As the green movement continues to gain steam and consumers and businesses become increasingly conscious of their environmental impact, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks faces a curious dilemma as CEO at Earth Friendly Products.
“In 1989, when we launched the Earth Friendly Products brand, it was such a unique name,” says Vlahakis-Hanks. “Now it’s become a general term that is widely used by many people who want to be part of the movement.”
The company launched by her father, Van Vlahakis in 1967 has now become a leading manufacturer and distributor of eco-friendly cleaning products. Vlahakis-Hanks oversees the production of more than 150 green cleaning products including ECOS, which is touted as the world’s No. 1-selling green laundry detergent.
“We’ve taken away the myth that green cleaning is only for the wealthy or the affluent,” says Vlahakis-Hanks. “We’ve made it available to the masses.”
Earth Friendly Products has nearly 300 employees who work across six locations around the world. Sales have quadrupled over the past 10 years and Vlahakis-Hanks has become a leading voice on the topic of sustainability.
“There is so much room for growth,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. “We’re no longer just in the green market, but in conventional, mainstream markets. The consumer wants a green product across the board.”
Honoring a legacy
When her father arrived in the U.S. from Crete in the 1950s, he had a mere $22 in his pocket and couldn’t speak English, Vlahakis-Hanks says.
He went to Roosevelt University in Chicago and became a chemist. Upon graduation, he worked for several companies before launching the parent company to Earth Friendly Products, Venus Laboratories, in January 1967.
“At the time, he was doing industrial cleaning products, personal care products and various things,” Vlahakis-Hanks says.
The company grew, and by 1989 Venus had expanded from its Illinois base with plants in California, New Jersey and Florida. That year also marked the launch of the Earth Friendly Products brand.
Vlahakis-Hanks joined the company as director of public relations in 2003 and took over as vice president in 2009. She was named CEO in May 2014. It was a bittersweet achievement, however, as it came only a month after the death of her father.
“He was our leader for 47 years, so that was a devastating loss on a personal and professional level,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. “I’m thankful for all the years I got to work with him side-by-side.”
Vlahakis-Hanks works hard to honor her father’s legacy, but she has not shied away from opportunities to make changes and put the business in a stronger position to keep growing.
“When you have an owner who is the leader for 47 years, as my father was, oftentimes you don’t have a real strong organizational hierarchy in place,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. “The family kind of wears multiple hats and does everything. But as we’ve grown, I realized the need to have a strong team in place.”
A hierarchy of success
The company hired a CFO and filled other key positions that had been left vacant for decades.
Work also began on developing a published organizational hierarchy, which Vlahakis-Hanks says is less about giving people titles and more about showing them the path to advancement.
“When you have an organizational chart, you can tell people this is the scope of your work, these are your assigned duties, this is where you fall and these are the other possibilities that will be available to you in the future,” she says.
“People can finally see the vision for what their lives can be, what they’d like to do and what they aspire to do. Without having a hierarchy in place, people are often limited about what sorts of things are available and what can exist for them.”
It fits nicely into her efforts to get employees involved and engaged in plotting the future of the business.
“People don’t like things when they are surprised or thrown off by something that happens in an organization,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. “When the lines of communication are open, that’s always something that the employee really respects from their employer.”
Vlahakis-Hanks feels the responsibility to continue the green movement and spread the word to others about its importance. Earth Friendly Products has instituted a supplier scorecard and audit program to make sure the company is working with partners who share its values and beliefs.
“We need to make sure our suppliers are using solar and sourcing locally and making things on-site and following the things we believe in for our own brand,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. “We have 15 different questions they have to answer and they need to pass through that interview process as well. We see our retailers are doing that now too.”
The new organizational structure will enable more initiatives and give employees a chance to be part of the company’s continuing evolution.
“I think they are looking forward to the opportunity to be part of the future,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. ●
How to reach: Earth Friendly Products, (800) 335-3267 or www.ecos.com