After 14 illustrious years, PPAI Executive Vice President Bob McLean, CPA, CAE, CEM, is stepping down from his role at the Association and embarking on a new chapter as a consultant. He will continue working with PPAI in that capacity through 2022 while also collaborating with clients in a wide range of business management areas.
“Fourteen years ago, I didn’t even know there was a promotional products industry,” McLean says. “Today, I have grown to love and respect the industry and the hardworking and creative professionals in it.”
Looking back at almost a decade and a half in the promo industry, several significant accomplishments dot McLean’s tenure with the Association. PPAI’s “Power of Two” agreement with SAGE—an industry service provider of information, marketing, and business management solutions and PPAI technology partner—stands among the most visible, long lasting and successful.
“As the primary contact between SAGE and PPAI, I am proud to say that our relationship with SAGE continues to remain strong,” McLean says. “The Power of Two agreement with SAGE allowed us to more than double our membership and increase revenue significantly. More importantly, it has given PPAI a stronger foundation on which to build its other initiatives. For example, our voice in Congress is louder by virtue of representing many more members, and our outreach to buyers is broader, allowing our Promotional Products Work campaign to be more effective.”
McLean also played an instrumental role in shaping the structure of PPAI. He established the Association’s business development department when he became executive vice president. McLean says, “Prior to that move, our sales efforts were very disjointed. Consolidating all those points of contact allowed us to provide a more consultative sales approach with our members, improving their access to the market and also improving our bottom-line.”
More recently, McLean’s leadership was a major factor in PPAI’s navigation of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on industry and Association.
“When COVID hit, we had to make tough choices,” McLean says. “But we continued focusing on what our members and the industry needed. Our staff was amazing in identifying how to help our members, whether it was providing education about what was happening with COVID and the impact on our industry, developing a virtual Direct-2-You platform to take the place of Expo, or to just being there to answer our members’ questions. In the middle of this, Paul Bellantone, our CEO and president and my mentor, decided to move on, and I was given the opportunity to lead PPAI as interim president for a short while.
“I could not have been prouder of the way our staff stepped up and supported the Association and industry during that challenging time.”
While stepping down, McLean will continue to be a fixture at PPAI and in the promotional products industry through at least the end of the year in his role as a consultant for the Association. He is also joining Axiom Plus, LLC, a woman-owned consulting firm started by his wife, Sandra Cepeda McLean, MBA, SPHR. McLean says, “She is certified as a Senior Professional Human Resource and is working with small to medium size businesses providing HR and organization development services. I hope to be able to help diversify the company’s revenue stream.”
McLean started his career in accounting as a CPA and then received his MBA in finance while working full time. Looking ahead, he will focus his consulting work on clients’ accounting, financial planning, strategic planning, business valuations and mergers and acquisitions needs. He will also continue working in association management.
“I love working with PPAI’s board and volunteers,” McLean says. “I have realized that one of the best traits of working in a not-for-profit association is the volunteer leaders who have dedicated their treasures and their talents to their industry. I would love to continue working in that environment.”
McLean’s background also sets him up as a valuable contributor in the promotional products industry. He says, “I love the people in this industry, and I would miss not being a part of it. After spending 14 years in the industry, I think that I bring some insights, connections and skills that would make me a valuable resource.”
McLean has been a cheerful, positive presence at PPAI headquarters since he joined the Association, who seemed to always have time to stop for a “hello” and check-in as he moved through the building. He is also a regular and welcome participant in PPAI’s various staff activities, including the annual chili cook-off, where he led a valiant but doomed effort to bring the Texas-based staff around to Cincinnati chili. “I have grown to accept that I will never win a chili contest with chili made with cinnamon and dark chocolate and served over spaghetti. I am in the wrong state for that to happen.”
An accomplished professional volunteer in his own right, McLean has carried the Association and the promo industry’s perspectives to several professional organizations, oftentimes in leadership roles. Most recently, McLean was named the 2020 & 2021 board chair of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, the world’s largest association serving the exhibitions and events industry, with a membership of show organizers, exhibitors and exhibition suppliers. He was also the 2019 chair of the Center of Exhibition Industry Research, among other achievements.
His time at PPAI also included several stand-out moments for McLean, among them his first PPAI Expo in 2009.
“Walking on the show floor for the first time, I realized what a credible and viable industry I had joined,” McLean says. “I was impressed with the variety of products and decorating methods available.”
McLean is also taking with him what he learned about the character of the promo industry. He says, “Never have I worked in an industry where the members were so supportive of each other, so compassionate, so caring.”