Friday, 14 July 2017

Bizwoman/Melisa Wylie: How she made kefir a $150M business


How she made kefir a $150M business

By Melissa Wylie, Bizwomen reporter
Jul 14, 2017, 10:30am EDT

For her first few years as CEO of Lifeway Foods, Julie Smolyanski didn't get much sleep.

She didn't have time. Smolyanski became the leader of her family’s company overnight after her father died of a heart attack. At 27 years old in 2002, she was the youngest woman CEO of a publicly held company.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Smolyansky grew Chicago-based Lifeway into an international kefir distributor. Kefir is a cultured milk product popular in Eastern Europe, similar to drinkable yogurt and containing probiotics that help with digestion. Lifeway products, which include kefir drinks, cheeses and yogurt-like cups, are sold in major groceries such as Walmart, Kroger and Whole Foods. (Interview lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

How was Lifeway Foods founded?

My parents started Lifeway Foods about 31 years ago after immigrating to the U.S. and settling in Chicago after being refugees from the former Soviet Union. We were the first of 48 families to be allowed to settle in Chicago. Two years after settling, my mother opened the first Russian deli in Chicago, which catered to all the new immigrants that were coming. It paved the way for her and my family to enter into the food industry.

They were at trade show in Germany in 1985 and my dad went into the grocery store and bought three bottles of kefir. My dad said “America has everything but it doesn’t have kefir.” And my mom said “Well you’re an engineer, why don’t you build a plant and make it and I’ll sell it in my distribution system.” At that point, she had become an importer and a distributor. She was distributing food all over the U.S. where Russians were populating.

She started distributing the kefir and they incorporated Lifeway six months after that trip to Germany. My dad continued to build Lifeway out and went public in 1988.

How did you get involved in the family business?

I was planning on being a psychologist. I really had no intention of working in the family business, but I fell in love with Lifeway and with kefir. My passion of wanting to help people got channeled into food and helping to promote and build this brand.

I came to join my dad in the middle of grad school, and then did not finish grad school and went full time for Lifeway. I worked with my dad side-by-side for about five years. In 2002, he had a heart attack and suddenly passed away. So, the next day I became the CEO. I was 27 years old. I became the youngest female CEO of a publicly traded company.

What was it like to become CEO at such a young age, and at such a difficult time for your family tragedy?

It was definitely the worst time in my life, in all of our lives. On one hand it was a distraction, having to focus on the business. That’s how my dad would have wanted it to be, too. He would’ve wanted us to focus on work, the company that he had cared so much for.

I had many naysayers. That was another painful part of it. It was very much directed to the fact that I was a woman. But it fueled me for always. That moment really made me want to fight and prove the world wrong.

How do the challenges you face now as CEO compare to those you faced when you first stepped into the role?

I’m further away from the day-to-day. I used to be involved in the purchase of toilet paper. I’ve definitely gone away from the smaller details. I think for me the challenge is time.

I’m 42 and the next 15 years are the most critical in my career. How do I want to spend these next 15 years? I ask myself all the time “How can I have the biggest impact? Where can I push for the biggest change?”

I want to continue to grow the company. I have my mind set on getting it to $500 million and then re-evaluating and looking at the next set of goals. We made a big jump to $150 million and the next jump is a hard thing to do at scale. The grassroots thing doesn’t really work as much now. It’s reaching people at mass, and that costs money.

At a glance:

Lifeway Foods founded: 1986

Revenue in 2012 when Smolyansky became CEO: $12 million

Revenue in 2016: $150 million

Number of employees: 350

Countries where Lifeway products are sold: U.S., Canada, Great Britain and Mexico
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