Counselor

Person of the Year 2021: Jonathan Isaacson, Gemline

COVID hurt the promo industry and stopped the world. Gemline’s Jonathan Isaacson refused to let it defeat us.

Jonathan Isaacson believes the success of a business – and a life, for that matter – is measured by more than just financial gain.

It’s tallied by the positive impact one has on people by being a force for good in the communities and industries in which one builds a life.

Jon Isaacson

“No one achieves anything alone. You need a great team.” – Jonathan Isaacson, Gemline

By such measures, Isaacson’s accomplishments since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic rival anyone’s in the promotional products industry. The CEO/chairman of Gemline (asi/56070) spearheaded the Top 40 firm’s remarkable pivot to PPE, helping put products into the hands of people who desperately needed them, while also saving countless distributors as traditional sales evaporated. Gemline achieved 10% growth in 2020 for a total of $115.5 million – standout results in a year when the promo industry’s revenue collectively dropped 20%. Earlier this year, Counselor recognized Gemline as its 2021 Supplier of the Year for those achievements.

But Isaacson’s efforts go further. He was also at the heart of deeply impactful public health initiatives, from guiding local taskforces to getting vaccines to people in the community. He also took a key role in promoting industry education aimed at combating COVID-19.

For that and more, Isaacson is Counselor’s 2021 Person of the Year. It’s an honor he insists is shared.

“No one achieves anything alone,” says Isaacson. “You need a great team – a team that’s great in what they do individually and how they work together to overcome challenges. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be part of such teams.”

Likewise, those team members feel fortunate to have Isaacson at the helm.

“Jonathan is everything you’d want in a leader,” says Gemline President Frank Carpenito. “He has an amazing ability to think strategically and see around corners, while at the same time adapting strategies to take advantage of new opportunities or to tackle unexpected challenges.”

Fighting COVID

Isaacson spotted the dark clouds on the horizon before many.

A sharp student of the marketplace and world events, Isaacson had a sense of the larger threat of COVID-19 in winter 2020 when the virus was denting supply chains in China. “I was at a meeting with the local economic development agency and I pulled the president of a hospital and some medical professionals aside and said, ‘Listen, we need to talk about this,’” he says. “We didn’t know just how big a deal it would turn into, but we talked about the issue.”

Weeks later, the magnitude of COVID exploded into reality. It was in March 2020 when two of Isaacson’s connections from the medical world contacted him in what he has described as a “hair-on-fire emergency,” desperate to secure personal protective equipment for their healthcare facilities as the virus began to rage in the U.S. and PPE supplies ran short.

Those calls became the impetus for Isaacson to lead Gemline into PPE, sparking a year of adaption and innovation in which the CEO spearheaded the Lawrence, MA-based supplier’s execution of a series of pivots. Perhaps most notable of those was Gemline becoming one of the most trusted sources for PPE at a time when demand was rampant. The supplier won the new PPE Face Coverings category in Counselor’s 2021 Distributor Choice Awards.

The way Isaacson made an impact with his company is cause enough for accolades. But what elevated the University of Michigan alumnus to a league of his own was the way he threw himself – personally, professionally, passionately – into the fight against COVID.

Isaacson is vice chairman of the board at Lawrence General Hospital, a nonprofit institution founded in 1875 and originally led by Dr. Susan Elizabeth Wood Crocker, a descendent of Mayflower émigré Dr. Samuel Fuller, the first physician and surgeon in the United States. The hospital serves a hardworking, blue-collar community that was slammed by COVID-19, placing heavy strain on Lawrence General.

From the outset of the pandemic through the present day, Isaacson and his fellow board members have given pivotal support to the hospital’s executives and front-line workers. “Our role has been to provide good governance and oversight – to deliver whatever support we can to help them do their jobs under unimaginably difficult conditions,” says Isaacson.

Seeing the efforts of healthcare workers up close, Isaacson’s voice catches as he talks about the women and men braving their way into the hospital daily to fight the virus and save lives. “What they’ve done is truly heroic,” asserts Isaacson, whose daughter is in medical school. (His elder son is a successful consultant with a Boston firm, while his younger son is a recent graduate with a background in math and science who’s joining an autonomous car company, an MIT startup.)

