hot List, with everyone’s favorite frequent flier and social media guru, Jetline’s Dana Zezzo.
The fabulous Natalie Townes and David Nicholson, president of Polyconcept North America, who she refers to as “The Rock Star.” Good Lord, it’s Randy Chen (left), owner of Impex and, as he calls himself – being 6’2” — “the Great Wall of China,” here with PromoShop’s Memo Kahan.
Let me say this with all seriousness and my hand to God: I have never taken a photo as freakin’ funny as the one you’ll see below. Some people, in our wonderful land of freedom and liberty, utilize picket signs to show their support for crucial societal issues affecting us all. So, in the grand tradition of those who choose to exert their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, BIC’s Dave Saracino and Sunrise Identity’s Mitch Mounger fight for an inherent need we all have, regardless of political party…
Sweda’s Scott Pearson (left) and Logomark’s Nicholas Rubin. I call Scott “Giggles” because he has the Best. Laugh. Ever. It’s downright infectious, I tell ya!
WorkflowOne’s Roger Burnett (left) and Russ Mogell, owner of Seven Sourcing. Russ and I, in our wild, youthful heyday, both used to frequent the beach town of Avalon, NJ, with our friends and would regularly see each other late night out at the bars. One of us now acts like a grown-up and no longer engages in such behavior, while the other is still a weekend libertine in Avalon. Would you like to place bets on which one’s which? Shepenco’s Natalie Townes and the fabulously fun Tiffany Tarr from Distributor Central. After dinner on the first night of PPAI’s NALC, a bunch of us found this awesome bar on Bourbon Street with a rockin’ cover band and – wait for it – a mechanical bull. Of course someone from our group of crazies rode the bull… Any guesses?
Bodek and Rhodes’ Marc Held and the omnipresent Mitch Mounger. Earlier in the evening, Marc was named as one of PPB’s Rising Stars – an honor he truly deserves. Who doesn’t adore Marc Held??? Natalie Townes and Randy Chen… It was at this point in the evening, about four hurricanes in, that Natalie’s and Randy’s shirts started to make me dizzy.
Oy. This may be the least attractive photo of me ever taken– I look swollen and sweaty… like a pasty Snookie. However, I’m posting it because it also contains Mr. Martin Varley, owner of Trade Only, who was delightfully charismatic and made me LOL that evening. My boys!!! (From left): Dave Saracino, Memo Kahan and Gateway/CDI’s Chuck Fandos. A word now, about my pal Chuckles: As the industry volunteer who was the point person behind this year’s PPAI NALC, he had a Herculean and time-consuming task – I know, because I’m very involved in the planning of ASI’s Power Summit. Events like this do not come together overnight and require a lot of organization and hard work. Chuck did it all, including handling speakers who were a pain in the ass and a nervous wreck (read: Me), deftly and with aplomb. To him, I raise a glass on behalf of everyone in attendance and say, thank you for a job so well done. You rock, Chuckles.
I did tell you that someone in our group would have the cojones to ride the bull in the bar in which we all converged on Bourbon Street after dinner the first night of the event, right? Well, meet CJ Schmidt, vice president of sales for Hit Promotional Products and our very own rhinestone cowboy. Not only did CJ manage to stay on the bull for a respectable amount of time, but when he did fall, he landed with the grace of a gymnast dismounting. It was beyond impressive (especially because it was 1:00 a.m.). On day two of the NALC, we were all on our own for dinner, and Rich Fairfield – my boss at ASI – and I were graciously invited to join Natalie Townes, Mary Ellen Nichols and some others. It was fantastic, and Mary Ellen, as only she can, acted as host, asking each dinner guest questions like, “What would your ultimate last meal be?” and “What would you do if you had $10 million?” Here’s Rich with Prime Line’s phenomenal Paula Shulman, who just celebrated 30 years with the company.
Here’s my pal Lauren Fox (left), with the EME Event, posing with Natalie Townes. (From left): SAGE president David Natinsky, Natalie Townes, and Danny Sirmon, president of Zebra Marketing Corp. What do I love about this photo? That David is holding Natalie’s coconut-shaped purse so she can pose pretty. You’re a trooper, David!
