Lifeway's Julie Smolyansky on Inheriting the Family Business

There are tough circumstances to take over a business, and then there are tough circumstances to take over a business. Julie Smolyansky is, alas, one of the latter, but also a prime example of someone who has proven herself in one of the toughest of situations imaginable: In 2002, her father, Michael Smolyansky died suddenly, and the board named her his successor almost immediately afterwards. She was a 27-year-old at the time, and managed to take their company, Morton Grove-based Lifeway Foods (you've likely seen their Kefir drinks in health-food stores and even Jewel-Osco) from taking in $12 million that year to taking in $80 million last year.

She also took the recession as an opportunity to expand her publicly traded company, and has grown the headcount from 70 to almost 300 -- with the keen insight to recognize that so many people being laid off meant lots of new talent was suddenly available.

Anyway, I gave Julie a call to discuss what all goes into a tough transition like the one she endured, what her plans for the future she had before suddenly being thrust into it, and what she'd advise to anyone else who finds themselves where she was a decade ago.

Before you inherited Lifeway Foods, what sort of plans did you have for your future?

Julie Smolyansky: Well, I had worked for my for five years before he passed away, so I did have complete anticipation that I would eventually succeed him. But I didn't think that it was gonna happen so quickly. I thought it was going to be when I was in my 50's and he was in his 70's. To his credit he had done a great job of teaching me everything he knows, basically. He had me do presentations to our board, and at the annual meeting of shareholders, serendipitously, somebody raised their hand and said, "This seems like a one-man show. What would you do if you passed away?" A week before he did. My dad said, "You know, I have two kids who have been trained on all the things that they need to and they would take over."

What is the process like of inheriting a business? Is there paperwork involved? Can you walk us through the transition?

Julie Smolyansky: Oh, yeah. First of all, we were and are publicly traded. My family owns the majority of shares, and so the board has to put in a CEO. The board put me in. I didn't inherit the company, or inherit anything actually, I'm a paid-for CEO.

The board met and decided that I would be the next CEO and there was a bunch of paperwork and different resolutions. Those were filed. That was basically it in terms of the legal paperwork. A press release was made and we moved forward from there. That's all there was in terms of when it's a publicly traded company: the board decides who will be the next CEO. I'm not sure when it's another company, I'm guessing an estate lawyer would transfer the assets from person X, but that wasn't exactly the case. My dad's stock transferred to my mom because she was his spouse. So that transaction happened. But in terms of how I became the CEO, it was the board having a meeting the day after he passed away, and voting me in I guess.

Wow. What advice would you give to people who find themselves in a similar situation? That has to be unimaginably tough, and I feel bad about pecking away at the subject with you.

Julie Smolyansky: [Sighs.] I'm still traumatized by it, and, my gosh, I get asked about it every day. It's okay. These interviews force me to go back to that time of complete chaos, but, look: First of all, I was suffering the loss of my dad. I was 27. I was basically a kid. It was sudden and unexpected. There was that. And he was the president at the time of a 70-person company. $12 million in sales, about. It was in a good position. He had left us a really well-greased operation. That was one thing, thank you, that he left us. There were no financial issues to resolve or whatever. That really helped.

The grief that I felt, probably all that energy I put into making sure the company would survive and evolve. I was doing things like, "What am I going to do to make we're okay the next day, the next year, and in five years?" I would say with a laser approach, I was so focused and dedicated to making it succeed -- almost to the point of obsession. 22-hour work days, in some cases. That's not normal, but that's also somebody who's under mourning.

It's like a coping mechanism.

Julie Smolyansky: It was a coping skill. And it worked to my benefit. It was fine, because it wasn't like I was trying to balance work-life. I'm mourning. I don't have a life. I'm not interested in being out and about. I want to retreat, I want to focus on my company, and that's all I wanna do at that time. As I was able to process the grief, in time, my role evolved, and I have a little more work-life balance I guess. At that time did I not only not want it, but it wasn't even possible. But, it gave us a really good foundation, I wrapped my brain around the company and what it needs, and as soon as I officially was the CEO I brought my team in and had a positive conversation about -- which was really hard, like, "Hey, we're gonna keep going! We're gonna survive!" when your heart is broken, but everyone understood, and nobody left.

My dad was such a great guy, he had helped so many people, that people had the utmost respect for him and to me. That was a really heartwarming thing to hear. Again, that was just my dad helping in his own way.

Have people come forward to you and expressed similar sentiments about how you've helped them?

Julie Smolyansky: All the time.

Do you think that's rare among CEOs? Wanting to always help people?

Julie Smolyansky: Oh God, I don't think so. I think that when you're in this role, it's all about the people around you making sure that they're safe, that they have the support that they need. To me, this is like a family. And so I would do anything for my family.  

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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