UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Spring 2008

Wax to Wool
What They’ve Learned: Words of wisdom from entrepreneurial alumni.
—Grace Friary

Wax to Wool
Life on the farm can humble even the most driven corporate executive.

Today is moving day at Springdelle Farm. Sheep are being relocated to a new pasture. Mike Parry ’74 shakes a grain pan to capture the attention of his “big boys,” then takes off running to avoid being knocked down by the dozen stampeding, 250-pound animals. Having been nearly trampled during a few of these monthly moves, Parry quickly learned that rams rule.

Once at the top of the flame as CEO and president of retail giant Yankee Candle Company—the nation’s leading designer, manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer of scented candles—Parry traded wax for wool in 2001. He now works for his wife, Barbara; she’s a fiber artist, author, and owner of Foxfire Fiber & Designs in Shelburne, which retails high-quality yarn produced from the fleece of Border Leicester and Cormo sheep.

Going from 60-hour work weeks heading a company with 3,000 employees, 200 retail outlets, and annual sales of more than $300 million to working on a sheep farm was not quite how the 57-year-old Parry envisioned life after Yankee Candle.
“I thought after nearly 20 years at Yankee I would retire to golf, travel, and the swimming pool,” he says, “but here I am part of a small business where the animals rely on us completely. I went from the pressure and the excitement of taking an international company public on the New York Stock Exchange to baling hay to feed Barbara’s sheep. The only 60-hour work weeks I put in are during lambing...and I don’t mind that.”

Born into a career Army family in the Midwest, Parry moved east and spent his high school years in Holyoke, then majored in communications at UMass Amherst. He entered the world of retail by accident when a friend offered him a job selling sporting goods at KMart.

Parry liked sales. After two years, he took a management position at American Eagle Outfitters and helped open new stores. In 1981, Mike Kittredge—a friend from Holyoke who founded Yankee Candle in 1969—offered him a job. He spent the next 19 years helping expand the company. He became president in 1996, CEO in 1998, and took the company public in 1999. He retired in 2001.
Although he offers marketing advice to Barbara and admits that he sometimes misses the excitement of the international retail scene, Parry has moved on. Now he spends his days brush-hogging fields, haying, assisting on shearing days, doing general maintenance on farm buildings, and keeping round-the-clock vigils with Barbara during lambing season in early spring.

These major life changes have lowered his blood pressure, cured him of being a slave to voice mail and email and, he declares with a smile, made him a more likeable person.

“At Yankee my switch was always turned on; I was obsessive about everything I encountered. It got to the point where I could not go out to dinner without critiquing the menu and the presentation in a restaurant. People described me as brusque; I was really on a treadmill and always in fifth gear.” Many long-time colleagues and friends tell Parry he is a lot more relaxed about everything and easier to be with now.

“I’d say the changes in Mike took place in degrees and most of them took place because of the farm,” says Barbara. “He had a mental ‘rebooting’ when he realized you can’t have preconceived plans about livestock. Those plans can go out the window in a minute and you’d better be ready to shift to Plan B. Learning to give up control has had a softening effect on Mike’s ego, something people who know him notice.”

Parry’s retirement was one of several changes that took place in 2001. Barbara retired from teaching English at the Bement School in Deerfield and began Foxfire Fiber & Design; the couple purchased Springdelle Farm; and they built a new home high in the hills of western Massachusetts.
The financial security Yankee Candle provided allowed the Parrys to become what Mike calls “privileged” farmers.

He says, “We work long hours, the work is hard, and our lives are tied to the place, but we don’t have to rely on Springdelle Farm or Foxfire Fiber & Design for income.” If they have bad years or good years they can still move forward. This is different for all but a tiny number of farmers in this country who live from fuel bill to fuel bill. “But we don’t live in a cocoon, either,” says Parry. “We are well aware of the reality of the day-to-day pressures to survive faced by farmers everywhere and we know we are fortunate.”



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