(Lifeway Foods CEO Julie Smolyansky is the ninth female executive to be profiled in TheStreet's series highlighting women in business.)
The consumer goods company, based in Morton Grove, Ill., specializes in a cultured dairy product known as Kefir, which has its roots as a staple in eastern European countries, but more recently has been widely cited as a part of the growing probiotic trend for its health benefits.According to a recent report by MarketsandMarkets, the global probiotics market is expected to expand to nearly $33 billion by 2014, up 35% from the end of 2011. Lifeway's products are sold in stores nationwide, from Whole Foods (WFM) to Costco (COST) to Target (TGT) and Kroger (KR). >>>Anisa International: Starting a Business Out of Adversity >>>Woodhouse Day Spa's CEO: Act Locally, Think Globally >>>Great Clips' Rhoda Olsen: Company CEO (and Mom-In-Charge) After emigrating from the former Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, Smolyansky's father started the company 10 years later. Julie worked for her father for only a few years before his sudden death in 2002. She and her younger brother stepped into the CEO and COO positions at ages 27 and 23, respectively. Julie Smolyansky, now 37, credits the crisis-management skills she learned while working in social services in some of Chicago's toughest urban neighborhoods to helping her and the company through the transition. She proudly says that none of the company's 70 employees at the time chose to depart. Since then, the company has expanded to 340 employees. Last year, the company's gross sales rose 16% to $89.8 million, according to its fourth-quarter earnings report released last week. When Julie and her brother took over the company, annual sales were just $12 million, she says. The stock has been on a tear recently. Shares are up 43% this year as of Tuesday's closing price. The stock hit a new 52-week high of $14 on April 2. Like Anisa Telwar, Smolyansky is also a member of the The Committee of 200, an elite organization comprised of the world's most successful women executives and entrepreneurs. TheStreet chose Julie Smolyansky to be its April executive of the month in its women in business series. A conversation with her follows.