Dear Mike K, Thanks for the Ride

Back in 1993 I was writing articles for a business magazine in Keene, New Hampshire, and I did one on the Yankee Candle Company in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Times were tough in the region back then, and we had a full-blown recession, but Mike Kittredge, founder of Yankee Candle, was right about then having to hire a second police officer to direct traffic at his factory / retail store / family fun center.

The store was attracting more than two million visitors a year, more than any single tourist attraction in the state, second only to the Freedom Trail in Boston.

I had been doing a series on local manufacturing companies and had met several people who had started businesses in their basements that had turned into million-dollar companies. That’s cool, but Mike Kittredge started a business in his parents’ basement which at the time of our interview was grossing around three hundred million dollars a year.

And yet he took the time to meet with me and we had a fascinating interview about the way he balanced wholesale and retail sales, about how he ran the company, and many other interesting subjects.

He told me about going to Newport, Rhode Island, and noticing that there were very many people walking around downtown carrying shopping bags, about how he opened a tiny store there that did $450,000 worth of business in its first year.

He talked about opening his own stores in cities where he had wholesale accounts, and the wholesale accounts actually sold more of his product because the Yankee stores were always so crowded.

Often his biggest problem was staffing enough checkout lines to register all the purchases that people wanted to make. He had dozens of registers, but always had long lines at the checkout. They say you pick your problems.

Among the many interesting observations he made was this: You have to make the shopping experience fun. Your store can’t be dirty and fun. You can’t have fun if the person at the checkout counter is talking on the phone while you’re trying to buy $50 worth of candles.

He also enumerated the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of your customers give you 80 percent of your business. 20 percent of your customers give you 80 percent of your problems.

He observed that candles are pretty heavy and expensive to ship. Then he sat back with a big smile that illuminated his wonderful sense of irony. “But,” he said, “they’re consumable.”

Mike made a science of bringing people back again and again.

Two years later, I went to work for his company, and I worked there for nine years running pallet jacks, reach trucks and fork lifts. There are about five or six hundred people out there who worked at Yankee Candle when Mike owned it and every last one of them will back me up when I say Mike Kittredge has always been a decent guy and working for him was an experience we’ll never forget.

It wasn’t just the quarterly breakfasts (on the clock, no less) where we all gathered in the giant employee fitness center and chowed down and watched while he performed with his band and then listened when he sat down and told us about where the company was going and then gave out cash and prizes and a half dozen trips to Barbados. Four times a year! On the clock!

It wasn’t just the company banquet at the Delaney House in Springfield, one of the world’s finest restaurants. It wasn’t just the comprehensive family-friendly health benefits or the annual pay increases or even the paid vacation.

It was the policy of promoting exclusively in-house. Everyone in management had had wax on their shoes, so you could talk to them.

It was the respect that was given to every single employee. Every morning your supervisor (who had held your job or one like it) asked you how your equipment was working and how things were going with the departments you worked with. And when you told them, they knew what the bleep you were talking about! Mirabili dictu!

And if we ever had friction with one another, well, we had a friend in common, Mike K, so we got over it. There was no “Now we take the garbage out and have a cigarette behind the dumpster.” No one was about to gyp Mike K, because he never gypped anyone in his life. Instead there was friendly competition to see who could get the job done.

As the company got larger and larger, Mike Kittredge hired a buddy of his, Mike Parry, to be president because Mike P was more hard-nosed than Mike K and could do things like fire people. But Mike Parry also has always been a decent guy, though he might deny it, and he always did everything he could to make sure that Yankee Candle was a place where he himself might like to work.

He had a meeting every week where any employee could ask him anything they wanted. No one else in my department ever wanted to go, so at first I went a lot, but then I started urging new people to go and they went and they found out that they were part of something very unusual –a company of decent people for decent people.

When Mike K sold the company, which he had every right to do, the writing was on the wall. You remember the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where everything turns from black and white to color? Well this was the same thing in reverse.

When they had “Baked Potato Day,” I realized that Mike K was not just gone, but WAY long gone.

Yet I find myself saying, “But YOU were there and YOU and YOU…”

If there are any old YCC hands out there who remember the way it was back in the day, email me and send me your memories of working for Mike K and Mike P. Wasn’t that one swell ride? In today’s America, no one else is going to believe us.

I go by Mike K’s house all the time, whenever I bike to Puffer’s Pond the hard way (over Teawaddle Hill) and when I go by, I say, “God Bless America.” Of all those yachts lined up on Caribbean docks, at least one of them belongs to a guy who earned it through hard work and consideration for others.