Women's History Month Bio - Margaret Custer Ford

  • Feb 20, 2024

 

Women’s History Month Short Biography

Margaret Custer Ford, a pioneer in women’s business achievement

by Nancy Gudekunst, MAS 

 

Here is my perspective on the story of how my mother built a successful career as a businesswoman, before women had successful careers!

When I was a little girl, all the other kid’s moms were home to greet them after school.  Our family was different.  My mother was not married, and she worked!

 

Back in 1959, women could enter the work force as a teacher, nurse, or secretary.  Otherwise, they were expected to become homemakers for their working husbands.  Women that didn’t feel like doing that had few other options. 

My mother Margaret, recently single with two small children, dreamed of working as a sales rep helping clients buy advertising specialties (later called promotional products).  She called a regional sales manager at a big national firm and was bluntly told, “Women don’t work out” – end of interview! 

That didn’t sit well with her, so Margaret decided to do something unheard of; start her own custom promotional products distribution company.

 


This was not an easy task because all of the decision-makers in the industry were men.  Margaret often had to pretend she worked for a man, or had to use her first initials on correspondence instead of her full name, just to get manufacturers to take her business seriously.  She recently shared “When I wrote to a supplier 'applying' for their line, I learned to pretend I was a secretary working for the firm!  Women...  especially "nice" women, simply didn't do that!”

Margaret could not get a business credit card since, at that time, women could not qualify for a credit card in their own name, only their husband’s!  She once took a pile of invoices in to her bank – invoices for Weyerhauser, International Paper, Crown Zellerbach and other big names of the day - trying to get a loan on her accounts receivable.  They would not grant her the $500 without a co-signer!

 

In spite of these initial setbacks, Margaret persevered and proved herself a tenacious businesswoman. Once she was up and running, she needed to meet new clients.  Business networking for women was not yet established, and there weren’t many avenues available to meet buyers in small Medford, Oregon.  She cold-called, and got in to some appointments merely through the novelty of the audience seeing a “lady” salesman.  After she presented, the prospect was often impressed enough to give her an order, and possibly a referral to another buyer.

 

Such was the beginning of my mother’s business career.  At school, classmates asked me why my pencil always had writing on it.  When decorated apparel hit the market, I was the only kid at school with an imprinted t-shirt – unfortunately, it wasn’t cool yet!

Margaret loved her new business, and thrived on the challenges.  At the national industry conventions, she was one of two women who were there to work, and NOT attending with their husbands.  She was a glutton for information and absorbed everything she could about how to grow MARCO Advertising, as it was originally known.  She attended every industry educational event she could, earning her Certified Advertising Specialist and Master Advertising Specialist designations.  Eventually, she became knowledgeable and wrote articles for national publications, having expertise in credit and collections from prior hospital experience.  It wasn’t long before she was asked to lead regional education sessions, and became a sought-after speaker for promotional products industry events.


Margaret excelled at the creative aspect of custom branded merchandise.  She created many novel campaigns using promotional merchandise, and won lots of prestigious industry awards for doing so, including Roseys, Addys, Pyramids, and more.  Eventually she learned that entering and paying for those contests netted her only new competition, using her ideas, without compensation.  So instead, she focused her energy on growing her business with innovative promotional ideas, continuing to garner accolades organically along the way. 

 

During the 1970’s, the national association asked Margaret to serve on the Board of Directors.  She did so twice.  While she was busy presenting classes to industry peers, and serving on the B.O.D., she was named “Man of the Year” by Advertising Specialty Institute – prompting an award name change to “Person of the Year” and making way for a new normal of women’s business achievement. 


However, having a working mother did place a unique strain on our family since not many other mothers worked at that time.  Initially, after school I went over to a friend’s house until after 5:00.  It was fun, we played outside and ran around until dinner time.  After a few years of growth for MARCO, we had a “housekeeper” that watched the children. Margaret was often gone for business commitments for long periods, which was a difficult adjustment.  Mom often missed our school presentations, and had to sacrifice family time for business interests.  This is a common situation for many families with working mothers now, but it was a new phenomenon for us at the time, meaning there weren’t other children in the same situation we could share with.

Once I grew up, I realized that I also had the entrepreneurial bug.  Watching my mother work and succeed while growing up, I hadn’t even realized that women had a hard time making it in the business world - though I would come to experience some of those struggles firsthand in the early days of my career. I began a secretarial service in 1984 when “desktop” computers were still new. 

This was also the year my mother custom built the award-winning MARCO Building to house our offices and showroom in southwest Portland, OR.  My own secretarial service soon grew successful, and my mother could see that I had the right qualities for business ownership.  She asked me to join her at MARCO, so I sold my business and began my promo industry career with her in 1992. 


Two strong-willed people working together, especially family members, might not make it - but we separated our duties amicably and thankfully didn’t kill each other.  In fact, over time our strengths combined and my administrative skills helped overhaul the company.  Much to everyone’s annoyance, I questioned everything; but through those growing pains we built a stronger, leaner promotional products distributorship positioned for decades of innovative swag ideas and industry thought leadership. 

 

In 1994, Margaret was recognized by Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) as only the second woman ever inducted into their Hall of Fame!  This was a huge honor and the entire family flew to Dallas for her acceptance celebration.  I’m so proud to see her smiling face at the national show’s Hall of Famers display.

My involvement in MARCO Ideas Unlimited’s leadership allowed mom to begin pursuing retirement gradually, before eventually leaving her role at MARCO altogether around 2000.  However, her entrepreneurial spirit persisted - she went on to start another business selling lapel pins that hold reading glasses, while volunteering at SCORE helping other new businesses get established.

 

Long after Margaret left the promotional products business, she was recognized again by PPAI as a “Woman of Achievement” in 2010.  This was super sweet as she was one to pave the way for women to enter the business.  Currently, the industry consists of more than 50% women practitioners, thanks in part to Margaret’s trailblazing efforts demonstrating that women most certainly do “work out” in the promotional products industry!

I am proud to continue my mother’s legacy of women in business leadership. I have served on the regional promo association’s board of directors, and was able to continue growing the company over the years.  I hired both my husband and son in 2005. 

Today, my son Tom is President of MARCO Ideas Unlimited, and will be Owner once I retire.  Margaret Custer Ford is the proud female founder of our three-generation family-owned business, and celebrates her 95th birthday on March 1st.

MARCO Ideas Unlimited is proudly celebrating 65 years of woman-owned business innovation in 2024.

 

Since the mid-90's, Nancy Gudekunst, MAS, has been the 2nd generation owner of MARCO Ideas Unlimited, a Portland, Oregon local, family-run promotional products business founded in 1959. Nancy's years of swag idea experience help cut through the clutter of promotional product options with creative ideas that achieve your business goals. Certified as a WBE and DBE. 

 


  • Category: News
  • Tags: Promotional Products, Personalization, Service, Marketing, Branding, Women, Business, History
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