COVID Hits Home

Sam Isaacson and colleagues

Sam Isaacson, founder of Gemline and Jonathan’s father, built international business relationships. Here he is with colleagues in Hong Kong in the early 1980s.

As Jonathan Isaacson led Gemline and helped his community through the pandemic, the horrors of the virus hit home. His father, Gemline founder Sam Isaacson, passed away as a result of COVID-19 in January 2021 at age 89. It was a painful blow, but one that Jonathan shouldered with grace, perspective and strength. “At this point, I choose to celebrate his life rather than spend time contemplating what could have been,” says Isaacson. “My father got great joy from being a spectator to the growth of the business over the years. He had a community that brought him comfort and joy. He had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that were a great source of pride. He lived a full, long life.”

Isaacson is also chairman of the COVID-19 Task Force of The Lawrence Partnership, an economic development agency. The Gemline CEO was already on the agency’s executive committee, and as the shadow of COVID started to spread in late winter/early spring 2020, he advocated for the agency to address the growing threat.

That led to the formation of the Task Force, which has helped battle the virus locally through a variety of initiatives. Recently, for instance, the Task Force ran community education campaigns aimed at encouraging people to get vaccinated. “It was a true grassroots effort,” says Isaacson.

The Task Force has been involved in helping people get access to vaccines and rolling out vaccine clinics that bring the shots to the community. It also helped assemble human resources experts that aided Lawrence General in recruiting the personnel necessary to perform some 1,300 COVID tests per day. As Task Force chairman, Isaacson oversees such efforts. “Lawrence is our community; it’s where our Gemline family lives, and we have a moral responsibility to help,” he says.

Throughout 2020 and into 2021, Isaacson coordinated and participated in educational webinars for audiences within the promo industry and beyond. The forums often focused on important COVID-related topics.

One webinar Isaacson orchestrated in January of 2021 featured Barry Bloom, former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, discussing what promises vaccines offer. Another, spotlighting experts in fields like epidemiology, drew upward of 1,000 attendees.

Already residing in the Top 10 of Counselor’s Power 50 ranking of promo’s most influential people, such efforts expanded Isaacson’s standing as a leader and visionary in the industry. “By nature, Jonathan is a teacher,” says Marc Simon, CEO of Top 40 distributor HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000), and Counselor’s Person of the Year in 2006 and 2019. “He puts these learnings into easy-to-understand terms, supported by his famous graphs and charts. He enjoys sharing all that he learns with his friends in our industry. All of that combines to make Jonathan a thought leader among us. We’re lucky to have him and lucky to be exposed to even a fraction of what he learns.”

Ira Neaman, president of Top 40 supplier Vantage Apparel (asi/93390), Counselor’s 2003 Person of the Year and a Power 50 member, offers a similar assessment: “Jonathan is the great industry educator who has a strong sense of community value and a great sense of humor,” says Neaman. “He focuses on educating suppliers and distributors with historical perspective, trends and current events. This has a positive impact on the industry and on his own business.”

Continuous Improvement

Isaacson’s sharp, ever-curious mind has served him well in a bottom-line business sense. His late father, Sam, founded the company that would become Gemline in the late 1950s. Jonathan bought family members out and became owner in the early 1990s. At the time, Isaacson says, Gemline was a roughly $15 million company that “primarily sold totes. But we were at an inflection point. We needed to change.”

Isaacson led the forging of that path to the future, building a nine-figure firm. Gemline now offers products in an array of categories, from bags, drinkware and food gifts to technology, writing instruments, journals and more. Retail brands figure prominently. “We now compete on design, quality and having great brands,” notes Isaacson. “We’re a consumer products company that happens to operate in promo, making stuff people like, use and want to keep.”

Perhaps Isaacson’s finest hour of leadership came in 2020. Isaacson anticipated the massive disruption COVID would cause in advance of many, which compelled him to lead Gemline into the PPE business in a big way. Thanks to the excellent work of scores of team members, says Isaacson, the supplier was able to secure high-quality, effective PPE from vetted factories, a reality that enabled the firm to sell tens of millions of PPE units last year.

