Alumnus credits blue collar background with his white collar success

Author: William Meiners
Economic times may be affecting foot traffic in retail stores, but greeting cards aren’t staying on the shelves. Even in an Internet age, the tradition of giving birthday cards to friends and loved ones appears to be standing the test of time and technology.

Jude Rake (BSCE ’81)That’s good news for Jude Rake (BSCE ’81), the chief executive officer of the Chicago-based Recycled Paper Greetings (RPG). The third largest greeting card company in the United States, RPG was recently purchased by American Greetings.

So how did this civil engineer come to flex a marketing and branding muscle in the competitive greeting card industry? He adopted the work ethic of his mother during his boyhood days in the small southern Indiana town
of Floyds Knobs. The son of two factory workers, Rake would be the first member of his family to attend college. His father left the family when the younger Rake was just 6 years old, so his mother worked three jobs to make ends meet—the factory by day, waiting tables at night, and a shooting range on the weekends. Rake even took to work early—at the shooting range by the age of eight and bussing tables by 12.

Rake’s hard work paid early dividends when he earned the Dale Stoffer Memorial Scholarship from his high school for scholastic and athletic performance, allowing him to attend Purdue. He developed a love of structures in the civil engineering program, but a minor in psychology combined with leadership roles in his fraternity helped him nurture the people and team-building skills he would use in the business world.

Fresh out of college, Rake began designing and building nuclear power plants for Bechtel Power Corporation. But it was his desire to build businesses that led him to the rigorous MBA program at the University of Chicago, a challenge he felt well prepared for because of his Purdue experience.

His resume is lined with companies like Clorox, Pepsi-Cola, S.C. Johnson, and Eastman Kodak, where he led teams building brands like Formula 409, Clorox 2, Pepsi, OFF!, Windex, Shout, Drano, Pledge, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Kodak. He has been recognized for leadership, creativity, and marketing excellence with Clio, Mobius, and Effie awards, and he received the Burnham Award for Innovation. He was also named a Top 100 Marketer twice by Advertising Age.

Recruited to Recycled Greetings in January 2007, Rake rebuilt the leadership team and championed a strategic plan that led to new distribution with several retailers, including Walmart and Tesco. “In every retailer where we have been tested versus our competition, RPG has sold at a higher velocity, and we have helped our customers grow their category sales,” says Rake.

“This is my favorite business because there’s such a premium on creativity and innovation, and the commercialization timelines are fast,” says Rake. “There aren’t many categories in the consumer packaged goods world where consumers actually get to try the product at the shelf before they purchase it, so the bar is really high for product performance. At RPG we consistently deliver better creative content to our shoppers because we have a unique and eclectic network of over 250 independent artist partners working exclusively with us to create our cards. Our artists have skin in the game because they receive royalty payments for every sale, so they tend to be hungrier and more entrepreneurial than our competition.”

He adds, “We’ve also printed our cards on recycled paper since our inception in 1971, and being green is an advantage we’re leveraging with our customers now more than ever. We like to say we’re sustaining the
environment one smile at a time.”