Interview with Norm Hullinger, CEO of the Industry’s First Billion Dollar Company

4 min read

At the PPAI Expo in Las Vegas in January, Mark Graham (commonsku’s Chief Platform Officer) interviewed Norm Hullinger, CEO of alphabroder, the industry’s first billion dollar supplier.

Below are video highlights from the thought-provoking conversation (you can review the entire video on the PPAI website). We have also provided a topical roadmap (with questions) that you could use to help strategize your future.

Forward this post to a friend or a colleague, or review this video with your team and use the questions to spark your own brainstorming session:

 Alibaba and Amazon: Friend or Foe? (1:24)

If there is only one clip you watch in this post, let it be this one. In addition to an insightful commentary on Amazon and Alibaba, Norm has the guts to claim that our industry is vibrant, and less vulnerable to disruption than most people think. Norm points out the strength of our industry’s value and adds, “there’s nothing broken here … I don’t think this industry needs disruption … because I don’t think our customers feel that it’s broken.”

Question to ask yourself: Does the negative self-talk in this industry affect your attitude about the opportunities in the market? Are you creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by buying into the myth that small businesses are in an irreversible, downward trend? What are you doing in your business to add value to your customer relationships?

Transparency During Transition (7:35)

When blank goods provider alphabroder bought Ash City (an apparel provider with decoration capabilities), they ostensibly created a competitive conflict with their decorator-customers. Instead of hiding this fact or ignoring their customer base, they created a Decorator Summit to directly field questions and address the concerns of their customers. Norm discusses the importance of communication during a major transition and emphasizes that staying in touch, transparency, and being clear about your intentions are crucial.

A critical part of the conversation occurs here about how the “the industry” is no longer defined by hard lines and that the primacy of providing value to the end-user is key. We must evolve and not be thwarted by the way things “used to be.” Embrace change, be forthright with your intentions, and adapt to survive.

Questions to ask yourself? If you are going through significant changes, are you communicating clearly with all of your stakeholders? What traditional industry roles do you cling to that keep you from seeing opportunities?

The OmniChannel Opportunity (12:08)

Technology has dramatically altered how distributors connect with customers, and how suppliers interact with distributors. Omnichannel commerce is a problem for those mired in traditional methods, but it represents an opportunity for those willing to adapt and harness these multiple channels. Catherine Graham, the CEO at commonsku, asks Norm how alphabroder is handling these shifts within their large organization.

Questions to ask yourself: As a supplier, are you aware of the multiple channels available to you to engage with distributors? Are you clinging to old methodologies because they are comfortable or because they are effective? Are you empowering team members to embrace new channels?

Best Advice? (14:27)

Omar Janmohamed of North Trek Promotions in Richmond, BC asks, “What’s your best advice for distributors?”

Norm weighs in on fashion trend spotting, surprising us with a statement about the mainstay of top sellers and how fashion is far less cyclical than one thinks. In addition, Norm shares his respect for a distributor’s entrepreneurial drive and honors the risk that comes with building your own business.

Mark Graham suggests that distributors should invest in their own brand and by so doing, they will “build a brand that the competition can’t steal.” Investing in yourself differentiates you from the competition, defines your market position, and reinforces your value in the mind of the customer.

Question to ask yourself: How are you investing in your own brand? Are you aware of your worth? Do you respect your value to your customers? Are you defining and communicating this in a way that builds loyalty and respect?

Thanks to Stacy, Paul, Bob, and all our friends at PPAI for the opportunity to help with this interview and for the video. If you want to listen to the entire interview, you can view it here.


commonsku helps companies streamline their workflow, inspire their team, impress their clients, and grow their business through our software and educational resources. For ideas on how to run your business, subscribe to our blog to receive our newsletter and our podcast. To check out our effortless workflow solution, click here to start your free trial today or email sales@commonsku.com for more information. 


Also published on Medium.