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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.

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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.”