Promotional Products Industry Pioneer, Bill Vernon, Passes at Age 89

Former Chairman and CEO, William F. (Bill) Vernon, passed away peacefully on December 3, 2020, at the age of 89.

After serving in the United States Army in France, Mr. Vernon began his career at The Vernon Company, industry top 40 distributor, in 1956. Bill married the love of his life, Marilyn Mathieson Vernon, in 1954 and they were life partners for the next 66 years. For six decades, Bill was highly engaged in building his multi-generation family promotions and graphics businesses across North America. His involvement in the promotional products industry was extensive. In 1971-72, Mr. Vernon served as board chair of the Specialty Advertising Association International and in 1986, he was inducted into the Specialty Advertising Association International (SAAI) Hall of Fame. In 1987, he was recognized by Counselor Magazine as its Person of the Year. Industry recognition continued, as the Vernon Company was awarded the 2002 Family Business Award by Counselor Magazine. In 2013, Mr. Vernon was proud to have received the Marvin Spike Lifetime Achievement Award from the Advertising Specialty Association (ASI).

Beyond his industry activities, Mr. Vernon was involved in numerous professional, civic, and government organizations throughout his lifetime. He served as a Civilian Aide to Secretary of the Army for the State of Iowa. He was the Founding Chair of the Iowa Games and served as Board Chair of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. He served as Board Chair of The Des Moines Civic Center and was the Co-founder and Past Chair of Progress Industries in Newton, Iowa. Vernon was also Past Chair of the Iowa Young Presidents’ Organization and served as an International Director of YPO. Mr. Vernon was awarded The Department of U.S. Army’s “Outstanding Civilian Service Medal” and the Chairman Emeritus Founders Award from Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad for planning and executing the first Iowa Games. During the 1980s, Bill proudly served on the U.S. Olympic Committee and attended multiple summer Olympic games. In addition, he was extremely active for decades in the Republican party (proud to be a Bob Ray style moderate reaching across the political aisle to find reasonable compromise) and served as Iowa State Finance Chair helping to rebuild the party. In 2002, Bill was especially honored to have Vernon Company recognized under the Century Businesses of Iowa Program. In 2011, he was inducted into The Hall of Fame at Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, IL, where he served as a Lifetime Trustee, and in 2012 Mr. Vernon was inducted into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame by Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds.   Mr. Vernon also proudly served as a board director of Norwest Bancorp (now Wells Fargo Bank) for over 20 years.

Bill championed support of education at all levels as well as leadership helping people with disabilities become independent and lead productive lives.  He established the W.F. Vernon Sr. scholarship fund in honor of his late father which has now distributed over 400 college scholarships to Vernon Company employees’ children.

Throughout his life, Bill was a competitive athlete and excelled at golf and tennis. He loved the mental challenges of golf and closely studied top tour professionals’ strategies of the game. He won many tournaments with his skilled short game and keen putter skills. He worked hard to maintain a single-digit handicap for several decades and scored several ‘holes in one’ during his life.  Bill and Marilyn were extremely active members in many social and golf country clubs in Central Iowa and Naples. He felt it was a great privilege to be a member of Wakonda Club (68 years) and Des Moines Embassy Club (60+ years) as well as the Royal Poinciana and Port Royal Club in Naples. 

Bill cheered on his alma mater Iowa Hawkeyes’ (Gold I-Club member) sports teams and was an ardent fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and Green Bay Packers.

Ever the consummate advertising professional, over the years, Bill found the most unique and creative gadgets and gizmos that were only available to Home Shopping customers orAs Seen on TV.  Each Christmas, Bill enjoyed gifting members of his family with special unique items he found, and it always brought much joy and laughter.

Bill and Marilyn traveled extensively for business and pleasure and visited over 50 countries. They both enjoyed socializing with industry colleagues and friends all over the world. Having seen nearly every corner of the earth, Bill’s favorite place was always poolside at home with his family. His close attention to detail and appreciation for unusual tree/plant species provided idyllic backyards in both Newton, Iowa, and in Naples, Florida. He had an eye for landscape architecture and a special fondness for protecting wild animals, native trees, and plants. Close friends often teased Bill for planting hardwood trees well into his 80s knowing that he would not be here to enjoy them at maturity.  He desired to leave everything he touched better than he found it.

One of Bill Vernon’s greatest legacies was having all of his children serve in the family’s advertising business. He had great stories about The VernonCompany and the history of the promotional products/graphics industries – and was delighted to know his children shared his passion.  Bill was pleased to witness the 5th generation family members showing budding advertising career interests.

