Current Lifeway Foods (NASDAQ:
) 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
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:
) when very few companies had established business communication
"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
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,
"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
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
"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
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:
), Costco (NASDAQ:
), and Target (NYSE: ) have all come around and opened up their
organic sections as well as increased abilities for distribution,
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
"[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.
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