It’s sometimes hard to keep up with trends in the business world, much less start them. But when Grand Rapids caught on to the “green” movement, Karen, ’89 and Lou Scarpino, ’88 were already ahead of the curve. The Scarpinos own and operate Green Giftz by Promotional Impact, a company that sells eco-friendly promotional items for businesses. They make everything from company pens to magnets and hats, but their creativity and ability to customize products that perfectly represent their clients is what makes them stand out.
Lou, having studied marketing at GVSU, knew that it took smart business positioning and focused promotion strategies to build a successful company. Eager to work, the only thing that was missing was the job.
“In 1989, it wasn’t the best time to get an easy job,” he said. “There was somewhat of a recession.”
He took a job on the east side of Michigan and worked while Karen finished her bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations. After she graduated and got a job at Holland America Wafer Company, the two married, and Lou moved back and started working in sales. He quickly discovered that his business intuition was keener than he had thought.
“If I was going to be knocking on all these doors and establishing contacts, I thought I ought to just build my own business,” Lou said.
He began doing so in the early 90’s with a toy replica of the Herman Miller furniture system. The Scarpinos' business took off. Lou soon discovered it was too much for one person and enlisted the help of his wife. Karen officially joined the staff in 1998 after working for a large advertising agency in Grand Rapids. She had become the agency’s first female vice president after only six years, but knew her talents – and her family – would be better suited in business ownership.
“As soon as I became an entrepreneur, I was surprised. I really, really loved it,” Karen said.
“Once I started running my own business, I saw what my former boss saw in me. You reap the rewards of your own hard work. I don’t know if I’d want to go back and work for someone else.”
Promotional Impact first started the sustainable approach in 2006 when they pitched a line of custom briefcases made out of the material from Herman Miller’s best-selling Aeron chairs. Herman Miller executives fell in love with the concept.
“It really set us apart from the competition,” Lou said.
Sensing the trend, they launched Green Giftz in 2007 after partnering with the new LEED certified Grand Rapids Art Museum to deliver gift shop items made from 100% recycled material. Today, Green Giftz and Promotional Impact serves top companies like Steelcase, Amway, and Bissell. The business has won the 2009 and 2010 Top Women Owned business and 2010 Chamber Epic Award.
Even though the couple had what seems like fast success, Karen still insists that it took several stepping stones and a lot of hard work to get to her dream job. The tough love she received while attending GVSU prepared her for the road ahead.
“The professors helped me realize that I was going to have to prove myself to get to where I want to go,” Karen said. “As much as you think you know, there’s so much more to learn.”
The combination of business savvy, a hunger for knowledge, and a passion for the planet has made the husband and wife team a success. More than half of their current employees are Grand Valley students or alumni and they hope to increase that number as their business reaches across the region and the world.
Updated October 2013.