Bill will be missed by all who knew him. He had an amazing dry sense of humor and was an extraordinarily organized person. He had a paper file or binder detailing nearly everything in his life and laminated almost every instruction manual he could find.

Bill is survived by his wife Marilyn and their four children: Rick Vernon (Des Moines, IA), Chris Vernon (Denise of Urbandale, IA), Cameron (Kristen of Carmel, CA), and Stephanie Critchfield (Marshall of Arlington, VA).  He is also survived by his six grandchildren; Bill Vernon IV (Newton, IA), Alex Vernon (Houston, TX), Madison Vernon (Carmel, CA), Maxwell Vernon (Ankeny, IA), Whitney Critchfield and Jane Hadley Critchfield (Arlington, VA).

A private family graveside service will occur in the next week in Newton, IA, and a celebration of life will be held next summer in Iowa. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials be made to the Progress Industry Foundation (https://progressindustries.org/) or to the Promotional Products Education Foundation (https://www.ppef.us/).

We are thankful for…

It’s that time of year when we reflect on and give thanks for the many blessings we have in our lives. In addition to family, friends, and good health, members of our Vernon sales team shared with us what they love and appreciate about working with Vernon. Here are some of their comments:

Luke Sigle, Salesperson: I appreciate the friendship and care that Vernon leadership provides me as a salesperson.

Stephanie Vernon-Critchfield, National Sales Manager: I’m thankful to be part of the Vernon family that makes you feel that everyone is glad to help you be successful.

Jill McFarland-Packard, Salesperson: I am thankful to Vernon for the ability to keep my business healthy and active which I truly feel is because of the strong financial commitment Vernon has made to its Account Executives to keep orders moving even with so much uncertainty and chaos!! 

Kelli Denes, Director of Business Development: I am thankful for a company that treats its staff like family.

Maureen Helm, Salesperson: This year has certainly brought on its share of challenges, but I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to work from the safety of my home. I’m thankful for the Vernon home office staff who are supportive, kind, and always available to help me navigate challenges.

Eddie Moore, Salesperson: I’m thankful to be a part of the Vernon family that has such an amazing culture, I’m happy to call everyone not only coworkers, but friends.

Dave Regan, Senior VP Sales & Marketing: I am thankful to work for a company that is financially stable enough to weather this 2020 storm.

From all of us to all of you, we hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday and surround yourself with all the things that bring you joy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Grateful for the tiny moments

As 2020 is nearing its end, not very many people are sad to see it go. The challenges have been significant and to say we will go forward without scars from the wreckage would be unrealistic. Often, when times get tough, the brightest parts are simple ones: a smile, a warm wave from afar, a tiny act of kindness. This year has given me the gift of more time at home, and while that comes with a host of challenges, I am grateful for it!

When I look back on things that I hope I remember forever, it’s the tiniest moments in time that mean so much. Early on, school had canceled and suddenly my kiddos were home every minute of every day. So many people are still in that situation, or they are back home full time again. One day, the kids couldn’t stop laughing, and I asked why. They printed and cut out a tiny Danny DeVito face and put it on the coffee maker button that I use religiously twice per day (at least). The funny thing is, they had actually done this several days earlier, and I never noticed. Next, my husband found a Danny DeVito face on his charger: also unnoticed for days. We realized…he was everywhere. It was simple entertainment that brought us a lot of laughter. I mean, it’s Danny DeVito! We even found a pic of him on a picture in our living room looking like some sort of caveman…that one went unnoticed the longest. They are all still there because, amid strange chaos, this was light and laughter.

I hope when you think of this year, you reshape your thoughts to those types of moments…tiny ones. I had a call with one of our salespeople today. I have never met him, and we had the nicest conversation. We shared stories of a great leader we both know who has brought great insight to us both. This is a moment to savor. Come together and find tiny moments because they add up.

We had a Coffee Collaboration a couple of weeks ago. We started out by sharing favorite Thanksgiving food traditions. I cried, because it had been a busy week but, in this moment, we stopped, and shared stories and the human connection I had been craving. Laughter, smiles, fun and then idea sharing where I got to see the things that make each day so special- our people, doing their thing, helping one another, sharing and caring for the success of one other.

I hope that as you go into this holiday season, you take a moment to reflect. Find the good things and the bright spots from this unusual and challenging year. I hope you find areas you grew and new areas you’d like to strengthen in the future. Whatever it is, may you treasure the part of shaping you that it has played and keep your mindset a positive one.

