August 11, 2014
On Sunday, July 27, the incentive industry lost one of its leaders. Karen Renk, who worked as executive director of the Incentive Manufacturers and Representatives Alliance (IMRA) and later the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) for nearly 30 years, passed away after a brief battle with uterine cancer that was discovered just as she was retiring.

Incentive has asked some of her many friends and colleagues in the industry to share their thoughts, memories, and reminiscences of Karen with us.

If you'd like to contribute your own thoughts, please send them to [email protected] and we'll see that they are added to this page.

In accordance with Karen's wishes, she will be cremated and a Memorial Service for all those who supported her throughout this journey and wish to pay their last respects has been planned for Saturday, August 16th. There will be a visitation at 9:00 am at Saint Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, 8 South 055 Dugan Road in Sugar Grove, IL 60554, followed by an 11:00 am Funeral Mass, with a reception following.

More information about Karen and her memorial service is available at:

Kate Renk, Karen's daughter and Manager, Corporate Accounts, Amazing Clubs Gourmet Gifts of the Month:

I've lost my mother. Talk about "four words that hit with the force of a category 5 hurricane, leaving emotional devastation in its wake". Every child thinks their parent is the best, but to hear and read all of the things others say about her, only proves that her amazingness disseminated to everyone that met her. The loss is unconscionable, but I can literally say that I would not be where I am today without her.

I was blessed and honored to have called my mom Karen for nine years while working alongside her at IMA. And, as her previous employees can attest, she was the best boss I have ever had. Her professionalism and fairness came across in everything that she did. As did her passion. Her fervor and dedication to the incentive industry was only preceded by her family and friends. The fact that she considered so many of her colleagues and IMA members friends only deepened the obsession.

Karen had principal and Karen had grace. She could determine the right thing to do in any situation, which made her extremely successful and extremely well liked. Karen was my compass. I know, for the rest of my life, when faced with a business or moral decision, I will look to her for insight and guidance and she will continue to provide it to me. All I need to do is ask, "What would Karen do?" and I will be steered in the right direction. Her "velvet touch" lightly directing my way.

Karen -- my mother, my best friend and my professional mentor -- has left an unfillable hole in my heart, but she has also left me a legacy. I am still blessed to be a part of this wonderful industry that she was devoted to and I will continue to emulate her passion and professionalism that helped shape where we all are today.

Leo Jakobson, Executive Editor, Incentive:

When I joined the staff of Incentive magazine 11 years ago, I knew virtually nothing about the incentive industry and what the people who worked in it did. As I started learning, I got more confused: it's a complex business, with a lot of facets and more than a few people who are both partners and competitors.

As executive director of the IMA, Karen Renk was an obvious person to turn to with questions. But I kept going back to her not just because she was clearly very knowledgeable about the industry. She always had time for a question, knew the right person to introduce, and was willing to spend her time helping someone. She stands out as one of most kind, considerate, competent, and generous people I have ever worked with.

She was one of those rare people who combined being an incredibly competent businesswoman with being an incredibly fine person. I consider myself fortunate to have known her.


Louise Anderson, President, Incentive Marketing Association; Vice President, Recognition Sales Division, Business Impact Group:

We will all miss Karen dearly. Our prayers and heartfelt sorrow are with her entire family, which includes many of you, the IMA members. Many of us had the opportunity and gift to be shaped professionally by Karen in her kind and incredibly patient way. Karen will be kindly remembered as our champion that was always there to help us be as good as we could be, while never letting us fail.

Memories of Karen will remain in our hearts.

Into my heart's treasury
I slipped a coin
That time cannot take
Nor a thief purloin, --

Oh better than the minting
Of a gold-crowned king
Is the safe-kept memory
Of a lovely thing.

--"The Coin" by Sara Teasdale.


Mike Landry, Vice President, Special Markets, Tumi:

I had the opportunity to have lunch with Karen four months ago in Chicago, in the context of an IMA board meeting. She was five months into both her retirement and battle with cancer. Karen was funny, completely "with it" and highly interested in getting caught up on the news in our channel. She was a study in class and dignity.

I was also honored to be a presenter at her retirement party during last year's IMRA Conference in Myrtle Beach. I was the last to speak and the words I conveyed, delivered with so much joy -- four months before her diagnosis -- echo with such sadness now after her death. I can't express my feelings today any better than I did then:

"At this conference, IMRA says good-bye and good luck to a woman that might be referred to as the 'mother' of our business. I have been on the board of directors for, quite literally, longer than I can remember. At our board meetings, we devote a lot of time to trying to make the tide rise so that all ships rise with it. Karen Renk has always been the steady, motherly hand on the wheel of the ship called IMRA. There isn't one person in this room that can't directly attribute the success of their business, at least in some small part, to Karen's leadership.

