Margaret Rudkin’s life story is one of converting opportunities, striding forward irrespective of tough circumstances, and making merry with whatever one owns.
Turning disadvantage into opportunity
In 1929, Margaret Rudkin had everything going against her. The Great Depression had shaken the country badly, sinking her husband’s investments with it. To top it all, her youngest son, who was prone to asthma and severe allergies, was finding it difficult to breathe in the cold winter season. Faced with depleting financial resources and rising medical expenses for her son’s care, Rudkin decided to take matters into her own hands.
Since her son was forbidden from eating processed foods, Margaret decided to prepare stone-ground, whole wheat bread at home. The stone-ground method ensured that the vitamins and nutrients in the flour stayed intact even after the grinding—thus avoiding processed foods, but still ensuring high nutritional value for her son’s breakfast.
However, preparing the bread wasn’t easy. Margaret humorously recounted the first batch of bread she prepared—”My first loaf of bread should have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution as a sample of Stone Age bread, for it was hard as a rock and about one inch high. So I started over again, and after a few more efforts, by trial and error, we achieved what seemed like good bread.”
When she had baked, what she felt was, half-decent bread, she started feeding the bread to her son. To her surprise, the effect the baked bread had on her son’s health surpassed her expectations. His health improved drastically, and he felt much healthier and strong. Noticing these encouraging signs, Margaret took her baked bread to his doctor, who immediately prescribed it to all his patients, and encouraged Margaret to sell it to them.
Business picks up!
In addition to helping cure other people, Margaret noticed the small window of opportunity she had always been looking for. Rudkin did not have the slightest experience in running a business, or of sales, marketing, and finance. On top of that, very few females had ventured into entrepreneurship in those days, and Margaret didn’t have many role models to look up to.
Not one to sit back, she immediately set to work, tying up with local grocers to sell her bread and visiting the homes of patients, selling bread door-to-door. The response was unanimous—no one had tasted a better bread with such high nutritional value. Margaret’s husband also joined the act; he carried several loaves on his train ride and sold them to specialty shops at the New York Grand Central.
The demand for her bread, known as the “Pepperidge Farm” bread, rose strongly, with people from adjoining towns and even neighboring states clamoring for a piece. Very soon, Margaret found herself struggling to fulfil the appetite of her staggering customer base, and she decided to move to a state-of-the-art facility in Norwalk, Connecticut.
By 1939, Pepperidge Farm had sold 500,000 breads; the next year they touched a million loaves. Rudkin’s unwavering commitment to top-quality ingredients (even during World War II, when they were in short supply) ensured that demand for Pepperidge goods never faltered.
Adding to the catalog ad-hoc
By 1950, Pepperidge Farm had established itself as the largest independent baker in the United States, with sales touching $4 million a year. Rudkin could sense a feeling of staleness creeping in Pepperidge’s catalog – after all carrying a brand which sells only bread seemed implausible in the long run. During one of her sojourns to Europe, Rudkin chanced upon some truly delectable cookies from parts of Europe. Knowing that these cookies would be loved by all Americans, Rudkin snapped a deal with the cookie makers to sell them under the world-famous Pepperidge brand. The deal was on, and not only USA, but the entire world was introduced to the tastes of Milano, Geneva and Bordeaux cookies. What should have been a relaxing vacation turned into one of the best business trips for Rudkin! Such was the nature of Margaret – always alert, and viewing things from the customer’s eyes – whether at work or on a vacation.
Caring for employees as well as her customers
Over the years, Rudkin developed an impeccable business sense. However, she never lost her motherly care and treated all her employees, over 1,500 of them, like family. This was evident from the many benefits launched exclusively for Pepperidge employees-including selling Pepperidge bread to employees at half the price, allowing planned family vacations, above-average wages and clean environment to work in.
Legacy and Impact
As the “Pepperidge Farm” became an international food brand, Margaret continued to roam around the world, scouting for products to add to her ever expanding catalog. One of her Swiss trips helped her introduce the iconic Goldfish crackers to America; she was also among the first ones who sold frozen pastries when freezers had just penetrated American households.
In 1961, Pepperidge was finally acquired by Campbell Soups, a highly revered Food and Beverage (F&B) company, earning Rudkin a seat on the board of Campbell. In the process, Rudkin became the first female board member of The Campbell Soup Company.
In 1963, Rudkin wrote her recipes down, calling it the Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook. Astonishingly, the cookbook quickly climbed the ranks to rise to the No.1 spot on New York Times bestseller—becoming the first cookbook to attain the feat.
At a time when the Great Depression had made most entrepreneurs lose confidence, Rudkin proved that when people created quality products, they sold, no matter where the economy is at or how much people are spending.
Remember the Titans is a weekly ode to the inventors, geniuses, and business pioneers who left the world better than they got it. Check out stories of other Titans here.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.