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The Art of Corporate Gift Giving

The gift-giving industry was not part of John Ruhlin's master plan. Growing up in a lower-income family, Ruhlin concentrated on earning high marks and moving on to college. "When you have good grades and grow up poor, you decide to become a doctor or lawyer," he says.

Although medicine was not necessarily Ruhlin's passion, he entered Malone University, a small Christian college in Ohio, as a premed student. Quickly, though, Ruhlin realized he was doing it for the wrong reasons.

While he re-evaluated his academic direction, Ruhlin continued working to put himself through college. "I worked for Time Warner Cable changing out parts," he says. "It paid well, but I fell off a ladder twice. Even though I was lucky and landed in mulch, I decided I couldn't keep doing it. A buddy of mine was interning with Cutco Cutlery Gifts. I applied and got a paid internship."

Although he didn't know it then, the internship would be the beginning of Ruhlin's entrepreneurial career. He quickly excelled in the cutlery sales business, learning important lessons about the gifting industry along the way.

"I was dating a girl whose dad, Paul, was an attorney," says Ruhlin. "I told him that if he would buy knives from me as gifts, I would engrave his name on them. He said: ‘Don't engrave my name. Engrave the name of the person receiving the knives.' I learned a lot from Paul. It's not about the gift. It's about the timing of the gift and getting you access to people."

While only a sophomore, Ruhlin hired his first assistant to balance his work selling for Cutco and his school. Eventually selling knives turned into a consulting-based business. Ruhlin started Ruhlin Promotion Group his junior year in college. Although he made his money by selling products, the core of his business was teaching strategy. By his senior year, Ruhlin was hiring more employees.

Then Ruhlin was graduating and it was decision time. "I asked myself, ‘Do I want to grow this business, or do I want to do something else?,'" he says. "I had gotten my heart broken my senior year and it was the extra motivation to prove I could do what I had been putting my energy into. I decided to pour everything into it and go to the next level."

To succeed, Ruhlin sought mentors early. "I always had an entrepreneurial bend," he says. "The more you're around business owners, the more you learn that if you have an idea, you just go do it."

Peer relationships are still important to Ruhlin today. He credits most of his success to his membership in EO (Entrepreneurs' Organization), a group of fast-growing business owners he joined several years ago.

While Ruhlin Promotion Group is still small, with a team of seven employees today, Ruhlin views his company as a minnow that gets to swim with whales. "We have a unique business model where we have about 50 people -- vertical influencers we have built relationships with -- acting as salespeople," he says. "We practice what we preach, and we send out hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts a year."

Through one such vertical influencer acting as a sales liaison for the company, Ruhlin Promotion Group earned clients including the Orlando Magic and the San Antonio Spurs.

Even with clients ranging from Fortune 1000 companies to startups, Ruhlin's No. 1 gifts and 40% of what he gives still come from Cutco. But Ruhlin says it's not as much about the product as what you can do with it.

"Personalization is important," he says. "If you are giving a gift to someone who can buy whatever they want, it becomes about how you can appreciate them in a unique way. People often give to universities and hospitals. That's because education and health care are important but also because they want their name on the side of a building. It's why personalization works and is important. It helps a gift become relationship-focused. A name makes it theirs where 1,000 items with a logo doesn't. Promotional products are branded products given to the masses."

While Ruhlin hopes to impart the difference between a personalized gift and a promotional product, he also hopes to make sure people understand the importance of gifting in comparison to entertaining. "Most people don't have much of a gifting budget, but they do have a travel or entertainment budget," he says. "Travel and entertaining are done because they are relationship-building. There are strategic ways to give gifts to deepen relationships and are also different than taking someone to a steak dinner, a Cardinals game or golfing."

The challenge in gifting, though, is that success is different for every program. "It can be keeping a client happy, gaining a referral or giving a moment of grace," says Ruhlin. Many of our clients gauge success as when they can have a different feeling in the relationship. And in business, relationships are key."

Submitted 10 years 265 days ago
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