"At least once a meeting, someone will float an idea or a potential initiative and make a passionate plea to give it a try. Karen is always there, in her unflappable and non-judgmental style, to say something like "You know, we tried that back in 1993 and it was a total disaster. We can try it again, if you want…" Karen's mental Rolodex and instant recall of people, places, transactions, and bylaw changes never ceases to amaze me. She truly has forgotten more about this business than most of us will ever know. While we look forward to meeting the challenges of the future, we can't help but feel a deep sense of loss today as we bid adieu to a true pillar of our business."

Cindy Mielke, Vice President of Marketing, Marketing Innovators:
A year ago at the IMA Summit in Denver several IMA past presidents were enjoying dinner with Karen (picture) as she spoke of her retirement and plans for her future. It was unreal to me that we learned of her passing at this year's summit just a year later. I consider it a huge blessing that I knew and worked with Karen for so many years through the IMA. She taught me so many things and led by example with diplomacy, humor and a huge heart -- she always saw the best in those around her. Karen had knowledge of how the many parts of our industry worked together and represented the interests of many facets of this industry. Her spirit and passion for this industry and its people are carried on in so many of us who were touched by her.  I hold her memory fondly in my heart.

Peter Hart, CEO, Rideau Recognition Solutions:

Karen was one of the first people I met when I became involved in what was then NAER, today Recognition Professionals International (RPI). My first thought was "Wow... is that lady ever organized!" 

Over the years I got to work with Karen, when I became a board member of RPI and the Incentive Federation. I also got to work closely with her at the IMA when we founded the Recognition Council [a strategic industry group of the IMA] back in 2007. Karen proved to be not only organized, but a super hard worker who energized all those around her. She was THE "go to" person if you wanted something done. There was no task to big or too small for Karen. 

She will be missed but NEVER forgotten.


Spencer Toomey, Senior vice president, Luxury Lines by MMSC:

I met Karen the year before she started her own association management company. I had never been to an IMRA conference before. At some point during the conference Karen approached me, and the next thing I knew I was on a committee -- Karen had a way doing that. Shortly after that, she encouraged me to run for the board of directors and I did and eventually ran through the chairs and finished as president. Then came IMA and process started all over again and here I am still on the IMA Board.

Being on the board of the associations is a big commitment of time and energy. However, the payback is tenfold! I can honestly say that the success that I had in my career got a big boost from the knowledge, friendships, and advice that I received while being on the boards and I owe it all to Karen. She not only encouraged me to join, she was a valuable resource for me as well. We all suffer bumps in the road in our careers and Karen was always my first phone call. Karen was the one person that you could call who did not have an agenda and would always give you an honest direct answer. It might not be the answer you had hoped for, but it was the right one.

Karen and I did site inspections in San Diego for the IMA Summit that I chaired there. It was great to watch a pro at work. She had the staff of the hotels and venues that we visited hopping and it was very clear from the start that Karen was in charge and was going to get what was best for IMA. The last night in San Diego, after the work was done, we sat on the balcony of our hotel with the bottle of wine that the hotel had given us and watched the Wednesday night sailboat races. It was one of the rare occasions where the student taught the teacher and I explained to Karen how the race works. She really got into it and I finally got to see the real Karen, the one her family sees, the one who loves life and is enjoying experiencing something new. We had so many laughs that night, acting like two kids, cheering on the sailboats. I am so glad that I have those memories, away from business, to remember her by.

I cannot think of another industry where one individual had so much of an impact on so many people.

Heaven just got a new Executive Director.


Melissa Van Dyke, President, Incentive Research Foundation:

Karen was the consummate diplomat who not only balanced the many, varying, and important voices in our industry, but ensured that each was heard loud and clear.  She was a driving force behind keeping this industry working together in some of the toughest years our economy has ever seen. She was a mentor and friend to so many. She will be missed not only because she was important to the industry, but because, in the end, because she was simply an incredible person.


Jim Dittman, President, Dittman Incentive Marketing:

Karen Rank was one of the very finest people I ever met in business. When I first met her, my initial impressions were:

Sweet … thoughtful … caring … patient … graceful in everything she did.

The longer I knew her, the truer these observations were. But to them, I had to add:

Smart … persuasive … insightful … razor sharp memory … with a remarkable knowledge about our business and things beyond.  

If I wanted to use one person as a model for professional business behavior, it would have been Karen. When you tried to give her a compliment, she'd deflect it and change the subject. When you tried to thank her, she'd insist that the pleasure was truly hers. When you tried to credit her for an idea or a solution, she'd spread it around. She was, quite simply, a superb human being and an equally great businesswoman.

I consider myself lucky to have worked with her over the years, and I will miss her. Hers is one of those deaths that seem so damn unfair.


Gregory R. Canose, President, Award Marketing Services LLC:

I considered Karen a good friend, colleague, mentor and confidant. She was my biggest cheerleader and encouraged me to reach for goals I never would have thought about if she didn't urge me to do so. 

I participated in hiring her as executive director of IMRA in 1985, the year after I was president. She really knew nothing of our incentive marketplace back then and as I (and others) counseled her on the ins and outs of the supplier/rep world, I found before long, she was teaching us. As time went on Karen began to grasp the wider world of the incentive business, aside from reps and suppliers, and started to embrace the larger picture. 

