Sunday Sitdown with Bret Bonnet, a growing force in made-to-order promotional products

SHARE Sunday Sitdown with Bret Bonnet, a growing force in made-to-order promotional products

Chicago is emerging as a hotbed for custom-made swag and specialty items — like the coffee cups David Letterman gave his audience.

Made-to-order promotional products are an $18 billion industry, with 30,000 companies competing to provide them.

Quality Logo Products, based in Aurora, is one of the largest privately held companies in the field, with $32 million in sales last year, up 23 percent in a year.

Bret Bonnet, 32, founded the business with Michael Wegner, 33, after they met as students at North Central College in Naperville. They have 100 employees and plan to hire 10 to 15 more this year, from web developers to salespeople.

Bonnet spoke with Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy.

Question: In a crowded field, your company has become known for its highly personal ordering system, the yellow smiley-face cartoon mascot Bubba and off-the-wall, belly-laugh-funny promo videos. How do you let loose creatively and still be profitable?

Answer: We invest in technology, our website and in our people.

We make it extremely easy to find products online, and we get them to customers when they want them.

We have internal systems —all developed in-house — that allow us to sell products at lower prices. We’ve invested in and developed our own [customer-relationship-management] system. And we create amazing content.

When you buy a travel mug, the company website shows you 360-degree views. A prospective buyer can spin around an object and see every angle of at least 1,000 of our 25,000 products.

But we hustled to get it all started. I was going to college for the first two years and worked as a bar back, which was disgusting. I got ice for bartenders and emptied the slop buckets.

We took our first paycheck in 2005 — two years into it — and that first pay was very modest. We weren’t married at that time. We both worked other jobs.

My grandma, who has since died, gave me my inheritance right away. That’s the whole reason the lights stayed on initially. She had $50,000 in cash.

My parents helped me out, and my wife’s parents were very supportive. [Bonnet’s wife, Nicole Bonnet-Mooncotch, owns Niki Moon Salon in Naperville.]

But starting in 2009, we started taking off.

We’ve now done printing for Rihanna, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman and corporate clients Yahoo, Viacom, NBC Universal, PepsiCo, Taco Bell and Bass Pro Shops.

My favorite — and we sell a lot of them — is the urinal biscuit. Usually, the customers are DUI attorneys who put their contact information on the biscuits and give them to bars and restaurants. They say, “You’re peeing on my face. Why don’t you call me at least?”

Q: You advise college students to avoid paying big money for a conventional education. Why?

A: I say, ‘Don’t get a general business degree.’

I wouldn’t go to college. It’s a lot of money.

I don’t even look at education on people’s resumes because the coursework is 10 years out of date for creative writing. And SEO and PPC [search-engine optimization and pay-per-click] marketing are not part of most major course tracks.

We’ve had to go out of state for some skilled positions. I will give a kidney, a puppy and my firstborn for a full-stack web developer.

A lot of people I interview think they should be on their dream career path on Day 1 without putting in sweat equity. I want to hire people who will work overtime when they don’t have to in order to get the job done.

A salesperson in his or her first year can make $40,000 to $50,000. After three years, the salesperson can be making $100,000 or more. Our top, seasoned salesman has earned $250,000 in his best year.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I like my fair share of movies. I got to see “The Avengers 2” premiere in Hollywood last week.

I like the food scene in the West Loop. Randolph Street is right there.

The web developers and I meet at an apartment we own in the West Loop twice a week.

I’ve put on 40 to 50 pounds. You can’t help but eat rich, flavorful foods. If you order a salad, it’s like you are slapping someone in the face.

I like friends.

I like the Chicago Bears; I haven’t missed a home game since I was 11 — with one exception. My wife took me on a surprise trip to New York for my 30th birthday. She got reservations at The London NYC. It’s a Chef [Gordon] Ramsay restaurant.I’m a huge Chef Ramsay fan, andI hadalways wanted to eat at one of his spots.

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