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Links Unlimited Sees Continued Growth, More Personalization, Expanded Services

Scott KookenMeasured by square footage of warehouse space and estimated revenue of this privately held company, Links Unlimited is undoubtedly among the top three master fulfillment companies in the US and perhaps the world. Founded by Scott Kooken and his partner Bret Williams, Links Unlimited has built its business on a simple strategy: provide total support to the world’s leading brands in the corporate channel including incentive and loyalty programs, corporate and event gifting and almost every distribution channel but retail.  
A Holistic Approach for Brands to Non-Retail Markets
Continued Growth in Customization, Personalization
A Focus on Continuous Improvement

The modern, sprawling 175,000-square-foot warehouse north of Cincinnati is a far cry from the company’s humble roots 26 years ago in a tiny office focusing mostly on the golf market. Today, the company provides end-to-end support for leading brands to address almost any market but retail, including not only all aspects of the corporate incentive, recognition, loyalty, and promotional market, but also personalization, event and loyalty programs, customized merchandise programs and third-party logistics to support e-commerce.
Links WarehouseThe model for this privately held company appears to be working. “Growth is great,” says Scott Kooken, CEO and co-founder. “We forecasted a 16% growth rate this year and through March, we're beating that, so we are not seeing any signs of recession yet. We meet with our leadership staff every week and ask for signs of any slowdown, and so far the answer is no, but that of course could change. The only signs of weakness are in points-based incentive, recognition, and loyalty programs, which we expected because people went through a lot of their points during the pandemic with less opportunities to earn more because they weren’t traveling as much. We have also seen some consolidation in the marketplace, and the tech sector obviously has taken a hit.”  

A Holistic Approach for Brands to Non-Retail Markets

He attributes a lot of the company’s growth to new technology players entering the incentive, rewards, and recognition market; his company’s holistic approach to providing access to non-retail markets most brands don’t have the resources to tap, including complete third-party logistics operations to support e-commerce; diversity of corporate services, and cross-selling synergies created by addressing all a brand’s needs in the non-retail market. He points out that the clients of Links Unlimited’s brands might need products for a loyalty program, or customized merchandise, or drop-shipment of products sold through e-commerce, creating a virtuous circle of sales opportunities.
The focus, Kooken says, is to take a holistic approach to the services it provides brands. The company’s primary services include:
  • Providing complete third-party logistics for leading brands using Links Unlimited to warehouse and fulfill all their US marketing materials, displays, branded merchandise, company stores etc. or in some cases e-commerce sales—the company is looking for land to build another 50,000 feet or more of warehouse space;
  • Total support for the IRR (Incentive, Rewards, and Recognition) market, including incentive, loyalty, and points program fulfillment and basic front-end online catalogs customized based on customer needs
  • Bulk sales through promotional products distributors for gifting and related programs, event gifting management and fulfillment,
  • And personalization and customization, already a double-digit percentage of sales and growing.
Kooken believes his company’s role as a third-party logistics partner creates the best opportunity to provide value to the incentive, recognition, loyalty, promotional, agencies, and other third parties through which it primarily sells--in terms of pricing, access to inventory, and logistical support.

Continued Growth in Customization, Personalization

He sees further growth in customization and personalization and says the company continues to invest in the necessary equipment to handle most of it inhouse, with the goal of bringing customization and personalization up to 20% of the company’s merchandise sales. He cited a recent program for a leading brand that offered a new twist: recipients received a jacket emphasizing their own name in addition to the brand’s. This is why promotional products distributors are a core part of the company’s business, he says, unlike other incentive companies that sell front-end program management software for incentive, recognition, and safety programs through distributors. Links, he says, does business with a few thousand distributors but focuses primarily on the top 100 distributor companies, which, of course, includes thousands of individual salespeople.
The company creates value for brands, he says, “by opening a customer base they are overlooking. We can provide fulfilment for anybody, and that could be anything from the raw goods all the way to finished products. We are no longer limited to one market. All of this just opens the possibility of more growth that comes from the business opportunities generated by having all these services available for the world’s best brands.”
Kooken confirms that supply chain challenges have eased considerably and that in most product categories price pressures, along with shipping and related cost hikes have eased as well. He agrees that the ability to obtain better pricing from some brands based on excess inventory they accumulated because of cautionary buying during the pandemic is helping soften prices but notes that it’s possible some retailers are also dumping their excess inventory into the IRR market at highly competitive prices.  

A Focus on Continuous Improvement

Beneath the holistic approach to supporting brands outside of the traditional retail markets, Kooken says the other edge is a focus on continuous operational improvement. Projected on the walls in the warehouse are continually updated key statistics on productivity and quality, which are continually analyzed to identify opportunities for improvement with a growing staff that includes many long-timers, he says. One opportunity of focus right now, he says, is on transportation and logistics as another means to enhance efficiencies, value, and customer experiences.
One of the big challenges of being a major logistics company is the compliance issues that come with it. While his company does not meet the 250-employee threshold of the European Union Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, a much less comprehensive version of which is already in effect, his European clients require his company to provide them with a Corporate Sustainability Report in compliance with current EU law applicable to company's Links' size. While the cost of reporting is not insignificant, Kooken did not express any concerns, saying that the requirements mostly align with the spirit of the company’s practices anyway, and that the extra costs were minimal in comparison with the benefits, which include having a competitive advantage over companies that do not have this level of disclosure.  
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