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Pepperidge Farm’s founding pioneer

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

Margaret Rudkin proved that it’s possible to bounce back from adversity to achieve success.

Born into a life of privilege in New York City in 1897, she shared a brownstone with her parents and grandparents, learning to bake bread from her Irish grandmother. She also excelled in school and became the only female bookkeeper at a bank. Marrying a broker, she began a life in high society.

Then two calamities hit: the Depression and an accident that laid up her husband for months. Luckily, the Rudkins had assets and Margaret swung into action, selling four of their five cars. She also turned their Connecticut country estate into a working farm, named Pepperidge Farm.

A fluke led her back to baking. The family doctor suggested that her severely asthmatic son switch to foods without additives, so Rudkin began baking from memory. She sent extra bread into the city with her commuter husband, and eventually sought out upscale grocers to sell her Pepperidge Farm bread.

Margaret Rudkin pioneered several practices that have become standard:
  • She created a high-end niche market. Starting with the family doctor, Rudkin sold the bread by mail order to physicians and patients who could afford pure, whole wheat bread.
  • She offered free samples. Rudkin arrived at her first grocery store with a basketful of warm bread and butter. The grocer immediately ordered 24 loaves per day.
  • She branded. Whoever would have thought to brand bread in the 1930s? By hiring a publicist, she placed stories in publications including Reader’s Digest. Pepperidge Farm grew from a regional to a national sensation.
  • She integrated vertically. Rudkin at first pursued a strategy of backward integration by opening mills. By the late 1940s, she controlled everything from the raw materials to baking and distribution.
  • She innovated. Her biggest product introduction came in the 1950s with the introduction of high-end, Belgian-style cookies, which she named after European cities.
—Adapted from In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria, Harvard Business School Press.

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