I’m grateful to be a part of the Vernon family, one that has built a strong foundation for so many people to thrive for over one hundred years. At the heart of who we are is this: “Helping other businesses grow and prosper” (F.L. Vernon). I’m grateful for the chance to be part of that.

Collaboration Keeps Spirits High

Recently, Vernon created a monthly, virtual get-together for our salespeople called “Coffee Collaborations.” The inspiration came largely from Kelli Denes, our Director of New Business Development. These virtual sessions provide a great opportunity for our field team members to connect, drink coffee, share ideas, and strategically plan for their business. This informal gathering was an instant hit among the group after just a few sessions. Socialization is one of the hallmarks of a career in sales, yet it’s become one of the many casualties of 2020.

This month’s call was our best one yet.  Each team member came prepared with a project or idea that they had pitched to a client recently. The exchange was fabulous.  The energy was contagious, and the creative ideas were flowing.

Hats off to all for the peer reviews & support. 

Collaboration, teamwork, and ingenuity…indeed, a very good week for Vernon!

Chris Vernon Named Among Industry’s 50 Most Powerful People

Chris Vernon, MAS, CEO and President of The Vernon Company, has been recognized among the Counselor’s Power 50, the annual ranking of the most powerful executives in the $25 billion promotional products industry. This is the 15th consecutive year he has made this prestigious list. Mr. Vernon is the only Iowan represented on the Power 50 ranking.

The ranking is determined by a panel of editorial experts at ASI’s Counselor magazine and is based on factors such as nominees’ achievements, industry influence, corporate revenue and the overall health of their respective companies.  

“I’m very humbled to receive this recognition again this year.  I believe it is a testament to the leadership, hard work and dedication of all our employees who contribute to our company’s success every day,” commented Mr. Vernon. 

Time for a check-up

As we approach Thanksgiving and the end of the calendar year, it is important to set aside some quiet time to review your personal and business goals to see where you stand. Today we will steer clear of your personal goals, yet we will take time to explore the business side.

How can it be that I feel five years older now than I did in January and February, pre-covid? Holy cow! The fact of the matter is that most of us began the year with goals. It does not matter whether you are an individual business owner, or you find yourself working for someone else, you had goals.

“I want to make $100,000” (Salesperson)

or

“I want to have my company sell more than $3 million” (Distributor Owner)

And then what happened? The calendar flipped to March and all of us (and I mean all), lost control of our ability to reach our goals. That helpless feeling set in. We all experienced it.

I am certain that it took some time but eventually, most owners and salespeople came to the realization that goals needed to be reset. Any goal setting training will start with the premise that “goals must be realistic and attainable”.

Our company realized that we needed to furlough people to bring our costs in line with the number of orders and amount of business that we were receiving. We were early to the game of restricting travel resulting in saved expenses since every dollar was more important than ever. We canceled some national meetings and made decisions to postpone some incentive trips. We essentially had to “right-size” our company.

Our account executives found that orders were hard to come by and since they are commissioned salespeople, they had to adjust their personal budgets to better align with their income.

All of us took whatever support we could find, but the reality is that even at the end of October, nine months later, things are different. Companies and individuals that were “supported” by PPP (payroll protection plan) and unemployment insurance and other programs are faced with a future of surviving and moving forward without that assistance.

Now is the time to look toward the future of your own business. I don’t believe that it is politically incorrect to reference Thanksgiving as a time for all to appreciate what we have as owners and salespeople that have helped us through the tough times and to identify those people and services that have helped you steady the ship and say, “Thank You”. Now is the perfect time to establish your 2021 goals and set the plan to achieve them. It is also a time to consider help and support if you need it.

Unfortunately, many business owners cannot survive heading into 2021 with 30%-40% less business. Some salespeople cannot survive if they find themselves in situations where valuable support services or employment benefits have been reduced or eliminated. These are the owners and salespeople that need to look at their options.

The message here is not intended to say that everyone needs help or doesn’t need help or that they need to make some changes. However, I do believe that everyone does NEED to assess and evaluate their situation so that they are NOT surprised when we turn the calendar to 2021. It is always prudent to review your personal situation at the end of a tax year. It has never been more important than this year due to the current situation.

P.S. If your self-analysis reveals that you should explore some options to change, we might suggest that you request our White Paper titled “Is the Grass Really Greener” which outlines important questions to ask during your due diligence process.

The Vernon Company is recognized as one of the largest and most successful promotional product firms in North America. Founded in 1902 by F.L. Vernon, we serve more than 40,000 customers from our Newton, Iowa corporate headquarters.

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