But the supplier’s sales success in 2020 was stoked by more than PPE. Legacy categories, including drinkware, food and Moleskine brand products, increased as the year progressed. Gemline also launched kitted packages of products, both traditional promo and PPE, that could be sent to end-clients’ work-from-home employees – another hit with distributors. The supplier stayed aggressive on forging new brand partnerships, too, bringing a number to market that were especially relevant given COVID concerns, such as Osprey (hiking and outdoor activities) and Modern Sprout (gardening).

In June, Gemline announced a strategic long-term partnership that brought retail brand Slowtide’s high-quality towels and blankets, made with sustainable materials, to promo. In January, Gemline announced it would be providing Paper Mate and Sharpie writing instruments through a partnership with Newell Custom Writing Instruments (asi/84833). That deal came shortly after Gemline’s mid-December acquisition of RuMe, (short for ReUseMe), a designer of reusable bags and accessories.

“Jonathan is the great industry educator who has a strong sense of community value and a great sense of humor.” – Ira Neaman, Vantage Apparel

The buzz of business activity occurred as Gemline diligently protected its workers from the virus even as it increased staff levels by about 30%. The company didn’t record a single case of COVID community spread among its workforce at the firm’s facility, largely a result of implementing best practices suggested by a Standards of Care Advisory Committee that included experts in the fields of epidemiology, environmental health and environmental engineering. Isaacson leveraging his network was essential to the committee’s formation.

“We’re always looking to improve our setup. Every day I’m in the building, I’m down walking the floor,” says Isaacson. “I don’t want to put people in an environment I don’t truly believe is safe.”

As many businesses tightened budgets, Gemline increased philanthropic donations in 2020 by five or six times its normal amount. The firm provided support to organizations that included the Lawrence General Hospital, the local Boys & Girls Club and the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. Gemline also supported scholarships that help in-need locals obtain free community college education and funded a scholarship at the University of Michigan that helps children raised in foster care get a four-year degree.

In 2021 and beyond, Gemline, under Isaacson’s leadership, is also ramping up sustainability efforts. For instance, Gemline has pledged to eliminate PVC and certain other chemicals from its supply chain. “It’s a monumental undertaking, but it’s the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint and a business standpoint,” says Isaacson. “End-users are driving the demand for sustainability, and it will be important for our industry to step up to meet this need.”

The brand partnerships, product pivots, worker protection, charitable giving, eco efforts – all these moves are rooted in Isaacson’s visionary leadership. Of course, it hasn’t all been roses. Bumps in the road associated with the continuing rollout of a new ERP system have drawn complaints from some distributors. Even so, Isaacson says the new system will ultimately be a boon for customers and Gemline. “We’ll be able to provide a higher level of service with more reliability at a lower cost,” says Isaacson. “We’re building this for the digital future.”

He reflected: “There’s no business journey that’s perfectly linear. Every business adventure is punctuated by challenges. The same could be said of life. The important thing is to keep finding ways to adapt and improve.” 

Five Things You Didn’t Know
About Jonathan

HamiltonHe loves attending Broadway shows.
“I’ve seen Hamilton three times. When I watch a performance like Hamilton or Rent, I’m just blown away by the endless talent of the performers.”

EllaHis favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald.
“No one else has a voice like her.”

scubaHe likes to get outdoors – and underwater.
“Skiing, scuba diving and running are all activities I enjoy.”

Michael CorleoneHis favorite movie is The Godfather.
“I’m fascinated by the character arc of Michael Corleone – how he goes from being a good man to what he became.”

booksHe’s a voracious reader.
“Collecting books is like a sickness for me. I’m a non-fiction guy. I tend to like large historical books and books that give me some new view of the world.”

Christopher Ruvo is ASI Media’s Digital News Director. He counts 18 years of experience as a journalist, including 10 with ASI, and won the 2019 Neal Award for Best Range of Work by a Single Author. Tweet: @ChrisR_ASI; email: cruvo@asicentral.com