Lifeway Foods CEO looking forward to future in Waukesha

Julie Smolyansky
Published on: 5/22/2013

There's no denying Lifeway Foods' growth, CEO Julie Smolyansky said.

"Revenue has been growing every year since we started in 1986 — between 20 and 30 percent," Smolyansky said Monday. "Even in the recession revenue was increasing."

Given this growth and an increased operation that sells its products outside the United States, adding another plant to its 50,000-square-foot facility in Morton Grove, Ill., was going to provide needed expansion abilities.

That's where the 170,000-square-foot Golden Guernsey dairy processing plant in Waukesha came into play.

It's sat vacant since early January when it closed abruptly, but after Smolyansky's company won an auction to purchase the plant for $7.4 million last week it will now quadruple Lifeway's production capacity.

"We were happy, really happy," Smolyansky said of the auction. "It should be a good future and opportunity."

Rehiring employees

It's a future Smolyansky said will include employees (112) who lost a job after the plant closed.

In a news release after the purchase was finalized, it said Lifeway plans to rehire a portion of the workforce to staff the facility.

Smolyansky said she isn't sure how many that includes due to those who have found work elsewhere.

"We plan to rehire as many people back as we can," Smolyansky said. "The plant has been shut down for (five months). We're just looking at this as an opportunity to rehire everyone and more. But we just don't know right now.

"We're making a database of the interested people who were previously employed at the time of the shut down and who found other jobs."

There will be a hearing June 10 to close the transaction and Smolyansky said if all goes as planned she anticipates the plant to open later this summer.

Besides the financial benefit, Smolyansky said expanding north of the border made sense.

"The plant is already licensed and is relatively close to our existing structure," Smolyansky said. "The infrastructure is there, so hopefully it will be a savings in the long run."

Family-run operation

Lifeway Foods is a family-owned company started by Smolyansky's father, Michael, a Russian immigrant more than 25 years ago. Julie became president and CEO after Michael died in 2002. Her brother, Edward, became chief financial officer.

Julie said Edward, along with other Lifeway representatives, have already visited the Golden Guernsey plant.

The two continued upon the success their parents had in selling the dairy products known as kefir and organic kefir. Lifeway Kefir is a dairy beverage that contains live and active probiotic cultures plus ProBoost. The company produces a variety of Frozen Kefir and probiotic cheese products.

"Many family members joined us from the beginning as we've added on and have had very little turnover," Julie Smolyansky said. "We developed a loyal following."

Healthy numbers

This following has helped Lifeway Foods Inc. reach record sales numbers in 2012 and gross sales results for the first quarter of 2013 increased by about 27 percent to $27.4 million from this time last year.

A news release from Lifeway says these positive numbers are due to the natural foods movement and the health benefits of probiotic products.

It notes that sales of probiotic foods and supplements jumped 79 percent in the past two years, according to data from the natural foods market research company SPINS. And organic food sales in the US jumped from $11 billion in 2004 to $27 billion in 2012, the Nutrition Business Journal reports.

The cow stays

In other news relating to the plant, Julie Smolyansky said those wondering what would happen to Gertrude Basse, the 12-foot, 400-plus pound fiberglass cow that resides outside the Golden Guernsey plant on Delafield Street, don't have to worry.

It's staying right there, Smolyansky said.

"That's our cow," Smolyansky said. "The cow stays."

She said Lifeway Foods decorates its kefir bottles for various promotions and said it might do so with the cow.

"We'll do some different things with it," Smolyansky said. "Maybe for breast cancer awareness month and other events. It's a different way to have some fun with it."