Michael Kittredge II, the founder of Yankee Candle Company in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, has died after several years of failing health.
The self-made business leader was known as an innovator and philanthropist, as well as a fun dad and generous friend.
Though Kittredge would become a legendary business giant before the age of 50, his beginnings were humble.
He grew up poor in South Hadley in a “very much a rags-to-riches story of the American dream,” according to his son, Michael Kittredge III.
As a teenager in the late 1960s, Kittredge worked in a burger joint while learning how to make candles from melted crayons in his basement. His parents had little faith in his plan to create a candle company.
“They just wanted him to take the safe road. Be a janitor. [They'd say,] 'Cut this candle stuff out. What are you doing with that?'” said his son, Michael. “Initially, all he wanted to do was save enough money to buy a cool car and maybe impress a girl someday.”
He went quite a bit further than that, transforming the Yankee Candle Company into one of the biggest employers in Franklin County and one of the most prolific candle producers in the world -- known especially for scented candles.
"Prior to him doing that, scented candles existed. They just were more of a novelty and they were more of an, ‘Oh, that's funny. [It] smells a little bit like root beer,” said the younger Kittredge. “But he put the maximum amount of fragrance in and kind of created a whole 'nother industry of household fragrance.”
Kittredge also pioneered a type of experiential shopping, attaching a Christmas and toy store to the candle shop, including a replica of a Bavarian village that he had once visited in Germany.
“It’s recognized as one of the most active tourist attractions in the commonwealth,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “It certainly has had an impact also on other businesses in the area. And it means that Franklin County is recognized as a destination.”
Szynal also happened to get her first job at Yankee Candle in the 1980s, and remembers Kittredge as a friendly, hands-on boss.
“I can remember him taking a small group of us sales associate out to Fitzwilly’s in Northampton one night, and just getting a table and some appetizers and just chatting with us," she said.
Kittredge was known for a personal, charismatic style of management. At one legendary company breakfast, his son Michael said, Kittredge intentionally placed a piece of trash in the middle of the crowd.
“Most people would go by and not pick up the garbage, but one person stopped and picked it up and they looked at it and it had a note on it from him,” he said. “And the person who picked it up got a big cash prize in front of everybody at the breakfast.”
In many ways, the company was Kittredge’s family, his son said, “because he lost his parents pretty early on before they got to see his successes."
Kittredge ran the company until he sold it in 1998 for a reported $500 million. His son Michael said that's when the family began to live more luxuriously.
“He wanted to make our lives so much better than what he had as a child growing up,” he said.
Kittredge would rent the Batmobile -- the one from Hollywood -- for his children's birthday parties. He owned dozens of vintage cars, a yacht, a private jet and an elaborate wine cellar in their house.
His longtime friend Rob Cohn said much of Kittredge’s lifestyle stemmed directly from his modest youth.
“He would tell me stories about Thanksgiving when his aunt told him he was eating too many shrimp, and these shrimp were like the tiniest little shrimp you’ve ever seen,” Cohn said. “So when Mike started having parties, the shrimp were so big, they [required] four or five bites.”
Still, there was enough wealth left over that Kittredge gave a lot of it away. He became a major philanthropist around western Massachusetts. He donated large sums of money to institutions such as Holyoke Community College and Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, which both named buildings after him.
Szynal said Kittredge bought an ambulance and police cruiser for South Deerfield, as a way to compensate for the town services his company used.
He also bought expensive gifts for close friends, according to Cohn, who said his own house is full of furniture and artwork given to him by Kittredge.
“He was so well guided by his past and present and what he could do for others,” Cohn said. “It gave him more joy than Santa Claus.”
Kittredge had three marriages and three children, and in his later years, he helped his son start another candle company, Kringle Candle, in Bernardston.
Kittredge also struggled with serious health problems, including several bouts of cancer and a disabling stroke in 2012. He died July 24 from liver failure.
Kittredge's son Michael said he plans to carry on with the lessons he learned from his father, in business and in life.
“He liked to make everything fun,” he said. “If it wasn't fun, it wasn't worth doing.”
Michael Kittredge II was 67 years old.