첥Ƶ

Skip to content

SUBSCRIBER ONLY

Business |
‘Become excellent in everything we do’: New Crayola CEO, a Slate Belt native, looks to the future

Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company's corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company’s corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
Author
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

As the new CEO of an iconic brand that encourages creativity, Pete Ruggiero is looking forward to Crayola LLC’s future.

And like the young consumers of the company’s crayons, markers, paints and other creative art supplies, Ruggiero, 56, is absorbing new ideals, though his sheet of paper or canvas is a multinational company that is looking to expand its global reach.

The Slate Belt native was promoted from chief operating officer to CEO in April, and he brings more than 25 years of experience with Crayola while moving up the leadership ladder. The son of a teacher and coach, and a registered nurse, and himself a former standout football and basketball player at Pen Argyl High School, Ruggiero grew up in an atmosphere where he learned from both triumphs and setbacks.

  • Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO...

    Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company's corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO...

    Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company's corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO...

    Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company's corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO...

    Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company's corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO...

    Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company's corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

  • Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO...

    Slate Belt native Pete Ruggiero, the new president and CEO of Crayola, poses Friday, May 24, 2024, in the newly designed lobby of the company's corporate headquarters in Forks Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

of

Expand

It’s in that type of culture that Ruggiero wants to expand at Crayola.

“What I would say is we’re winning with culture right now,” said Ruggiero in a recent interview with 첥Ƶ at the company’s headquarters in Forks Township. “For me, culture is perpetual optimism. Culture is celebrating our successes. Culture is celebrating our problems. Why do we celebrate the problems? It’s because what we’re trying to do in this business for the future, is to become excellent in everything we do.

“It does get back to the Vince Lombardi quote: ‘Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.’ ”

Ruggiero said that problems “are opportunities to make the company better” and he will be reviewing ideas Crayola has had over the years, including ones that worked to perfection and others that were left by the wayside.

“So there’s an awful lot of runway there to take this company to the next level,” he said. “All I want to do is I want to be able to help my team visualize …. and by my team, I mean all 2,000 (Crayola employees) visualizing through communication and storytelling.

“What is it that this brand can be 100 years from now? The best way to start is to begin now, and it’s an urgent scenario because if we’re not doing it someone else is and this brand is too powerful and too wonderful to not be experienced by consumers around the globe in a more profound way.”

Ruggiero takes over from Rich Wuerthele, who was president and CEO for four years, leading the company through the COVID pandemic.

Mike Perry, president and CEO of Hallmark, the parent company of Crayola, said Ruggiero has “been a fantastic champion for the Crayola brand.”

“In his tenure with the company, he has demonstrated a commitment to nurturing a vibrant culture, a focus on executional excellence and an unwavering goal of building the Crayola brand to lead the business to continued success,” Perry said.

Marci Lesko, CEO of the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, said Ruggiero has been a champion of the Slate Belt and entire Valley as a member of the organization’s board of directors.

“He is so generous with his knowledge, his support, his ideas, his strategy, not only to myself, but to the past leaders here in this organization,” said Lesko, who recently took over as CEO after serving as the organization’s COO. “I can’t even imagine what his schedule must be like, but he never makes you feel like he’s too busy. He just will be glad to talk with you and whatever, whatever you need.”

Lesko said his promotion was a popular choice.

“I heard that when the announcement came about his promotion, the applause was so thunderous, they had to turn off some of the microphones because he had such a groundswell of support from the people. He’s really beloved and has a mind for a global view on things. I think it’s kind of a rare combination to have someone who has such a global view on business, but it’s really rooted in the community.”

Slate Belt roots

Ruggiero has fond memories of growing up in Pen Argyl.

“My father was a coach and a phys ed and driver’s ed teacher, and my mom’s a registered nurse,” he said. “My grandparents were nearby all the time. Great teachers, great coaches, played on some pretty good basketball teams at Pen Argyl and good football teams. It was a great experience.”

After graduating high school in 1986, Ruggiero accepted a football scholarship at Villanova University, which had just revived its program. By his senior year, the Wildcats won a league championship and advanced to the NCAA playoffs. There was also a trip to Milan, Italy to play a game.

“It was just a neat experience,” he said. “To be honest, the level of football was higher than I was expecting it to be. I played with a lot of great athletes and it was wonderful to work hard and improve and be able to be part of a winning team my senior year.”

Villanova was also the choice because of its business school and Ruggiero graduated with an accounting degree. The first job was with Deloitte with clients that included Mack Trucks, Muhlenberg Hospital (now Lehigh Valley Hospital-Muhlenberg) and Union Pacific Corp., which was based at Martin Tower in Bethlehem.

The railroad company, which was then run by CEO Drew Lewis, hired Ruggiero full time. He worked on the company’s mergers with the Chicago and North Western and the Southern Pacific railroads in the 1990s.

When Union Pacific moved its headquarters out of the Lehigh Valley, Ruggiero was offered a job at the new headquarters in Dallas, but decided to stay. He currently lives in Lower Nazareth Township with his wife Lisa. He has three adult children.

