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A Mandate to Innovate: Yankee Candle's Rick Ruffolo

Karen A. Newman

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.”

Because Yankee’s CEO, president, and board of directors were responsible for creating Ruffolo’s position, innovation has a “critical and well-accepted role in helping drive total company performance,” Ruffolo told GCI magazine. True to his previous statements, it is innovation as part of a larger strategic plan. He noted that his team has generated some early wins, as well as delivering what appear to be some sustainable, positive business results.

Key Innovation Functions

Ruffolo’s first step toward establishing a more disciplined way to evaluate and execute ideas was to initiate a re-organization of his team with a focus on key innovation functions—including package design, new products, market research, marketing, brand management and product/fragrance development. That was followed by the development and subsequent board approval of both short- and long-range business plans that defined the role and expected contribution of newness and innovation. Finally, a five-step process was initiated to guide concepts through ideation, commercialization and launch. “This process involves several executive committee members, and ensures senior level debate and alignment on major project milestones,” said Ruffolo. He believes the process is a positive one because it:

  • establishes clear criteria for success for each project
  • provides a forum for the project teams to gain the input of senior management at critical milestones when the input is most helpful
  • minimizes the chances for surprises
  • creates transparency of decision making that encourages a shared continuous learning environment across all project teams and removes the taboo of canceling projects when criteria have not been met

The operations business team leaders have a dotted-line reporting relationship to Ruffolo’s position, ensuring open communication and a high degree of collaboration in key operations decisions. A viable operations/supply chain strategy is fundamental to new products success, and Ruffolo holds weekly cross-functional meetings to discuss and review key operational issues.

Collaboration and open communication are critical elements in today’s successful businesses. “I saw an article featuring A.G. Lafley from P&G where he was quoted as saying the biggest challenge he faces is the ‘not invented here’ mindset, which he has tried to shift to ‘reapplied with pride.’” Ruffolo thinks that is an issue facing all of business. “It’s recognizing that value-creation can happen in many different ways, and we should be open to exploring each one on its own merits.”

Strong communication also is critical to building good relationships that become part of a company’s supply chain strategy. In Ruffolo’s mind, honest communication and a willingness to try new things are critical to productive and long-lasting supplier relationships. “I have taken to heart the philosophy I learned from a consultant who said ‘always assume best intentions’ when working with others. If you do, it will completely change the way you perceive and handle issues—conflicts, disparate points-of-view, etc.—and how you communicate with others.”

A Czar is Born

Growing up the sixth of seven children in Kettering, Ohio, gave Ruffolo the advantage of watching his older siblings face the world ahead of him. “I always had the unique opportunity to watch and learn as my older siblings experienced life stages before me—from grade school through college … the work world, marriage, kids, etc. It definitely helped give me wisdom that I otherwise would not have had.” He readily admits, however, that his biggest influences were his parents, first generation Italian-Americans born in Chicago.

His father became president of a successful direct mail marketing company in the Dayton, Ohio, area at the tender age of 29 and started his own company 18 years later, which he ran for 20 years. Ruffolo was there the day his folks opened the door to their own company, and his first jobs were there—driving fork lifts, setting up racks, creating inventory systems, delivering packages and anything else that needed doing. In college at nearby University of Dayton, he continued to help out, setting up his dad’s computer system (“back in the pre-Internet days,” as Ruffolo described it) and visiting accounts with him.

“I watched him create something out of nothing,” said Ruffolo. “He did it by having a vision and working every day with the intent of delivering that vision. I learned so much from him, but probably most important was the way he treated his employees.” According to Ruffolo, his dad knew all of them—from the office staff to the hourly workers in the warehouse. And those employees, said Ruffolo, “would run through walls for him because they knew he genuinely cared about each one of them. I have never forgotten the power of that.”

His mother worked for his father’s company, too, and pitched in wherever she was needed, from accounting and payroll to administrative tasks. It was from her that Ruffolo learned how to juggle multiple tasks, to negotiate, to think on his feet and how to stand his ground.

“What I also admire about both of them is that while pursuing this entrepreneurial venture, they always prioritized and found the time to watch my games or come to school events, along with juggling the activities and needs of my six siblings.”

Whatever they did turned out six successful progeny. Two of Ruffolo’s brothers are senior business executives (in the automotive and tech industries), one is an attorney and another is a gastroenterologist. His older sister is a professor and associate dean at the University of Michigan, and his younger sister is a high school teacher and coach.

Growing up in Kettering added another dimension to Ruffolo’s perspective. The town was home to the Wright Brothers and its namesake, Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric car starter. It is still home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which Ruffolo characterizes as one of the high-tech centers of excellence for the military. “Real American heroes like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong all were part of the Ohio lore that I grew up with as a kid,” said Ruffolo, who readily admits to being inspired by great inventors and entrepreneurs. “Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Kettering and the Wright Brothers all saw something others didn’t … and had the intellectual curiosity and stick-to-it-ness to trust their instincts despite the odds.”

His heroes certainly had the confidence to not simply accept the status quo and, as Ruffolo puts it, “to ask not just why, but (ask) why not?” Both traits he credits his parents for instilling in him.

