It was a phone call that turned out to be incidental.
Steve Elberts needed help with his small business. He called Jim Shannon, a young accounting student who had attended the same college as Elberts. “I’m a small t-shirt shop looking for a controller,” Elberts explained.
Shannon thought her future was in public accounting, but the idea of helping start a small family business seemed like an exciting opportunity to explore first. He took the job.
Thirty-one years later, Shannon remains with the company – a loyal executive with a dedicated blue-collar work ethic who has gone on to become chairman and now CEO. And the company? Well it is S&S Sportswear (asi/84358) – a Bolingbrook, Illinois-based Top 40 provider who has had one of the promotion’s most impressive successes of the past decade.
“Jim was there with S&S from the start,” says Jimmy Dastice, a 25-plus-year industry veteran and executive vice president of Chicago-based distributor Art-Flo. “He has been a key asset in the growth of the company.”
Indeed, S&S has grown from that “little t-shirt shop” to the third largest supplier by revenue in the promotions industry – an estimated $1.51 billion powerhouse with more than 2,500 employees, more 80 brands offered and over 4 million square feet of warehouse space strategically located across North America.
Shannon has been instrumental in spearheading this massive success, which includes executing some of the most significant acquisitions the industry has seen in recent years, ensuring that S&S’ product portfolio is deep and trendy, and being an industry leader in back-end technology solutions and customer support. Few people in the industry would know; Shannon has intentionally avoided the spotlight over the years, preferring to focus on building the business. Yet, as the profile of S&S has risen dramatically, Shannon’s contributions can no longer be ignored.
For both long-term and short-term success (including growth during the pandemic and a major acquisition of a Top 40 competitor last year), Shannon is Counselor’s 2022 Person of the Year. “It’s just amazing,” Shannon says, “to see how far we’ve come.”
decades of leadership
S&S’s growth story begins in the late 1990s when former owners Jeff Adams and Paul Rohr purchased the company, providing it with capital. Armed with this support, Shannon and other business leaders transformed S&S into a formidable regional provider in the Midwest. This resulted from the company’s execution of a strategy that included building strong relationships with suppliers and customers, streamlining processes to improve service, and adding an ever-expanding range of corporate and sportswear brands.
“We bet on the concept of brands, and we did it early on,” says Shannon – a prescient move as the promotion’s penchant for fashion-forward commercial-grade brands and styles exploded.
Driven by customer demand and confident that they could replicate their Midwestern success in other regional US markets, Shannon and the S&S management team began working to establish the company as a major player in promoting at national scale. The push was catalyzed in 2010 with the acquisition of California-based Americana Sportswear. Then came the acquisitions of EVA Sportswear of New Jersey in 2013 and Technosport Canada in 2019 (now S&S Canada).
“We have relied heavily on investing in employees with strong work ethics and qualities that fit our culture. We wouldn’t have achieved any of our success without having the right people in place. Jim Shannon
S&S has also made tremendous strides in organic growth, aided significantly by the rapid expansion of its distribution center space in important markets across the country and by a business model that involves the supplier invests in relationships with manufacturers, rather than in production itself. “We don’t manufacture or carry private lines,” says Shannon. “We are focused on building strong, collaborative partnerships with our manufacturing suppliers. It is our commitment to continue to offer them new opportunities for growth.
One of Shannon’s accomplishments in propelling the exponential sales growth of the past 12 years has been finding high quality, high performing people and positioning them to succeed with S&S.
“We relied heavily on investing in employees with strong work ethics and qualities that fit our culture,” Shannon shares. “We pride ourselves on having low turnover and seeing our employees grow in skill, experience and rank as our business grows. We wouldn’t have achieved any of our success without having the right people in place.
Or without Shannon’s leadership, say S&S team members like Chairman Frank Myers. “Jim,” says Myers, “has an extremely level-headed, people-focused approach to business that inspires employees, customers, and suppliers.”
Matthew Lamb agrees.
“Jim is as balanced and measured a leader as you will find in this industry and this unwavering approach is a key driver of S&S’s success,” said Lamb, executive vice president of research and development at Facilisgroup, a software-as-a-service company and partner group for the promotions industry. “What Jim has achieved at S&S is nothing short of remarkable.”
Building the future
Just as the purchase of S&S by Rohr and Adams was a watershed moment for the company, so too was another monumental, forward-looking change of ownership – one Shannon played a pivotal role in. in the realization. Adams and Rohr had reached a point in their lives where they were ready to sell. They, Shannon and the S&S management team then focused on finding a new partner who, in the words of the CEO, “would protect what had been built over decades while helping to guide the next phase. growth of S&S”.
They found that at Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a global private equity firm with offices in New York and London that has managed investing more than $40 billion in more than 100 companies with transaction value. total of over $175 billion. CD&R became the majority shareholder of S&S in the first quarter of 2021.
“CD&R has been a fantastic ownership group, providing meaningful advice and support while continuing to provide the autonomy to our managers and operators to enable them to do what they do best,” says Shannon.
Certainly, the partnership seems to be bearing fruit. Backed by CD&R, Shannon and S&S signed one of the promotion’s biggest titles when in November 2021 the company acquired TSC Apparel, which at the time was the industry’s 14th largest supplier. This successful acquisition was followed by another – the April 2022 purchase of TSF Sportwear, a heavyweight supplier, particularly in the South.
“Our acquisitions aim to provide a better service model to our customers, to be best in class with our suppliers and to provide new growth opportunities for our employees,” Shannon said. “Through our nationwide expansion, we’ve been able to offer our customers access to new technologies and resources, faster and more reliable shipping, and greater depth of inventory and brands. “
Keep in mind: All of the start-up activity of the past two years has taken place amid the enormous challenges of the pandemic. Impressively, under Shannon’s leadership, S&S increased annual sales by around 8% in the pandemic-affected 2020 and 2021.
“Our teams have been nimble throughout COVID,” Shannon says, “whether it’s virtual trade shows and events, moving to a work-from-home environment, or creating new digital forms of selling and marketing”.
Digital adaptation during COVID continues a trend of technological advancement that has long been underway at S&S under Shannon. It includes everything from pioneering development of a 100% web-based enterprise resource planning system to a top-notch website with fast loading times and customer-friendly features like a display grid inventory, an easy-to-use e-commerce platform, and integration with vendor mills.
S&S has also been a leader in sustainability and corporate social responsibility. This is demonstrated by companies such as a multi-million dollar investment to install solar panels at its facilities, emissions offsetting initiatives, reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills, and the Make An Imprint program, which focuses on donations and volunteer activities.
“Sustainability continues to drive all businesses in significant ways, and it will continue to have a significant impact on our industry over the next decade,” Shannon says.
Certainly, Shannon always looks to the future as he performs in the present. Throughout his three decades at S&S, that future has always included both the supplier and the promotion industry. For Shannon – who, with his wife Laura, has four children aged 16 to 22 – loyalty and longevity come as no surprise given his perspective. “This industry is unlike any other,” he says. “Once you’re there, you can’t get out. I became friends with many suppliers, customers and employees. It’s hard to find an industry or a job where you work with friends every day.