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A Mandate to Innovate: Yankee Candle's Rick Ruffolo

By: Karen A. Newman
Posted: May 3, 2007, from the May 2007 issue of GCI Magazine.

Yankee Candle began with a handful of melted crayons shaped into a candle, a gift for its young founder’s mother. Today, the company is the leading designer, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of premium scented candles, based on sales. It sells its products through a North American customer network of approximately 17,400 store locations, a growing base of company owned and operated retail stores (420 located in 43 states as of December 30, 2006, including 16 Illumination Stores), direct mail catalogs, the Internet and to a European customer network of approximately 2,500 store locations, through its distribution center in Bristol, England.

Rick Ruffolo joined Yankee Candle in September 2005, taking on the weighty title of senior vice president of brand, marketing and innovation, with responsibility for leading innovation in new products, brand positioning, new technologies, new packaging and new business processes. “Our collective objective is to optimize the effectiveness and efficiency (ROI) of our innovation efforts,” he said. “Creating an executive-level position to bring all the critical ‘innovation’ functions together into one team was a strategic decision to drive results through increasing expertise, minimizing internal politics/fiefdoms, and maximizing collaborative teamwork and market responsiveness.”

Ruffolo started in packaged goods brand management at P&G, but has worked in the candles/home fragrance category for a dozen years across all channels of distribution at Yankee Candle, Bath & Body Works and S.C. Johnson’s Glade business. In that time, he developed fragrances and new products, earned patents and worked with some of the best people and suppliers in the industry—all of which has given him a unique and balanced marketing, business, and operations experience from which to draw.

The Mandate to Innovate

Ruffolo and his title caught the attention of author Jena McGregor who coined the term Idea Czar in the April 10, 2006, issue of BusinessWeek to describe a new executive level position popping up in corporations across America: chief innovation officer and other similar executive titles in which innovation is key. The trend is indicative of innovation as a new “critical management mandate,” according to McGregor, driven by “a thirst for internal growth across Corporate America.” When an executive holds a position with the term “innovation” in the title, it sends a clear message to the organization that “innovation is an urgent priority and someone should be accountable for it.”

Ruffolo agrees with those who believe that companies either innovate or lose, “or at least lose ground.” His role, distilled to its essence in the BusinessWeek piece, encompasses “establishing a more disciplined way to evaluate and execute ideas, meeting with operations about innovative manufacturing processes and scouting global markets for new devices to deliver Yankee Candle’s fragrances.” Ruffolo told McGregor, “If it was just a purely innovation role, I might just run after all these different gadgets. But by linking it to a senior management role, it’s not innovation for the sake of innovation.”