Candle firm succeeds in electronic age

score During a recent trip to Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, while visiting with my college roommate and an ex-GE manager, I had the opportunity to see Yankee Candle Company in South Deerfield. I talked with the owner, Michael Kittredge, and was impressed with his organization and its growth over the past 30 years.

As a young teen, Mike demonstrated a flair for marketing. He learned to play the guitar and at the young age of twelve had organized his own rock group, the Bristol Curries. After the band split up in 1969, Mike found himself short of cash for Christmas. Undaunted, he melted his childhood crayons together with a pound of canning wax, added a wick borrowed from a dining room table candle and poured the concoction into an empty milk carton to make a candle for his mom.

A neighbor admired the candle and purchased it. Mike used the proceeds to make two more candles, one for his mother and one to sell. soon candlemaking replaced his music as his part-time job. Seeking a name that sounded appropriate for New England, he called the business Yankee Candle.

After graduating from high school, Mike attended the University of Massachusetts, but never entirely gave up making candles. By 1972, candles, wax and equipment filled his family's house and garage; ultimately, his parents asked him to relocate the growing concern. Mike rented space in a dilapidated old paper mill in neighboring Holyoke, quit school and went to work.

In 1969, not many people were willing to invest in a 17 year-old's candlemaking business, so Mike went to the bank, asked for $2,000 and got $1,000. He used the money to make more candles and sell them, and repeated the process - with the banker raising the amounts each time.

Mike served as candlemaker, sales director, business manager and custodian. In New England at that time, there were a lot of candlemakers, but Mike was the only one serious about making it a business. By 1976, he was able to hire his first assistant and had doubled the original factory space.

The first years were tough but he was determined to keep the business going. By 1976 sales were $21,000 and he hired his first employee; in 1977, sales were $65,000 and he hired more people. In 1978 sales were $125,000, and by 1983 he had his first million-dollar year. By 1983, Mike had 30 employees working on four floors of the mill and was running out of room.

It was time for the Yankee Candle Company to seek greener pastures. Now the banks were starting to take him seriously so he could get enough money for his own building and more out of the old mill.

When they moved into the new building, they were the wacky kids from Holyoke who make candles. But it got him a lot of media coverage, which helped expand his business. The entrepreneur admits to being a little surprised at the expansion, saying that at times the rate of its growth frightens him.

The gross sales of Yankee Candles Company in 1998 [wholesale and retail] was $175 million at 70 company-owned stores and 13,000 gift shops nationwide.

Not bad for a non-technical business in this day of rapid growth through electronics. there is still a need for the everyday products, and we just need more determined people to start up and not take "no" for an answer.

Who said you can't succeed starting out in the garage? I remember another guy who did that - Bill Gates.

Bill Bryan is a counselor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives. SCORE offers counseling, workshops and seminars on small business operations. You can reach Bryan through SCORE, 515 N Court St. 815-962-0122, for information and appointments.

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