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Julie Smolyansky refuses to accept defeat Featured

3:01pm EDT July 5, 2011
Julie Smolyansky refuses to accept defeat

Julie Smolyansky was living a dream. She and her family had escaped the old Communist regime in the Soviet Union in 1976 and come to the United States. Twenty five years later, her father was leading a successful business in Chicago in Lifeway Foods Inc. while her mother had opened a popular delicatessen in the city. All seemed right with the world.

And then in a flash, it seemed as if her world was crumbling all around her.

“My dad died suddenly, unexpectedly, out of the blue,” Smolyansky says. “There was no road map for this. I had been with him for five years, and I was kind of his right-hand person, but I was 27 at the time. We’re not talking about a little mom-and-pop store.”

Far from it. Lifeway Foods had about 90 employees and $12 million in annual sales in 2002 selling kefir, a milk-based cultured drink that is healthier than yogurt and attractive to those seeking good nutrition.

But her father’s death had suddenly filled many in the company with doubt about the future.

“At my father’s funeral, I heard friends of my family and friends of my father say, ‘Well, this company is done,’” says Smolyansky, the company’s current president and CEO. “I had to live with that and wake up and try to steer the ship even though it was a personal tragedy for me as well as a business tragedy for the company.”

Smolyansky was filled with pain and anger. But she used work as a place to refocus her energy and at least temporarily, push the pain to the side. Her father had made a huge sacrifice by leaving his homeland and taking his family to Chicago and then worked hard to build a successful business. She was not about to let that effort be for naught.

“You have to roll with the punches and if you can’t, if you crumble, it might not be the place for you to be,” Smolyansky says. “If you can’t take the heat, get out.”

Smolyansky let people have their moment of doubt about the future. But she quickly followed that up by demonstrating her resolve to keep the business going.

“When you assemble the team, steer them,” Smolyansky says. “Lead them. That’s what we do. Hopefully a good leader has a sense of Zen or calmness even when it seems like chaos is happening. It’s really up to you to navigate through those moments and make it OK for everybody and begin to problem solve.”

Get into the steps that need to be taken to overcome the challenge and move on from it. Focus on the task at hand.

“Something has happened,” Smolyansky says. “Now what are the steps we need to take to resolve it? How do we get to those steps? Start to assign people to get to those steps. Maybe have a brainstorming session. I get away from the drama of what happened and straight into, ‘OK, what are we going to do to solve this?’”

You’re only human, of course. So what about those anxieties or doubts that you’re always trying to keep under wraps?

“I manage those personally on my own,” Smolyansky says. “Not always with my team. Or I might have a go-to handful of people I can bounce things off of.”

If you’re a true leader, you’ll find a way to deal with the doubts and continue pushing forward to conquer your challenge and lead your business through the storm.

“I completely just focused on my work and getting the company stable and the team stable and had complete pinpoint focus on what things we needed to get done to be where we are today,” Smolyansky says.

Where the company is today is 315 employees and $63.5 million in gross sales for 2010.

“I just kept repeating like a mantra, ‘Failure is not an option,’” Smolyansky says.

How to reach: Lifeway Foods Inc., (877) 281-3874 or www.lifeway.net

Don’t give up

If Julie Smolyansky feels “gung ho in a very crazy way” about a product, she gives that product an excellent chance to succeed.

“The leader has to get behind the product,” says Smolyansky, president and CEO at Lifeway Foods Inc. “You really have to have your heart in it to successfully launch something with great success. If you have any doubt in it, that’s probably when you don’t get to success.”

So why do some products have people clamoring to buy them while others just sit on the shelf and collect dust? Smolyansky has grown her dairy company to 315 employees and $63.5 million in 2010 gross sales, but that doesn’t mean she has any foolproof solutions. One thing she does believe in quite strongly is the positive power of passion and energy.

So if your product isn’t a hit right off the bat, try to figure out why it’s not working, apply what you’ve learned and take another shot at it.

“Even out of something that is failure, if you learned something that maybe gave you the tools for the next thing you’re doing, maybe that was a success then,” Smolyansky says. “It’s optimism and the ability to take punches. You can assemble a different team or position it in a different way. Go after a different market. You have to be intuitive and open your eyes and ears to other ideas. You really have to personally want it.”