Eureka Moments

Based on his track record of leading teams to success in positions prior to his arrival at Yankee Candle, it seems clear Ruffolo himself is no stranger to asking both why and why not. He was hired by Bath & Body Works in 1998 as director of innovations, charged with supporting the rollout of the White Barn Candle Company retail store concept and to furthering the company’s home fragrance business. In a few short years, sales tripled and margins improved dramatically, due in part, according to Ruffolo, to the introduction of the first liquid fragrance oil electric plug-in product, Bath & Body Works’ Wallflowers launched in late 2000. “Despite significant early resistance to the concept, this product innovation immediately and consistently has been the company’s number one selling product over the last seven years,” said Ruffolo of the translation of Bath & Body Works’ personal care business into home fragrance. “This line was an immediate success from the day it hit the stores, and seven years later, it still is the engine driving that company’s performance. I am also very proud of receiving two issued patents for inventions associated with this product.”

Later, as vice president of the True Blue SPA and American Girl brands (which he developed and launched in 2003 and 2005, respectively), he helped build these two highly successful brands on a strong understanding of the target customer, competitive leanings, unique marketing positioning, well-designed product assortments and packaging, and authentic and appealing brand stories. “These are some (of the) best practices that I contributed to, and learned alongside some top marketers at Bath & Body Works (BBW)/Limited Brands, in addition to helping create best-in-class consumer store themes and experiences.”

His move to BBW/Limited Brands marked a major change in Ruffolo’s career, moving him out of traditional consumer packaged goods (CPG) and into retail. “In retrospect, my switch from classic brand management to the ‘hybrid’ specialty store model found at BBW and Yankee Candle, although a risk at the time, provided me with unprecedented leadership and innovation opportunities that would not have been possible in a more traditional CPG environment.

“It is well-documented how successful retailers have used technology, merchandising and control of the in-store experience to establish a direct and more authentic emotional connection with consumers. ‘Customer intimacy,’ that is, speaking directly with our customers every day in our stores, is a differential advantage traditional CPG companies have lost to leading retailers,” Ruffolo said.

On Top of the World

His broad job title is indicative of the wide range of challenges and opportunities he faces every day—days that are filled with meetings, market visits and calls on accounts. “We have a regular cadence of meetings each week that provides some predictability to the topics/issues being discussed.” It is a job he finds professionally challenging and rewarding, but admits the best parts of the job may be those eureka moments when his team hits on a solution everyone just knows will effectively address the challenge at hand. “The moment you realize you’ve created something where there was nothing before is very gratifying.”

A recent example of a eureka moment was arriving at the concept of the Yankee Candle World Collection. “It was one of those moments when you could immediately see the idea would be a home run,” said Ruffolo. “It was consistent with the Yankee Candle brand positioning—a passion for fragrance; it played to our core competencies as the world leader in candles and home fragrance; it connected with consumers on an emotional level; and it was clearly aspirational and ‘trend-right.’”

Each of the fragrances in the collection contains authentic indigenous extracts or oils from exotic ingredients found all around the world. The initial eight fragrances are Vera Cruz Vanilla (Mexico), Brazilian Passion Fruit, Tahitian Tiare Flower, New Zealand Wild Berry, Greek Fig & Currant, Mediterranean Cypress (Italy), Rose of Morocco and Canary Island Banana.

That passion for fragrance embraces the growing interest in natural materials, too. Many of the company’s candle fragrances contain natural fragrance oils or extract, including the World Collection line. Additionally, the company offers three authentic Aromatherapy candle lines containing essential oils—including Yankee Candle Aromatherapy SPA, Illuminations Pure Aromatherapy and the all-natural Aroma Naturals line. In addition, the company has launched a new line of home fragrance oils that are warmed in an oil warmer using an unscented tea light, and the company continues to seek ways to improve fragrance experiences wherever a consumer chooses to enjoy them—at home, at work, in the car, or at play.

The natural product lines work well in a world that seems to be focusing on wellness more than ever before. In a press release for Yankee Candle’s “Light a Candle for Your Heart” program, which supports the American Heart Association’s efforts to promote the awareness of heart disease in women, Ruffolo is quoted as saying, “Each of us can make important lifestyle decisions to improve our heart health, such as incorporating regular exercise, eating right and even relaxing.” So, how does a guy with a triple-header title, weeks filled with meetings and decision-making, and five children relax?

As much as he would like to say that he vacations in Italy for several weeks each year, Ruffolo instead finds relaxation in sports—not so much as a player these days, he laments, but as a coach, helping train his children’s soccer and basketball teams. He finds many parallels between that coaching and his professional role as a coach and boss. In both cases, he finds the challenge is not just doing the work but finding ways to identify and develop talents and teaching and motivating the players to perform both as individuals and in collaboration with others.

In this coaching role, Ruffolo speaks at various colleges and, again, gets his inspiration from his number one role model—his father. Yet, it is most likely the thrill of the new, the eureka moment, that keeps Ruffolo going. The latest news from Yankee Candle, which went public in 1999, is the February 2007 completion of a merger with an affiliate of Madison Dearborn Partners, LLC, a private equity firm, and the delisting of its common stock from the New York Stock Exchange. For Ruffolo and his team, the change simply means business as usual. “We will continue to pursue an aggressive growth agenda for the company, and innovation will continue to play a critical role in making this happen.” Whatever the agenda, the company relies on its Idea Czar to bring its passion for fragrance to consumers.

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