The LeMenagers started simply by selling airline tickets and vacations to companies that wanted to give their top employees a travel bonus.
"That was when companies were still flying first class, and the airlines were giving commissions (to us)," says LeMenager, who has been CEO since her husband passed away in 1982.
Times may have changed, but the employee incentive industry is still strong. Over the past 22 years, LeMenager grew the company from 60 accounts to more than 400, increasing revenue to $86 million a year.
In the process, she turned Marketing Innovators into one of the largest woman-owned businesses in the country, according to Working Woman Magazine.
LeMenager offers everything from coffee mugs with company logos to Caribbean cruises. One of her clients, a cellular phone company, recently saw a 200 percent increase in annual sales due to a four-night Caribbean cruise program that she put together.
LeMenager spoke with Smart Business about growing her company, and how it's still important to reward employees -- especially when times are tough.
Why did you start Marketing Innovators?
My husband was working with Maritz at the time; they're a big incentive house in St. Louis. He just felt that there were some innovative ideas that could be put into play with a new company, so we started the company in 1978. He passed away in 1982, so I've been running it for the last 22 years.
That was the main reason, and moving to Chicago was another reason, because it's really the hub of the Midwest. That's really where all the incentives seem to be happening.
Most of the money spent on incentives was coming from here because the agricultural business was a big contributor to the incentives back in the 1980s.
How did your business plan evolve?
We started out as a travel company. We did that for cash flow, then we went out and got corporate travel. We had 60 accounts when we first started. That helped with cash flow until these incentive programs, which take six months to a year, got started.
We knew we wanted to get into the gift certificate business, and wanted to use retail stores for fulfillment, which was an innovative idea in 1980. So then we grew the business on that side, and still are in the travel business.
We still primarily do incentives and meetings, and we also deal with the not-for-profit world. We sell them gift certificates at a discount so that they can raise money for whatever organization they represent.
We represent JC Penney exclusively from a retail perspective. We buy certificates from retailers and then we sell them to corporations for their incentive programs. We have more than 300 retailers that work with us.
How did you get those first 60 accounts?
We opened the office and went from door to door all around the area and knocked on all these buildings, because there are a lot of businesses around Rosemont. We just knocked on the doors and got the business.
How have incentives changed over the years?
We should really say that the industry should be at its highest when times are bad, because you should use incentives to stimulate people because you're cutting staff, asking people to do more, so you need to stimulate them somehow. We want to make sure that when we do an incentive program that it's not designed as compensation that they're supposed to get.
It's not compensation, actually -- it's winning rewards. It's not an entitlement.
So you have to be careful how you set up those programs.
Then, also, you have to make sure you understand who you're directing these programs at. If it's a younger group, you do a few different things. If you're an older group, you do something else.
Some companies like the high end of travel to some luxury location. The incentives have changed. They used to have those beautiful catalogs that you could choose from, and someone else chose the item, even if you didn't want a fur coat or a bracelet. Now we're saying, here's a gift certificate, go into a store, and you have the choice of the whole store.
The younger generation likes to purchase things for their family. Then also we have individual travel you can choose from, and they like to take the long weekends.
What's the range of rewards companies ask for?
Some people just want logoed items like hats and jackets and so forth. Some of them are going to Europe.
One group we took to the Olympics, or to Monte Carlo, places like that.
The gamut is just huge. Where we used to sell directly to the sales managers, now incentives are bought through HR, they're bought through marketing or procurement departments, by people who never have handled incentives before. There are all different places in the company now that are purchasing incentives, and we have to give major presentations to, and those people have to sell it to the company.
What about a CEO who says he doesn't have any money for incentives?
First, we have to find out how much he has to work with. Sometimes, incentives are as much as a pat on the back, a little plaque in the office, something on the desk, going out to lunch with the CEO.
It doesn't have to be magnificent. It's just recognition.
We have programs that run anywhere from $1,000 to some of them go up to millions. We're global now. We have a client that we're doing business for in 64 countries for through the Web site.
We set up the Web sites for those countries and we keep track of the points that they've earned. They can, from a different country, get into that database, see what they've earned, select the rewards, and then we fulfill it.
We've had clients for 15, 16 years. Normally, if a client starts with us, we don't lose a client because of service or anything that we've done.
How to reach: Marketing Innovators Inc., (800) 543-7373 or www.marketinginnovators.com