Four Keys to Successful Business Strategy With Julie Smolyansky

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Current Lifeway Foods (NASDAQ: LWAY ) CEO and President Julie Smolyansky made headlines in 2002 when she took over the company following her father's unexpected death. In a matter of hours, Smolyansky became the youngest female CEO of a publicly-traded company.

Since then, Smolyanksy grew Lifeway from 70 employees to 350, established new revenue and distribution channels, and received accolades from Crain's, Fast Company, and Ernst and Young's Entrepreneur of the Year Awards - among numerous other media outlets and publications. Amidst a mine field of personal and professional challenges, Smolyansky also found time to start and grow a family.

Below, Smolyansky highlights her key attributes of achieving success in a professional environment.

Know (and Grow) Your Strengths

Smolyansky's father Michael moved the family from Russia to the U.S. when Julie was just a year old, later building a company based on kefir - a native yogurt recipe - from his basement into a multi-million dollar outlet. The company quickly entered the public markets, debuting in 1989 after filing incorporation paperwork in 1986.

Smolyansky joined her father's business in 1997 on her way to her own career plan: attending graduate school for clinical psychology. Michael's fatal heart attack in 2002 thrust Julie into the public sphere as CEO, President, and public face of her father's vision. On news of her father's death, NASDAQ halted trading as Lifeway stock plummeted.

"It was devastating," Smolyansky said. "[to] manage the grief, but also stabilize the company."

Smolyansky drew from her background and interest in communication, women's studies, psychology, and healthy lifestyle decisions, as she took the helm.

"Because of some of my training in psychology and crisis management, I had a pretty decent grasp on crisis management," Smolyansky said. "I think that what I learned was to really use my skill set - the things that I'm really good at - to my advantage. The things that I'm not good at or don't enjoy, [I] find really great people to support me on those sides."

The Power of Social Media

Smolyansky was an early adopter of social networks, signing up for Twitter and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB ) when very few companies had established business communication models.

"I followed them to see how they were doing it," Smolyansky said. "[Social media] is a place where you can't hide, you have to be authentic. Our customers are so amazing, smart consumers - they do their own research, it's a really natural place for us to be and engage people who want to engage with us."

Smolyansky even went to social media to actively recruit a Social Media Manager before the job was, well, a "real job."

"I went on my own Facebook and just posted a small job description. People said, 'You're going to pay someone to do Facebook and Twitter for you?'" Smolyansky said, laughing. "My friends thought I was crazy."

Today, social media expertise is a rapidly-growing job market as well as a college major - actually, a variety of college majors - and the opportunities in the job market are only growing. A 2011 Booz & Co. survey found that over one third of companies polled have a senior-level executive responsible for company-wide social media.

Further, 90% of surveyed respondents agreed that social media metrics need a larger presence in company campaigns, and 95% said that they plan to grow allocation of money and resources to growing the company social media strategy.

Diversity is King

Among the core components of building a strong management team is to attract a wide array of personal and professional strengths, Smolyansky said.

"It's fine and really great to be exposed to lots of different leadership styles," Smolyansky said. "There's no rule for that: no right way to talk or lead, everyone has their own skill sets."

Part of what makes the Lifeway team so strong, she said, the melting pot of a variety of professional experiences.

"I don't see enough diversity in working teams," Smolyansky said. "We want to bring in people that are most like us, but really we should look for people who are not like us, who can fill in different areas on the team. . .It's really important for any team or community to really use all the different people and different strengths [available]."

Look at the Big Picture

Lifeway's initial distribution channels primarily included eastern European and ethnic food grocers - a natural fit for a Russian food item. Instead of maintaining a secure network, Smolyansky noticed a national shift into organic foods, driven in no small part by consumer demand - and hopped right in, securing distribution in then-newcomers such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods (NYSE: WFM ).

"I think that we're going to see a major grassroots movement to see healthy food in every place Americans eat," Smolyansky said. "You can see it in airports already - but you still go to a smaller city and there's not anything worthy if you're a health conscious person."

Smolyansky knew her market, knew her customers, and knew that as demand for healthier food alternatives grew so would available distribution channels. In the past 10 years, big-box outlets such as Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ), Costco (NASDAQ: COST ), and Target (NYSE: ) have all come around and opened up their organic sections as well as increased abilities for distribution, Smolyansky said.

It can be hard to consistently remember the "big picture" mentality when faced with challenges. Smolyansky used the recent recession as an example of staying resilient through immediate difficulties.

"[We] just had our first daughter and I'd wake up in the middle of the night to feed her, I'd turn on CNN and the overseas markets were all crashing at the open. It was a very scary time to be a leader in the world; a very scary time for everybody," Smolyansky said. "As leaders, we do take on a lot of the stresses of what's going on in the world. [When I became CEO] we had 70 people, ten years ago. We now have 350."

Lifeway Foods recently received a price target increase from $10.50 to $11.50 by Taglich Brothers, citing an increased 2013 fiscal year sales forecast. The analyst firm has a Speculative Buy rating on the company.

Shares of Lifeway Foods are up over 13 percent year to date with a market cap of around 180 million. The company offers a dividend and has a 52-week trading range of $8.03 to $11.90.

Follow me on Twitter: @hilary_louise

(c) 2012 Benzinga does not provide investment advice. All rights reserved.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Investing , Investing Ideas
Referenced Symbols: CMCSA , FB , LWAY

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