Yankee Candle Exec Has Illuminating Experience On TV

Harlan Kent as himself, left, and in disguise.

Harlan Kent as himself, left, and in disguise.

By Allison Zisko

Have you ever wanted to know what your employees really thought about your company?

Harlan Kent, the CEO of Yankee Candle, recently had that opportunity when he appeared on “Undercover Boss,” a popular CBS television show in which company executives leave the comfort of their corner office and go undercover to get first-hand knowledge from the front lines of their business.

In an episode that filmed in October and appeared at the end of March, Kent worked in a variety of positions, including a stint on an assembly line where he packed boxes; a position as a store clerk where he cleaned the restroom, vacuumed the rug and set up a product display; and as a worker in the company’s flagship store in which he interacted with the public, selling candles and making wax hand models. Outfitted in a curly-hair wig and goatee and posing as an out-of-work chef, Kent was directed and instructed by Yankee Candle employees who, unaware of his identity, shared their true feelings about the company. Although there were mild frustrations, for the most part the employees were proud of Yankee Candle and seemed happy to work there.

In an interview with HFN after the show aired, Kent said he enjoyed working in several locations and positions. “The messages were important,” he said. “The biggest benefit for me was the ability to listen to people and have conversations I don’t usually get to have.”

Among the surprises he had while working undercover was the magnitude of the plant work. Yankee Candle manufactures 800,000 candles a day in its Whately, Mass., facility, which is where Kent struggled on the show to keep pace packing boxes. “I have tremendous respect for the craftsmen we have there,” he said.

Kent was also impressed by the manner in which his employees, some of whom face personal difficulties such as chronic illness, cope with adversity in their lives and remain optimistic and hopeful. As a result, Kent, who on the show offered some of those employees financial and other assistance, said he has been working with his Yankee’s human resources department to change the way he interviews and recruits potential employees. He now places greater emphasis on those with a positive attitude. “Positive attitudes affect positive business outcome,” he said.

Kent also said he is more focused on “making sure the store experience is the best it can be; a real attention to putting our best foot forward.”

Although Kent said he originally hoped the show would give Yankee Candle the opportunity to showcase its products, it wound up showcasing its employees and its brand. That has reaped benefits for the company. Kent said there was a “huge spike” in web traffic at yankeecandle.com over the weekend that followed the show’s airing, and a subsequent “Meet the Boss” event at the flagship store was widely attended. Yankee Candle became top-of-mind among its vendor partners, who proposed new business ideas, as well as among its wholesale partners, who benefited from the added publicity. “I got a lot of excited feedback [from retailers], that we are actively marketing the brand and that would actively drive business in their stores as well,” he said.