Eye On The Prize


Entrepreneur finds awards lack pizzazz,
& launches $1 million a year tribute enterprise.

By John Marshall

After a client sent her a plain old briefcase as a gift for a job well done, Penny Fleming decided there was a market for a company that offered clever, creative and well made incentive gifts, award plaques and recognition services. She started Awardpro in 1999 and now celebrates her success with a million dollar revenue award each year.

If there were a Hall of Fame for entrepreneurs, it would probably be filled with business owners who, after growing more and more dissatisfied with their careers, turned their backs on how they earned a living, quit their jobs and went their own way in a business of their own.But in that Hall of Fame, there might be only one business owner who started a new business, not because of any particular unhappiness with their career or job, but because she was displeased with a sales award she had received.That person would be Penny Fleming, owner of Awardpro, a Newport Beach, CA, enterprise that provides awards and recognition services to companies.Fleming is an energetic, natural saleswoman who apparently has always marched to the beat of a different drummer. She started selling in earnest, what she refers to as “creative awards and gifts of appreciation,” after she sold $1 million worth of goods for a company and they expressed their appreciation by sending her what she considered an “ordinary” leather portfolio.

That was in 1999, and Fleming, who had already been doing some work with awards and recognition, (and don’t dare refer to her business as selling plaques) decided to devote all her time to her Awardpro. It’s paying off.

Unlike most new business owners, Fleming had no monetary or financial goals for her new business. She didn’t even have any specific objectives or defined targeted markets. And as for a written-down business plan with predetermined revenue targets and scheduled deadlines? “Oh gosh no, silly goose,” she responds almost incredulously. “I’m too busy. I would never sit, I would never have a business plan. What for?”

But though Fleming has almost disdainfully eschewed what would be considered the basic rules of starting a new business, she has managed to build her awards business into nearly a $1 million business in less than 4 years.

Fleming has taken her one-person business to an impressive level by capturing her own natural enthusiasm for sales, utilizing her natural energy and relying on her past experiences and contacts; it’s a winning formula.Though she had no specific business plan, Fleming has been used to relying solely on sales commissions for years. She went about building her new business by doing what apparently comes naturally-she picked up the phone and started making calls.

“I just called everybody I did business with,” explains Fleming. By her estimates she made hundreds of calls. “I went to my customers and asked ‘who purchases awards and recognitions in your company.’ It’s always a vice-president, a president, a secretary. It’s getting to that person and creating an emotion.”

Fleming has been in sales her entire working life and she says that daily sales experience helps her make effective sales presentations and close deals. Her first sales job was working for her father, who had a jewelry wholesale business. Her first sales assignments were calling on stores and selling them jade.

“You can’t be taught this,” explains Fleming. “But I did watch how my father presented jewelry. I remember to this day on how to present a pen to somebody. You just don’t hand it over, you present things,” said Fleming.

And though she has gone about her business in a way that would make traditional business advisors wince, Fleming was able to make a go of her Awardpro without a large amount of capital expense. An enviable feat.

First, since she was already working as a manufacturer’s sales rep, she already had her own home office so there was no need to buy equipment or rent space. Incidental costs were limited to business cards and stationery.

Then, Fleming found a way to reduce the costs of the awards she offered to prospective customers.

Many of her awards are made of crystal. Fleming helps design the awards and cuts costs by going directly to a crystal manufacturer. Other award companies simply buy from award manufacturers and have to pass the added expense on. And, according to Fleming, they also lack the selection and creativity she can provide a customer.Though her phone is constantly ringing and she puts in l0- to l5-hour days, Fleming has no hired help. This means that she has to juggle business projects with personal activities. Fleming even admits to cooking hamburger helper while taking a business call. When she needs help, she can rely on assistance from her husband John, a retired schoolteacher.

The biggest cost for Fleming in getting her business up and running was the expense of the 3 Web sites she uses to sell her product. Her initial costs for the sites were close to $7,000, and there are monthly fees to have the sites maintained. she explained.

Aspiring entrepreneurs may at first glance think the awards business must be easy money. But Fleming warns that, despite her success and how easy she makes it seem, the awards business is not for everyone. You need passion.

“You get a chair, you get a computer,” she explains simply. “But,” she warns, “you have to get the fire in the belly. I created Awardpro because it’s my passion. It comes from my soul. It’s not something that can be taught. It has to come from within.”

For more information, visit the Awardpro website at: awardpro.com.

John Marshall is a writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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