Widget wonder, problem solver
Sue Ann Kaestner’s promotional prowess has been helping businesses shine for over three decades.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Thirty-five years ago, Sue Ann Kaestner left a job at the state Capitol to launch the former KaestnerBodway with former co-founder Naomi Bodway. The women had been colleagues in Gov. Lee Dreyfus’ office, but when his administration ended in 1983, they decided to start a fundraising and special event planning business together.
They soon realized, however, that when it came to searching for the promotional items their clients requested, they were on their own.
“We’d call companies out of the Yellow Pages, and they’d drop off huge catalogs for us to page through, but they’d offer no help. One day we just looked at each other and thought, ‘maybe we should get into this,’ and that’s when we became problem-solvers.”
In 2000, Kaestner bought Bodway’s portion out, became the sole owner and president, and renamed the company The Widget Source Inc.
Recently she discussed the promotional products industry where much has changed, but a lot remains very much the same.
IB: Who was your first client?
Kaestner: Dan Neviaser, who developed the Howard Johnson’s downtown. He’d just refurbished the hotel and hired us to do a grand opening with gifts for attendees. Nobody at the time had ideas, so we had to problem-solve it. We were carving a new path.
IB: As a women-owned business, did you have a sense of breaking a glass ceiling back then?
Kaestner: I graduated from high school in 1972 and we’d been hearing about the women’s movement since the 1960s, so the whole idea of ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ was my generation. We believed anything was possible.
I do remember meeting with a banker, though, who asked us if this was our hobby. Imagine!
IB: Have promotional items changed over the years?
Kaestner: In general, no because people have always been consuming beverages, writing with pens and paper, and wearing clothes (which is a good thing!). The most requested items still are pens, notebooks or paper, water bottles, and clothing. Styles and technology have changed, obviously.
One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that the more technology we’re exposed to, the more people need paper and pens in every day life. Sometimes it’s just easier to jot things down.
IB: What about processes, how have they changed over the years?
Kaestner: It used to take about six in-person meetings before we’d be ready to order a product. I’ve also noticed that businesses now are planning way ahead — like six- to eight-months in advance! I never thought I’d see that.
IB: What was the hot business product years ago?
Kaestner: When we started, having a company coffee mug with a one-color logo on it was a big deal and designated you as a true professional. These days it’s assumed you’ll have printed products.
IB: What’s trending right now?
Kaestner: I just returned from a new products show in Las Vegas, and I’m really happy to see a prevalence of bright colors this year. Years ago, companies would use black, or red, or a mix of both. Once in a while they’d mix in a little white to shake things up.
I think the move toward bright colors is really exciting.
IB: What corporate decisions did you make that allowed The Widget Source to be successful for more than three decades?
Kaestner: Buying Naomi out was a big change. Also, we used to be in a big office with several rooms for sample storage. When the company turned 25, I asked our staff, “If we were starting the business today, what would it look like?” It did not look like what we had. That’s when we made the change to fully embrace the internet, technology, and downsize the office. It’s allowed us to grow.
IB: Has anything surprised you along the way?
Kaestner: Yes! That I’m now directly working with companies in China! I never thought I’d see the day. We now refer to this as our world headquarters!
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