2023 Women in Print and Promo: Grethe Adams, Southern Plus
Southern Plus, Hartwell, Georgia
When it comes to leadership style, Grethe Adams doesn’t believe in silos. Her main objective as president and CEO of Southern Plus is to keep customers happy. That means no part of the experience is overlooked — from marketing materials and inventory, to customer service, production, and final shipment. “To make sure it’s a smooth process for our customers, all our departments must work together,” says Adams, who serves as the facilitator.
Adams extends that same dedication to her staff. “She inspires her employees to become the very best they can be by offering opportunities of advancement based on merit and hard work,” according to her nominator. “She never asks any of her employees to work harder than she does.”
Over her 27 years in the promotional products industry, Adams, with the help of her team, has racked up several notable awards, including a bronze placement for outdoor products in Print+Promo Marketing’s 2022 Supplier Excellence Awards, and an A+ Rating based on distributor input collected by SAGE. And to think, none of this would’ve happened if not for a decision she made as an MBA student at The University of Texas.
Like many before her, Adams fell into promo by chance. After graduating, she packed her bags and moved from Texas to Georgia, her then fiancé’s native state. A family friend tipped her off about an opportunity to help with product development and sourcing for a supplier named Southern Umbrella Co. Adams liked the idea of working with factories overseas, as well as getting to test her creative skills. Given her educational background in marketing and international business, she felt it was perfect.
As Adams tells it, sourcing was much more challenging back then without the support of email or the internet, but after some trial and error, the company started importing umbrellas, and, later, folding chairs. To reflect its broader product offering, Southern Umbrella Co. rebranded as Southern Plus in 1998.
After three years of handling product manager duties, Adams took over the role as president when the previous owner sold the business. She gradually earned ownership interests throughout the years before becoming sole owner of Southern Plus in 2019.
Going back to the idea of breaking down silos, Adams explains that applies to her as well. There’s not a job she hasn’t performed, which she credits to her success. “I’m a very hands-on person and know how to do just about any process that we do,” she says. “I think this has allowed me to grow into and prepare for my current role.”
Her Proudest Career Achievement
Winning the PPAI Technology award for “Best Website” in 2010 and 2016 were definitely proud moments. It was a great feeling knowing that all the hard work and focus on providing a powerful, feature-rich website didn’t go unnoticed. Building and moving into new facilities in the late 1990s was also a big achievement and a significant investment in the future growth of the company. Another big milestone was becoming WBENC certified in 2020. We have women in several key positions in our company, and I’m proud of having a company culture that nurtures and promotes women to leadership roles.
How Failure Taught Her Resiliency
Well, failure typically means giving up. I don’t know that I’ve ever given up or considered something impossible, even after numerous failed attempts. My point is, sure, I’ve often missed the mark or failed to accomplish something on the first, second, or even third try, or have had to go back to the drawing board to adjust or find a new solution. However, I don’t think of that as a failure but, in fact, believe this is how you grow and improve on your skills. Often, the end result is better for having had a few setbacks or challenges along the way that forced me to reassess and figure out a new way.
Her Most Significant Barrier as a Female Leader
For the most part, our industry is very accepting of women in various leadership roles. I feel particularly on the distributor side that this is true where many of the top performers and business leaders are women. That said, there are still some barriers on the sourcing side when working with factories overseas. Some cultures are not as far along as ours when it comes to women in leadership roles. I’ve found that showing you’re knowledgeable and remaining focused on the task at hand will usually negate skeptics.
How She Thinks Companies Can Attract and Retain Female Talent
The industry is a natural fit for women, with sales and creativity being at the core of what we do. Particularly with solution-based selling where it’s key to understand the needs of the customer, women tend to excel. Nevertheless, providing a clear career path to advancement and leadership roles would be a way to attract more female talent. I also think allowing flexible work schedules to accommodate taking care of kids and family is important to retaining women in the workforce. This responsibility still mostly falls on women, and the ability to be able to stay home with a sick child, leave early for a school play, or to watch a game, are part of the soft benefits that can set you apart from other employers in attracting, in particular, younger female talent.
Her Job Advice to Women
Join us! It’s a great industry to work in, and one that can provide an exciting, fun, creative, and financially rewarding career. In many positions, you’re able to set your own hours and choose part time vs. full time to suit your particular needs during various stages in life.
Her Upcoming Goals
I want to streamline our order entry and customer service processes through additional online features and data integration. We also have a goal to double the number of products that we offer using recycled materials by year end. Personally, I’d like to be able to dedicate more time to several great animal rescues in our area. There are also a couple of home improvement projects that I’d like to tackle this year. Every year I try to accomplish at least one larger project at home. I love the process of planning, organizing, and executing, and then get[ting] to enjoy the final results — it’s a win-win!
How She Recharges
I love to spend time outdoors — hiking, gardening, or just hanging out by the pool or fireplace. I try to get in a workout now and then, but my Peloton has probably reported me MIA as of late. I also like to cook and love to try new recipes. The joke around the house is that if you like a dish, you better eat it now as you may never see it again. On weekends, taking a drive through the countryside and the mountains is a great way to recharge and decouple from work.