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Brief History
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Submitted by Dee Hansford, Founding Board Member

Our association was born out of frustration.

In April 1995, Debbie Patrick of AT&T Universal Card, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida and Rafik Bishara of Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals in Indianapolis set out for a Performance Management conference in Dallas.

They hadn’t met but each had high hopes of learning more about how to enhance the successful recognition strategies they had helped create for their respective organizations. To their mutual disappointment, they found only a few breakout sessions devoted to recognition and most of them were pretty rudimentary.

Not to be thwarted, they joined forces and decided to create their own “sharing conference.” Colleagues were invited to Jacksonville in September of 1995 for a daylong event designed to provide expert advice, intensive networking and a chance to see recognition in action at AT&T Universal Card.

The new manager for Cast Recognition at the Walt Disney World Resort, Dee Hansford, was delighted to be able to attend with her team and what they learned proved to be invaluable! In fact, they were so inspired that they decided to host the next sharing conference within six months.

Kathe Farris of BankBoston hosted the following conference and the truly remarkable Pamela Sabin took what had been an informal conference to an entirely new level of professionalism when the group met at Chevron headquarters in San Francisco in 1996. In 1997 Incentive Automation hosted the first “conference style” event with keynote speakers and break out sessions. It was at this conference that RPI’s board of directors began to form. By then, the number of attendees was growing and represented private and public sector organizations as well as a healthy contingent of service providers.

Kimberly Smithson remembered attending the Bank Boston conference where she was impressed by the bank CEO’s reference to recognition as “a $1 Billion dollar decision in turning around their business post-merger.”

It seems that pre-recognition, the company was losing $500 million and after instituting recognition as a business strategy; the company posted a $500 million profit! Kimberly described that as a definite turning point for her and immediately saw the potential for an organization to foster strategic recognition in the workplace.

As the organization started to take shape, over 100 letters were sent out to prospective companies and business leaders inviting them to join the effort to build the association. Three companies (Sears, BI, and the O.C. Tanner Company) made significant financial contributions and became the original Platinum (Founding) sponsors of RPI. In all, over $100,000 was raised from the founding sponsors and the initial board to formally organize RPI. An association management company was sourced to help grow the organization and provide day-to-day support. The effort started in 1997, but RPI was officially “born” in 1998. The first conference as an association was held in Atlanta, GA with 90+ attendees and the second conference was held in Orlando FL.

In 1998, Recognition Professionals International (formally NAER) was officially designated a non-profit organization, with Kimberly Smithson at the helm as its first President.

RPI immediately launched an aggressive membership drive. Word spread like wildfire that there was now a resource for the growing number of recognition professionals who were struggling to retain and motivate an increasingly fluid workforce.

In just a few short years, RPI grew from about 50 members to over 500 -- an increase of 851% since 1998! We saw a 35% increase in membership from 2001 to 2002.

Word spread like wildfire that there was now a resource for the growing number of recognition professionals who were struggling to retain and motivate an increasingly fluid workforce.

All across the spectrum – from micro businesses to mega corporations – people are realizing the power of effective recognition and they want to learn how to do it well. That is the need RPI continues to fill.

Recognition Professionals International (RPI) is the only non-profit professional association at the forefront of employee recognition through its sole focus on recognition innovations and education as a systematic method for improvements in the workplace. RPI is endorsed by top authorities in the industry, and is the only association offering Certified Recognition Professional (CRP) courses and designation.  As a trustee of the Forum for People Performance Management and Measurement at Northwestern University Research Center, RPI provides input into its research agenda and has the added benefit of considerable access to academic leaders in the field of human capital.

We would like to honor the Founding Board Members and original Platinum Sponsors who contributed countless volunteer hours and financial support to the fledgling organization. Thanks to their efforts, and those who have followed in their path, Recognition Professionals International continues to thrive.


Greg Boswell, OC Tanner
Jim Brintnall, Successories
John Domenick, Aubrey Daniels & Associates
Kathe Farris, BankBoston
Dee Hansford, Dee Hansford Consulting
Fred Hibben, Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Bob Nelson, Nelson Motivation
Mike Poremski, Catepillar
Pam Sabin, Chevron
Deb Sikanas, Baudville
Kimberly Smithson, Prosperti
Bob Voyles, BI

Original Founding Sponsors: 
Sears , BI, O.C. Tanner