Dear Mike: Thanks for the Ride!

I was saddened to learn of the death of Mike Kittredge because I had hoped he would recover from his stroke and apply his immeasurable talents to making the world a better place, which he surely would have done if he’d been given the chance.

I’m a pretty cynical guy, but I have to say, Mike Kittredge was and is my hero. I was a freelancer for a business journal in Keene, NH, in the early 1990s, during a mini-recession, and I read about this candle shop where the guy had to hire an extra policeman to handle the traffic in his parking lot.

Yankee Candle was then growing at a rate of 35% per year, with a doubling rate of less than two years, a rate the company maintained for more than a decade!

Mike graciously gave me an hour of his time to talk about his business plan and his management philosophy, and the upshot was I took an entry level job at Yankee Candle. That’s the only way you could join the company. Everybody had to get wax on their sneakers.

That’s one of the policies that drew me to the company. There were many more. Mike Kittredge and Yankee Candle represented — and I’m sorry I have to use the past tense, but I do — a new paradigm for American industry: Nice guys finish first.

Mike Kittredge was a decent human being to everyone he ever met or did business with, and he wanted his company to be a company that he would want to work for. That’s in the Bible somewhere. I think it’s called the Golden Rule and it really worked for Mike.

When I first started working there, Mike was in the Sydney Farber Cancer Center with Hodgkins lymphoma. Was there any ‘cats away, the mice will play’? None! At some factories, you have the ‘now we take out the garbage and have a smoke behind the dumpster’ but that never happened at Yankee Candle. We all loved Mike, even if we didn’t love one another.

Much is made of Mike’s generosity, and rightly so. He just wasn’t a piker. He treated the whole company to breakfasts — on the clock no less — and gave trips to Hawaii or Greece or wherever to five or more employees.

He gave everyone a 7% raise every year and there were ergonomic experts everywhere to make sure no one threw out their back. He had a special 6-2 shift for parents (myself included) so we could pick up our kids at school every day.

But what we, as employees, loved most was the opportunity to be heard. Every morning we’d be asked if our equipment was working ok and whether we were working ok with other departments. Usually the answer was yes, but it’s nice to be asked. That’s one of the things that was lost later when they brought in a lot of middle managers who had never had wax on their sneakers. They had no idea what we were talking about.

When I think of the corporate takeover of Yankee Candle, I think of the last scene in ‘The Wizard of Oz, when it reverts to black and white and Dorothy says, “But you were there! And you and you and you!”

Let me give you a taste of what life was like after the corporate takeover: There was a labor shortage, and the company had to pay more to attract incoming workers than they were paying their current employees.

The ‘management group’ had a simple solution: tell employees they were forbidden from telling one another about their compensation. A simple solution for a bunch of douchebags who care nothing for the people who have made them rich.

I know my arguments may sound like sour grapes, but after the corporate weasels drove me out of the company, I got a job as a travel writer staying at five-star hotels all over the world. The best thing that ever happened to me.

So after they brought in a corporate ceo genius who made 65,000 dollars a week, they were able to grind the company into the ground so that the stock lost 30% of its value — you tell me what kind of whacky world we’re living in.

These corporate weasels willl NEVER be able to get a return on their money equivalent to Mike’s 35% per year because they are sociopaths and Mike was a DECENT GUY.

And he proved, once and for all, that nice guys finish first!