Profiles in Business
CEO’s Success Is Measured in Dollars and Scents
It was just after 7 a.m. on a Friday, and Harlan Kent was on the road — again.
His destination this time was New Hampshire and several of the Yankee Candle stores there. Kent, who became CEO of the company last fall, does this often. He talks to the people who run the stores, and he talks to customers. The goal is the same: to find out if the store in question is providing the kind of products, services, and experience that the corporation demands of each outlet.
“I tell them I work for Yankee Candle — I don’t tell them I’m the CEO,” he told BusinessWest when asked about his MO for these store visits. “This is definitely a part of being in retail. I can travel anywhere in the U.S. and be visiting our stores, which is certainly a problem for my wife, because it means every time I’m on vacation, there’s going to be some stores for me to go to. And that doesn’t make her too happy.”
Kent said he considers these visits a big part of his job description, and also the company-wide mission to build, promote, and protect the Yankee Candle brand, which happens to be just one of many famous names he has sold during his career.
Others include Vlasic pickles, Dole pineapple, Winchester ammunition, and Pepperidge Farm products. “I have a passion for brands,” he said, adding that those food-related résumé stops dovetailed nicely with another passion — cooking.
Indeed, Kent spent a year between high school and college at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, learning the art of food preparation. He later had a number of summer jobs working in various restaurants. Kent still likes the kitchen and says he makes a mean spaghetti avongele (white clam sauce), and satisfies his sweet tooth with many endeavors involving chocolate. But his only interest in the restaurant at the Yankee Candle complex in South Deerfield (Chandler’s) is eating there.
“I get to see what’s going on there, and get my fix that way,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be disrespectful to our chef and venture into the kitchen; I do all my cooking at home.”
At the company’s headquarters in South Deerfield, he is, most definitely, more interested in work involving another of the five senses — smell. Yankee Candle now has roughly 200 scents in its inventory (most stores carry about 75 at any given time), and new ones are being created each year, New additions include ‘vanilla cupcake,’ ‘strawberry buttercream,’ ‘tropical lifestyle,’ and ‘pineapple tilantro.’
“One of the teams I have the utmost respect for here is our fragrance team — they’ve been doing a fabulous job for a lot of years,” said Kent. “They are responsible for rolling out, on average, 20 new fragrances a year, and to get there, they start with more than 2,000 fragrances that they’re evaluating that they’ve culled down to get to those 20 fragrances.
“They’re incredibly creative,” he continued, noting that, contrary to popular belief, there are still countless possibilities still to be considered. “They’re always coming up with new twists on how to combine fragrances or new ways of providing variety in versions of a fragrance.”
Monitoring additions to the portfolio is just a small part of the workload for Kent, who, in his current role and, previously, as COO, has steered the company through the Great Recession with relatively modest revenue declines (4%), and is now focused on establishing sustainable growth and expanding Yankee Candle’s presence around the globe.
For this, the latest installment of its Profiles in Business series, BusinessWest looks at how Kent will go about those assignments, and why visits like the ones he was making in New Hampshire play such a key role in that process.
As he was driving to Deerfield in 2001 for his interview for the position of senior vice president of the Wholesale Division of Yankee Candle, he called his father to get his take on that career opportunity.
If he was looking for encouragement, he certainly didn’t get it.
“He told me that sounded like a pretty silly idea,” Kent recalled, “because he’d been to a number of dinner parties recently and no one was burning candles. So he didn’t think it would be a good business to get into. I had to explain to him that it wasn’t those kinds of candles, he wasn’t the customer we had in mind, and that this was actually a very good business.”
Still, this wasn’t a career stop he could have imagined. “I certainly never envisioned myself working in, or aspiring to work in, the candle industry,” he continued. “But it’s been fabulous.”
Kent interviewed with Yankee Candle because, after four years as senior vice president and general manager of the Wholesale Division at Totes Isotoner Corp. in Ohio, he was looking for a new career challenge and a return to the East Coast.
Over the course of a 25-year career in business, Kent has worked with and for a number of famous brands, and in different capacities. He said his work history has three distinct parts — first some time in consulting and strategic planning, then several years in brand management and marketing, and then the last third in general management. After a stint with Bain and Co. as a consultant, he went to work for Dole Food Co., Castle & Cooke Inc. in a marketing and advertising capacity. He went from there to the Campbell Soup Co., where, after a stint as director of strategic planning, he worked in a number of divisions building several name brands.
He served as marketing manager for the frozen dinner brand LeMenu Healthy, and later became senior marketing manager for Vlasic. From there, he took the position of business director for the frozen foods division of Pepperidge Farm, and later became vice president of marketing for that company, handling Milano, Goldfish, and other iconic trademarks.
His next career stop was at the Winchester Division of Olin Corp., where, as vice president of global sales and marketing, he executed a complete business turnaround for the for the $260 million recreational, military, and industrial ammunition maker.
While there was wide diversity with the products he sold and marketed, there were some common denominators with all those stops.
“I always had a passion for the team I was on, and a passion for brands — I always fall in love with the brand I’m working on,” he explained. “I also have a passion for solving business issues. All of the companies I’ve worked for have had that combination of opportunities. I’ve been very lucky.”
Kent has had to rely on all those passions as he’s maneuvered the company through the prolonged economic downturn. The retail sector suffered considerably during the recession, he explained, and Yankee Candle was certainly no exception.
Still, the company has managed to control its revenue declines while also continuing efforts to expand its presence. Yankee Candle is now in 42 states, and has some 3,000 stores in Europe, another 2,000 in Canada, and more than 3,000 in Asia.
“We now export candles from Deerfield, Mass. to Beijing, China,” he said, adding that the company opened two stores in that city last October, and there will undoubtedly be more to follow. “There’s an unbelievable opportunity there; just look at the numbers. There are 13 million people living in Beijing, and another 4 million come into it every day to work. That’s 17 million people, which adds up a lot of opportunities to sell candles.
“And scented candles are catching on there,” he continued. “We see that as a gradual growth opportunity for us. But we’re having great success in Asia; we started in Japan, we’re having a lot of success in Korea, and now we’re starting in China. We’re very excited about the possibilities.”
Kent hasn’t visited the stores in Beijing yet, but he’s made countless stops at facilities in several different countries. In each case, the broad assignment is the same — to gauge the experience being provided, to customers and employees alike.
“I’m really interested in understanding first how our team is taking care of customers in that store,” he explained. “There are three things that we talk about at Yankee Candle in terms of strategies that the company is all about. One of them is creating a sensational product experience, and for that you need have well-thought-out, quality products. The second is providing shoppers with a very rewarding and enjoyable in-store experience, and the third is creating sensational work experiences for our team.
“When I’m in a store, I’m interesting in making sure we’re creating the best shopping experience possible for our guests,” he continued. “I’m focused on what the store looks like, how the product is presented, and how warm and engaging the sales team is. And then I ask a lot of questions about what is the company can be doing to support them.”
More questions are then put to customers, he explained, about everything from the products to the competition.
Tales from Retail
When he’s not working, Kent says he spends considerable time traveling with his wife and three children. The whole family is athletically inclined, and there have been a number of ski trips, including one recent sojourn to the French Alps.
“I had just one regret, and that was that we went before the dollar started getting strong against the euro,” said Kent with a laugh, adding that he’s traveled extensively in this country and overseas.
And at almost every stop there have been visits to Yankee Candle stores to gauge the thoughts of managers, employees, and especially customers. Such stops may put a holiday on hold for an hour or so, but they are, as Kent said, part of being in retail.
And they’re especially part of this company’s success story.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]