When you talk to Kent Sutton, it doesn’t take long to understand how he became a top sales professional in the School Yearbook industry (primarily the United States and Canada). Recently Kent was the recipient of a Herff Jones Lifetime Sales Achievement Award and inducted into their Sales “Hall of Fame”. Kent’s award recognized his contribution of over $10 Million dollars in Sales since he began selling for them in 1989.
When I saw the announcement of Kent’s award in our local newspaper (The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC), I couldn’t resist the chance to talk to him. By phone, we talked about how he started his career with Herff Jones and the many market forces at work in his industry. Herff Jones shares this market with four other key players (there are other, smaller publishers, too): Jostens, American Achievement Corporation (Taylor Publishing), Walsworth Publishing Company, Inc., and Lifetouch.
Kent has seen the company grow in sales representation from 200 sales reps to over 350 reps today. In North Carolina, they have grown from five to nine representatives. Where some may see this as loss of territory, Kent has seen his company rise in market position. More “feet on the street” has equated to more business overall and a stronger product in the market. His own territory covers twenty counties; there are many schools he needs to serve.
I caught Kent near the end of some of his busiest time during the year (Oct-Mar). Kent is a hands-on sales professional. He gets involved with all aspects to deliver a quality yearbook and memorable student/parent experience. He works closely with each schools’ team of teacher advisors and students. Teachers volunteer their time to work with the students in yearbook development. Kent is fully aware of the demands on the teachers; a number of his family members serve that profession.
Yearbook pricing to the student/parent is dependent on the offset of advertising revenues from the local school community. These advertisements have traditionally taken the form of local businesses and individual congratulations to students from their parents. With some areas hit hard by economic forces, or the introduction of “Big Box” stores in a more rural community, the smaller local business may not be able to support the yearbook ads as they have in the past. If parental placements can’t offset this loss, then the cost of the yearbook may impact the overall sales (purchases) to any one school. Higher pricing or less consumption translates to lower sales volume per school.
I was curious how technology has impacted his industry. Although the move to ‘digital publishing’ has made it easier from a composition perspective, it doesn’t relieve the pressure of getting work completed and to the “printer” on-time. The average yearbook of 200 pages will place a timeline of 30-40 finished pages per month (to meet the delivery deadline). This does not relieve the demands of learning new technology for teachers, which in turn can add an additional demand to an already tight schedule.
Herff Jones, as well as some of their competitors, has introduced software and information technology to ease some of this burden. But, it doesn’t replace the “value-add” that comes from an experienced, hands-on sales professional like Kent.
Kent assists with company workshops for the schools. These workshops vary in scope and include guest speakers in an effort to help the school deliver a better experience for all. Kent’s background as a Journalism major (UNC – Chapel Hill), “Daily Tar Heel” contributor, and former independent rural newspaper co-publisher offers additional expertise to his customers.
This puts demands on Kent to focus on existing accounts, which leaves less time to garner new business. Although customer loyalty is traditionally high in this industry, there are many factors at work that can impact sales. Yet, he continues to grow his business. When you talk to Kent, it’s not hard to see why he is: “The $10 Million Dollar Man”.