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Death in the Family, Daughter Takes Over

JULIE SMOLYANSKY SUCCEDED her father as CEO of Lifeway Foods, the Morton Grove, Ill.-based maker of milk-based kefir drinks, in …

JULIE SMOLYANSKY SUCCEDED her father as CEO of Lifeway Foods, the Morton Grove, Ill.-based maker of milk-based kefir drinks, in June after Michael Smolyansky, the company’s founder, died of a heart attack at age 55.

The unexpected transition has made 27-year-old Smolyansky, formerly vice president of marketing, one of the youngest female heads of a public company in America.

Already, Smolyansky has had to smack down a couple of suppliers who tried to take advantage of her by jacking up prices. “Some are thinking, €˜This is a young girl who just lost her father, and what does she know?'” says the marathon runner and 1996 psychology graduate of the University of Illinois. “But I know the history of our pricing and everything else from my dad.”

It helps that Lifeway posted record quarterly revenues of $3 million and a 51-percent increase in year-to-year profitability for the second quarter. Just as important, Smolyansky has a continuing vote of confidence from Groupe Danone, the Paris-based food giant that owns 20 percent of Lifeway’s Nasdaq-listed stock.

“She’s a no-nonsense person who has the trust of her employees and is smart enough to know the areas where she needs help,” says Thomas Kunz, president and CEO of Dannon USA, a unit of Groupe Danone.

That isn’t to say it’s been all kefir-and-cookies for Smolyansky. “On the business end there’s been a smooth transition,” she says. “But personally, it’s been hard for me.”

About Dale Buss

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.