“We had a 2-year-old daughter at the time, who’s now almost 29, and she wasn’t interested in moving, leaving her grandparents, and my wife was in charge of physical therapy at Muhlenberg Hospital,” Ruggiero said. “We decided that we wanted to see if there was something in the Lehigh Valley where we could stay.”

At the time, Crayola was building a plant in Bethlehem, and the company hired him to be its cost accounting manager.

New company

Moving to Crayola in 1997 turned out to be a learning experience for Ruggiero, who needed a crash course on some operations

“The dirty little secret is I knew nothing about supply chain and operations, and I came in and I was supposed to be working with these people,” he said. “So I spent a lot of time on the floor learning. I tell young kids to just be a sponge. Learn everything you can learn. Humble yourself, ask a lot of questions, then good things happen.”

He also returned to the classroom. During his early days with Crayola, he was able to earn a master of business administration degree from Lehigh University.

“It was a great experience to be working and studying and to have experiences and both of those realms of my life come together,” Ruggiero said. “I’d see something in a textbook at night or in a lecture at night and the next day, I’d see it at work live.”

After a stint overseeing the company’s European operations in Bedford, England, he returned to a financial position, then became chief of operations then global operations.

Under his leadership, Crayola installed a 30,000-panel solar farm, enhanced its global supply chain capabilities, completed a multi-year project to bring automation to crayon manufacturing and established a culture of driving continuous improvement.

During his time as COO, Crayola expanded its U.S. and international business units.

“He has really high standards for performance, so he is laser-sharp focused on what’s got to get done and moves quickly to accomplish objectives,” the United Way’s Lesko said. ”Even in the way that he helps our organization think things through he’s a master strategist. As someone who’s observed him in the community many times over the years, and with our organization, you know, there’s no no better person to have on your team. In times that are good and bad.”

By the books

Crayola has three plants in the Lehigh Valley, totaling 800,000 square feet, along with a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Bethlehem. Internationally, it has a factory in Mexico, along with sales and marketing offices in Australia, Asia, Canada, Italy, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Two-thirds of Crayola products that are distributed worldwide are made in the Lehigh Valley.

Crayola produces about 3 billion crayons each year, an average of 12 million daily. In addition to making crayons, Crayola makes 600 million colored pencils, 465 million markers, 110 million sticks of chalk, 9 million Silly Putty eggs and 1.5 million jars of paint.

Ruggiero says the company prides itself on its financial performance and matching Hallmark’s values in giving back to the community and balancing strategic choices that will benefit employees.

Still, there’s an expectation about maintaining profitability.

“I will say it’s been very challenging the last few years,” Ruggiero said. “We struggled to secure employees at a time we grew significantly during the pandemic. Our plant was locked down during the pandemic for 10 weeks. And our demand in those 10 weeks was up 300% because people were trying to educate their children at home.”

Schools have been a mainstay of Crayola’s customer list for decades and the company based its marketing and manufacturing around the school year. The company has since evolved into a year-round business.

“From September to December,” Ruggiero said, “we didn’t do anything. Now, we just finished a very strong Easter period and went right into the spring period very strongly. We’re going back to school and it’s bananas around here. As soon as back to school is over, we’re building for next back to school and we’re preparing for the execution of Halloween and the holiday season. And then we’re rolling into spring again.”

Looking ahead

Besides expanding crayons into a year-round business, Crayola is also looking to expand its other features such as the Crayola Experience, which draws more than 400,000 annually to its location in downtown Easton.

“One of the fortes of the future strategy that we’re thinking about is, how do you fully diversify this business?” Ruggiero said. “That means year round, that means geographically and that means among customers and in business.”

One of those new businesses is Crayola Studios, which was launched last August and will produce different types of content for kids and families. It has partnered with production animation studios and intellectual property owners.

Shows under production include “The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian” and “Pablo.”

The Crayola Experience has also expanded to such locations as Orlando, Florida; Plano, Texas; Chandler, Arizona; Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; and the Mall of America in Minneapolis.

“American kids aren’t the only ones that would enjoy the Crayola Experience,” Ruggiero said, “so we’re taking the Crayola Experience international. We’ve got a couple of deals that are potential for the future outside of the continental United States. Apps too. The Create and Play app is always in the top five apps in the Apple Store. So it’s making ourselves relevant either through innovation or through other business models wherever it is that mom, teacher and kid are trying to have a creative experience.”

These things keep the company “relevant to the consumer.”

“That’s where our innovation comes in,” Ruggiero said, adding, “We have some really cool things coming right now.”

“We say the term ‘chemi-mechatronics.’ How do you combine the chemistry that is out of the secret laboratory with the mechanical toys or the electronic toys and the capabilities that we have in this company to be able to create toys, attic-type products that become relevant to children year round?”

Pointing to a company history book in his office, Ruggiero wants the current Crayola team to add its legacy to the company’s history, which was founded by Edwin Binney and Charles Smith in 1885.

“When they’re reading a book like that, 100 years from now, I want them to be talking about what we did today and over the next 10-15 years,” he said.

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Evan Jones can be reached at ejones@mcall.com.

More in Business