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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 2, 2009 13 years ago

Relation Promotion

Ken Walters builds relationships while building his business.

Ken Walters builds relationships while building his business.

One of his most unique promotions was selling a company sandals for its employees, printed with the business' logo and name on the straps.

When the employees wore the footwear at the beach for an annual event, they left an imprint of the company logo in the sand because the logo was carved into the bottom of the sandal as well.

While creativity and products are key for Ken Walters, 44, founder of Tampa-based Ken Walters Promotions & Products, the foundation of his strategy — and what he is known for in the Tampa Bay business community — is relationship-building through community involvement and events, some of which he invented.

The image of Walters in a white shirt and blue blazer or in a bow tie and tuxedo is a common one, especially in South Tampa social circles.

“I try to get people to know me,” Walters says. “It's important to build relationships.”

For example, after singer Frank Sinatra died in 1998, Walters started a dinner dance in Tampa called Celebrate Sinatra, flying in a band and a singer that sounds like Sinatra. He sent out postcard invitations with a photo of Sinatra on one side, with himself superimposed into the photo.

This year will be the 12th time he has hosted it. About 400 people in tuxes and gowns came to last year's dance, which has attracted more than 500 people some years.

In 2003, he started another social in Tampa called 'round Midnight and he has been involved in organizing numerous fundraisers for nonprofit community organizations including the Mental Health Care Foundation, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the American Cancer Society.

Walters has more than 700,000 products at his disposal, from coffee mugs, to snow globes to chocolates. When a company wants to promote itself, Walters meets with the company and they select a product that will promote the company the best way, with the business' name and logo printed on it.

The promotions run the gamut from company uniforms with logos, to trade show booth items, to sales promotion products to holiday gifts for clients.

Walters shows the company a proof of the product with their name and logo. If the client approves it, Walters orders it. His distributors take care of the printing, although Walters does screen printing on shirts and sports apparel in Tampa.

“I try to make it easy for the customer,” Walters says. “They envision what they want. We try to be pro-active in meeting their vision.”

Walters' annual sales have fluctuated from $400,000 to $700,000. His best year ever was 2007. In 2008, the softening economy brought revenue down 15%. Walters anticipates a 5% to 10% decline this year as well. To control costs, he works alone.

Walters is a Tampa native. He started working for his dad's business machines sales and service company after high school in 1983. But the dawn of large retailers such as Staples and Office Depot, made Walters less interested in taking over his father's company.

So he began doing graphic design, printing and signage for his father's company and his fathers' customers. When the economy slowed in 1980, Walters transitioned into promotional products as a distributor.

His clients are now nationwide and include the U.S. Department of Energy and Time-Warner Cable.

“I don't know if the industry has really changed that much,” Walters says. “As a business interested in promotional products, you need to have someone consult with you. The product reminds someone of the person who gave it to them.”

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