The vision that became IMA could never have been achieved with her steadfast support and encouragement. She was quite honored when we unanimously asked her to become our executive director. Through all of this she remained my friend and remained as graceful a person I ever knew. I am a better businessman and person thanks to Karen. She will be sorely missed.


Brian Dunne, President, IMA Europe; Managing Director, SVM Europe:

Without Karen there would not be an IMA Europe.

I first met Karen at the Motivation Show in Chicago. We spoke about an IMA for Europe and from the outset I could see here was a lady that made things happen. But did so in a supportive way. A bit like a very caring mum who wants to see her son do well.

Karen was a wonderful, thoughtful executive director but she was also a mum to us all, deep down showing a true devotion to the IMA community.

Thanks to Karen we now have a strong community in Europe. We even have our own Motivation Show, Motivate Europe Live next April.

Thank you, Karen, for all you have done for us.

Heaven has a new Executive Director!

Tasha Sharp, President, Sharp Incentives:

She really has touched so many lives and help so many of us on our professional journey. An interesting thing I realized was, it is not just one thing she has done or said, but it was the constant guidance and encouragement throughout the years that made the difference for me. Karen could always be counted on and, yes, we even referred to her as the Mother of Special Markets and we were all her adopted children. She brought people together, encouraged and fostered individual growth and through this, she helped build our special markets industry -- IMRA, IMA, the Incentive Gift Card Council [IGCC] and many others. She will be missed but never forgotten.  


Pete Mitchell, Director of B-to-B Sales, Samsonite LLC:

Karen Renk has died. Those four words have hit me with the force of a category 5 hurricane, leaving emotional devastation in its wake. For the second year in a row, an important influence in my professional life has shuffled off the Mortal Coil.

I had almost a year to prepare for it. Karen got a horrible diagnosis last September. Everyone knew the magnitude of the news. Stage 4 cancer. Multiple locations. Which one to attack first? How hard to hit it?

10 days ago I got the news -- Karen had taken a turn for the worse. Home Hospice. "The end is near." And so I told myself, "I know what's coming, I'll go through my mourning now and be prepared for the news when it actually arrives." I sent a note to my rep team, ending it with "I'm gonna go cry now." And I did.

Then it arrived. A slug to the gut combined with a shot to the head. And I realized I was in no way prepared for the news. 25 years of knowing and working with her had ended. And as it is with all deaths, I thought of myself and MY loss. It's a selfish act that ignores the greater impact.

I certainly didn't have a monopoly on the professional and personal gain I realized by knowing her. She waded into shark-infested waters to create the Incentive Marketing Association in an atmosphere of conflict and bad feelings. She negotiated truces, made reparations, and handled the highest of the high maintenance types with tact and consideration.

It was so fitting that we were all together, here at the IMA Summit, when we got the news. It allowed us to grieve as a group, to celebrate the life and try not to mourn the death. I thought of Kate, Karen's daughter, who has followed her mother into our channel and is growing into a solid professional. I don't have the eloquence to say how sorry I am.

So I'll mourn, and hopefully will put these emotions to the side. Not "behind me" because that would be an insult to the power and grace Karen brought to our business. "On the side" -- taking it with me as I move forward, remembering the valuable counsel and partnership that she gave without any expectation of return.

We'll not see her kind again. I'll go and find the patch for the hole in my heart...


Susan Adams, CPIM, CEP, Director of Engagement, Dittman Incentive Marketing:

Karen was an exceptional mentor. So many of the industry colleagues with whom she worked would tell you that she mentored them, guided them in their careers. How is the possible, though, for one person to have such a wide impact? Karen thoughtfully connected people to one another, and industry professionals to the needs of our field. She could see in each of us our individual abilities and weaknesses. And she could see just how to fit us all together, like a puzzle, for our own good and for the good of the business. Through intelligence, diplomacy, and kindness she helped us to all do our best work, as a community.


Scott Siewert, Divisional Vice President,Sales, USMotivation:
Karen was a stalwart in our industry -- a champion of the incentive and recognition principles that our industry speaks to everyday. She was instrumental in my career as she spearheaded the IMA Circle of Excellence awards. I am enclosing a picture of Karen bestowing one of the Circle of Excellence Awards on me at the 2004 Circle of Excellence luncheon at the IT&ME show -- the Motivation Show. It will always be a highlight for me -- to know such a cornerstone person in our industry took the time to recognize others. She always believed in practicing what she preached: recognition is critical.


Rory Smith, Director National Accounts,​​:

I'd like to express my condolences to the entire Renk family on Karen's passing. There's nothing we can tell you that you all haven't known for many, many years. I've known and worked with Karen in our industry for quite some time. She was always "constant as the Northern Star" -  supportive, knowledgeable, resourceful, a team player, agenda-free, kind,  very hard working, and fun!
She was hugely supportive and particularly helpful in getting our industry philanthropic efforts up and running. This was something Karen was a genuine believer in - helping the less fortunate.
May she rest in peace, the great lady.