Promoter Extraordinaire: Golden Link's Jeff Waaland pioneers movie tie-in products

Cinemas Features

This month we spotlight a real entrepreneur, Jeff Waaland, president and founder of Golden Link, Inc. His story is one of humble beginnings and an extraordinary drive that created one of the most respected businesses in the cinema channel today.

Jeff began his career as a cup salesman and saw the ways and means to cultivate that segment of business into an internationally recognized promotional and marketing firm. He has led his team to introduce collectible cups, kids’ combos, toppers and vessels like no one else in the industry, selling in over 80 countries around the world.

Jeff Waaland was born in North Baltimore, Ohio, and lived with his parents above the florist shop his dad owned. Since it was a family-owned business, Mom and Dad were basically the employees. Jeff graduated from the University of Toledo with a B.S. in Marketing and accepted his first job as assistant golf pro at the local country club. After deciding the golf business was not for him, he went to work for Imperial Cup Company, a small organization in Kenton, Ohio, just a few miles from his birthplace. He credits this first job with his introduction into international sales.

Waaland’s career took a turn when the supersized paper company Federal Paperboard purchased Imperial Cup and then Continental Bondware, and merged the two into one company called Imperial Bondware. “When the companies merged, I seized on the opportunity to begin selling paper cups and packaging on an international platform. The disposable cup market was in its early stages overseas, so it was a whole new frontier,” Waaland remembers. The young salesman opened doors to new associations globally. “I remember one of my first customers, Willie Soh from Singapore, was interested in our products. He started purchasing from me and we became friends and he always promised to come to the U.S. to see me. One day I got a call with no previous notice (no cellphones or e-mails back then), and it was Willie. He said: I am in Columbus, Ohio, at the Greyhound bus station, can you come pick me up? He had no idea it was 70 miles away.” Jeff laughs. That relationship is one that cemented his creation of Golden Link years later.

Jeff served as the international sales manager for Imperial Bondware and helped expand the business with joint ventures in India and Colombia during his tenure. When Imperial was purchased by International Paper, his view of the growth and the direction it was headed in did not match his prevailing values and he used his entrepreneurial skills and innovative drive to change direction. He called Willie Soh and together they formed Golden Link Inc.

Jeff’s experience showed him that there was an entire market for vessels and creative service packaging outside the U.S. with less competition. He had some early success selling into the fast-food and foodservice business, but found his true calling within the cinema business, while also formulating lifelong friends. He credits Millard Ochs and his team at Warner Bros. Theatres, based in the United Kingdom, as his first “big company” that allowed the impetus for his venture to take off. “I grew up with a great group of friends that were high achievers that gave me the drive, but on the business side, Millard Ochs was instrumental in helping me. I am forever thankful for all he did—not only for me but for the many people he influenced within the international cinema market around the world.”

Jeff credits his success to the people he assembled: “Our competitive edge has always come from surrounding myself with an incredible team that understood how to do business outside the U.S. Our sole focus for the first ten-plus years was on the international side of the cinema business. This gave us a huge advantage over other U.S.-based companies trying to duplicate their business model internationally.”

Waaland realized Golden Link was filling a need no one else approached. His timing was nearly perfect, as he entered the cinema scene when circuits were building multiplexes and expansion on a global level exploded. His focus soon became nearly 100% cinema-related.

Jeff prides himself on incredible partners covering all regions, including Rob Rubin in New York, Alex Pekker in Budapest, Georgina Soh in Singapore, Kathy Hogan in Australia and Moris Guterman in Mexico City. These high-achieving professionals know their markets locally while providing white-glove service.

Waaland is credited with originating the CineAsia University for his customers to learn more about the concession side of trade. “I had the good fortune being Jeff’s freight forwarder when he first started out in 1997,” recalls Rob Rubin, director of global logistics at Golden Link. “Fiendishly smart and funny (or at least so he thinks), he soon convinced me to work directly for him in 2000. Back then, we were an office of three people. Today, Golden Link has over 20 employees in five offices worldwide. Jeff now focuses on what matters most to him…in no particular order, family and golf.”

What few people know is that Golden Link under Jeff’s direction was the first company to refine the kids’ meal. His vision saw a need to fill a void for kids under 12 with a combo including a toy. Hence, the cup topper was born, which has become the number-one-selling cinema premium worldwide, with over 50 million units sold since this product launched 15 years ago.

It has not stopped there. Golden Link now offers popcorn tins, specialty drink vessels, toppers, collectibles and other premiums that allow moviegoers to “buy into” a film franchise. He and his team have become Thomas Edisons of sorts, inventing a new concession concept, Retail Initiatives.

As fantastic as Jeff is at his job, he still has a firm foundation in his family. He and his wife Donna have four boys, all golfers! They are Brandon, 23 (who has a hole-in-one on video); Blake, 20; Ryan, 17, and Jonathan 13. His favorite movie, of course, is Caddyshack. Favorite book, Golf in the Kingdom. Favorite movie snack: large (not small) bucket of popcorn! His favorite actor is Denzel Washington, even if he hasn’t made a golf movie. But above all, he is a fan of Cleveland, Ohio. He loves his Indians, his Cavs, his Browns (urgh!) It’s okay—we all have our crosses to bear.