APRO’s Awards Luncheon, August 21, honored the industry’s finest, inducting them into the association’s prestigious Hall of Honor. Congratulations to this year’s award winners Jim Brown, Ernie Talley Lifetime Achievement; Mark Connelly, President’s Award of Excellence; Jeff Lebakken, Rental Dealers of the Year; Brad Denison, Norm Smith Vendor of the Year; and Terah Vail, Newcomer of the Year.
The State Association of the Year was awarded to the Missouri Rental Dealers Association, with John Cleek, Jr. at the helm. In addition, Florida, Indiana, Iowa-Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee and Wisconsin all won State Association Continued Excellence Awards; and Arkansas took home the State Association Emerging Excellence award.
2018 Ernie Talley Lifetime Achievement: Jim Brown, ABC Rental
Brown, one of APRO’s founding members in 1980, is not only a pioneer but has been a true industry advocate over the past 38 years. Having initiated his career in the Rent-To-Own industry working for Ernie Talley himself in 1965, Brown quickly took ownership of ABC Rental in Wichita and Kansas City, Missouri. Throughout his time in the industry, Brown has experienced varying industry climate from founding APRO to successfully battle legislation and turn an unstable industry into the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today. Jim and Debbie brown have attended every APRO Legislative Conference and built and maintained strong relationships with public officials at every level of government in Kansas and in Washington, D.C. Jim has served as the Kansas Rental Dealer’s Association’s primary governmental affairs representative since it began in 2007 and was the recipient of APRO’s President’s Award of Excellence in 2004.
“It’s a great honor to be given one of the best APRO awards and having started my career with Ernie Talley it was very appropriate as the award is named after him. Ed Winn and I are the only two of the founding members left which also made it very special,” says Brown. “The future of the industry is unlimited especially looking at where it was in 1965 when it was just getting started. It’s completely different. We have a lot more options, our customer base is larger and we can still make improvements. We have good people involved in the industry and we can keep improving, growing and expanding.”
2018 President’s Award of Excellence: Mark Connelly, Arona Corp., dba Aaron’s
Connelly jumped into RTO after serving in the Marine Corps in 1989. His career started as manager trainee for Remco and worked his way up to regional manager then divisional manager and then left the company and became vice president of operations for a 14-store ColorTyme franchise eventually bought by Renters Choice which bought Rent-A-Center in 1998. Connelly was soon promoted to senior vice president overseeing 300 Rent-A-Center stores in the Midwest. In 2003, he left Rent-A-Center and partnered with Tom Bernau, becoming owner of a six-store Aaron’s franchise, Arona Corp., based in Des Moines, Iowa. Arona Corp. is now the second largest Aaron’s franchise with 55 locations in seven states. Connelly has served as APRO president in 2016, has been on the APRO board of directors since 2013 and has attended APRO’s Legislative Conference since 2007.
“I was honored to be chosen for this award. It was totally unexpected, and I know many people in the industry who are as deserving. None of us do what we do for awards, we do it because we love our people and we love our customers, and we want to preserve that,” says Connelly.
2018 Rental Dealer of the Year: Jeff Lebakken, Lebakkens Inc. of Wisconsin
Born into the industry, Lebakken worked part-time in his parent’s stores Lebakkens Inc. of Wisconsin throughout high school and college. After college, Lebakken joined the Army and then returned to manage the family business. He has been an RTO champion in the state of Wisconsin, fighting and advocating for the industry in efforts to keep an industry threats at bay and even nonexistent. Lebakken owns 11 stores and has been an APRO member since 1988. He has attended almost every APRO Legislative Conference since 1996, was the recipient of the APRO Heritage Award in 2008 and is the President of the Wisconsin Rental Dealers Association.
“Winning the Rental Dealer of the Year award feels great. It was made even better when seeing Brad Denison win Vendor of the Year, who I worked together with on legislation for so many years, and Jim Brown getting the Lifetime Achievement Award, a man that I looked up to all those years I was growing up in the industry,” shares Lebakken. “The industry has a strong and bright future. This industry is one of the few that is poised well to weather the downturn of the brick and mortar stores and will come out of it looking as good as ever.”
2018 Norm Smith Vendor of the Year: Brad Denison, Benefit Marketing Solutions
Denison started his career as a trial lawyer and it was through that experience that he was introduced to the RTO industry where he served as Rent-A-Center’s in-house lawyer. After several years, Denison became Rent-A-Center’s general counsel and forged a relationship with Benefit Marketing’s Danny Wright. In 2006, he was offered the position of Benefit Marketing’s general counsel to which he gladly accepted and in 2012 he became the company’s CEO and when Wright retired in 2015, Denison added the role of President to his title. He has been an APRO member since 1991 and has attended many APRO Legislative Conferences advocating on behalf of the Rent-To-Own industry on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
“I am absolutely honored to be selected as the 2018 Vendor of the Year. I have been working with the rent to own industry for 27 years and know the caliber of the people serving the industry as vendors and as dealers. To be recognized for this award is special because I know there are many others that are doing great things to support the industry,” says Denison. “It seems like the landscape of the industry is changing more now than ever, but I am excited about the positive way I know the industry will adapt. We are working hard to be a part of that positive change.”
2018 Newcomer of the Year: Terah Vail, FAN Leasing
Vail is Director of Operations for 12 FAN Sales & Leasing, an Aaron’s franchise in Fayetteville, Arkansas serving customers in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. After receiving a Master’s in Theology in History at the University of Edinburgh, Vail returned home and began working for FAN, a company her father started in 1996. She is a founding member Vistage group, a peer-to-peer advisory board for local business executives in northwest Arkansas. Vail is also a board member of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Northwest Arkansas, a nonprofit committed to helping single parents in the area break the cycle of poverty through education and career advancement. She currently serves on the APRO Board of Directors and is the president of the Arkansas Rental Dealers Association.
“I am so honored and grateful. There are a lot of really high performers in this industry, many who are starting to make a name for themselves, and it’s an honor to be even be considered,” says Vail. “It’s an interesting time in the industry. We’re starting to see gears shift and we’re not even sure which gears they are and what the outcome will be, but I’m optimistic about where we are and how we can meet customer needs. We can take care of customers in ways that other retailers can’t so I say, let’s embrace it and move forward at full steam.”
Click here for a full recap of RTO World 2018.