Mary Ellen and Rich, and Paula and Natalie, at our dinner at SoBou, a hot, new restaurant Mary Ellen found for us. Full disclosure: During dinner, I chose not to drink because I knew I had some “homework” to do for my NALC presentation on the history and future of the industry with Chuck Fandos the following day. At one point, Natalie, so flummoxed that I was only drinking Coke, declared it “unnerving … like one of the signs of the apocalypse.” Indeed. Fear not, as Natalie can attest, I made up for it the next night…  
Roger Burnett (left) and my beloved Craig Nadel, president of Jack Nadel Int’l. I wrote about Craig in my previous blog from the SAAC Show, and was just thrilled to see him twice in two weeks. For him — one of my quirky, eccentric favorites — I’d walk through fire. Gemline president Jonathan Isaacson (left) and Craig Nadel.
PPAI’s Paul Bellantone, the host with the most, and JNI’s Craig Nadel. Prime Line president Jeff Lederer and Freestyle Marketing’s stunning Caryn Stoll.
Here’s me, with Prime’s Jeff (or “Jeffy,” as I call him) Lederer (left) and Gemline’s Jonathan Isaacson. A moment, now, about Jeff Lederer: Jeff and I are friendly enough, but by no means would I say we know each other well. However, in the span of 30 seconds, Jeff Lederer dissected my personality with such laser-precision that my jaw literally flung open like a nutcracker doll. What did I learn? That still waters do indeed run deep, and Jeff Lederer is one of the most insightful people I’ve ever met. Also, I’m not nearly as mysterious and enigmatic as I’d like to think I am. Kudos to you, Jeffy. At one point, as a bunch of us were standing on a balcony on Bourbon Street throwing beads to passersby, I saw something out of the corner of my eye, at first flying lazy circles and then making a beeline directly for us. It was a bug the size of a pterodactyl, which landed on the leg of CJ Schmidt’s shorts and stayed there for about 45 minutes, just, ya know, hangin’ out. Jeff Lederer tried to flick it off with his card, but CJ admonished him. “Let him stay. He can be our mascot.”
Not convinced I looked appropriately “festive” for Bourbon Street, Gemline’s Jonathan Isaacson cajoled a guy to lend me this boa and then snapped this photo of me. I look possessed by the spirit of Dionysus, and it’s one of my favorites… (From left): PCNA’s David Nicholson, Gemline’s Jonathan Isaacson, Freestyle Marketing’s Caryn Stoll and Hit Promotional Products’ CJ Schmidt, cavorting on a bar’s balcony on Bourbon Street.
(From left): The delightful Caryn Stoll, Jonathan Isaacson and Jessica Hutwelker from Match-Up Promotions. Big congrats to the usually-staid Mr. Isaacson, who managed to get more beads than anyone in our group! ; ) Jeff Lederer and the adorable Jessica Hutwelker.
Freestyle Marketing’s Caryn Stoll and Sunrise Identity’s Mitch Mounger. Hit’s CJ Schmidt and PCNA’s David Nicholson. The last time David and I cocktailed together it was at the end of April for his birthday, and we were drinking tequila while wearing sombreros in godforsaken Guangzhou, China. Note to David: If we’re going to keep drinking together in venues outside our home state of PA, I vote for Key West next!
SAGE’s Jarod Thorndike, shown here with SnugZ’s Brittany David. Jarod and I had never really spent much time together until this night in a bar on Bourbon Street, but I’d always heard awesome things about him. Having met him, I totally get it and concur wholeheartedly. Here’s me and the divine Miss David. So awesome is she that she insisted, upon noting that I didn’t look so great in the first photo taken of the two of us, that we pose for a do-over. Thanks for getting my back, Chickie! ; )
Do you know Michael, from Continental Plastic Card? You should. He is just a howl !  
And now, as we get to the end of this slide show of NOLA-infused craziness, I’d like to propose an award, given to the one person whose performance was so off-the-charts fantastic that he or she embodies both the professional – and partying – best of the industry. The award, perhaps a golden martini glass, could travel from ASI, PPAI, SAGE, EME shows, whatever – and be passed on to each event’s winner, like the Stanley Cup. And so, for the PPAI NALC, I nominate Sunrise Identity’s Mitch Mounger as the MVP. Not only did he have the best response to a question while on a panel during the day (Moderator: “What’s your secret for running a successful company?” Mitch: “Don’t be a dick.”), but I submit to you the photo of Mitch to the right, shown with Shepenco’s Dan Townes (a Hall of Fame MVP) and me. PRICELESS. All Hail Mitch Mounger!
The perfect ending, courtesy of a photo from PCNA’s David Nicholson. After a hugely-successful and wildly-fun three days, Gateway/CDI’s Chuck Fandos (right), who was so integral in the planning and execution of PPAI’s NALC, and CONRAD FRANEY leave Bourbon Street one last time. “Thank you, and good night!”