Very few women find themselves rising to the top to become CEOs at a young age. And even fewer are expected to take up the mantle of building a family legacy in the wake of a personal tragedy.
Leader of a company that manufactures more than 150 products sold in major U.S. stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, and more than 60 countries around the world, Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks talks with Bizwomen reporter Melissa Wylie about working to make the world a greener place — while filling the shoes her father left behind, when she took over as CEO after Van Vlahakis unexpectedly passed away in 2014, having grown Chicago-based Earth Friendly Products into one of the world’s top sellers of sustainable cleaning products.
In her interview, Vlakais-Hanks shares her story — starting with joining the family business while she was in high school, doing anything and everything, from filing paperwork to working on the production line — describing her father as “certainly the best boss I ever had.”
“One of the greatest things that he did for me was he taught me early on that you have to work hard. You have to be committed. You have to be dedicated. You have to work from the ground up. There’s was never ‘Oh, you’re my daughter and you’re going to have this executive position.’ ”
“I had to start working in the office. I started working for him when I was in high school, answering the phone, filing, taking care of administrative tasks, working on the production lines. I’ve worked in all facets. He really taught me that it takes hard work and dedication and you need to know your business. You need to know everything about your business. He built our business from the ground up. He came to this country in the 1950s, didn’t speak the English language and started the company as a one-man show in his garage. He really led by example and I appreciated the example that he set.”
Describing her high school years, Vlahakis-Hanks says, “My mother was quite ill when I was in high school and I had a little sister [to help take care of]. I had to be very mature at an early age… I [became] very self-motivated and hard working. I had a 4.0 GPA and I got the highest merit scholarship that UCLA offers, which is the Regents Scholarship. I grew up in a very small town in Illinois with less than 3,000 people. I went to UCLA, which had 40,000 students, so it was certainly a big adjustment.”
After graduating from UCLA, Vlahakis-Hanks spent five years learning the ropes working for other companies, before returning to Earth Friendly Products to climb the company ladder.
On working for relatives: “I really would recommend that nobody go directly into a family business because when you work for others, you understand structure, you understand organization, you understand hierarchy,” she says, so that “As you enter into family business, you don’t have a sense of entitlement. You understand your place.”
What question is she asked WAY too much: “ ‘How old are you?’ This question comes up a lot. I became the CEO of Earth Friendly Products at the age of 36. I’m currently 38.
“I think the average age of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company is 53 and for female CEOs that number is even higher at 56. I think it takes women even longer to prove themselves in male-dominated C-suites. And I think it’s frankly a rude question. I don’t think that men are as likely to be asked that as often as women are.”
“It’s happened in meetings with suppliers. It’s happened in sales presentations. It’s been in many different instances. I think people don’t expect a leader to be a woman of my age, and that’s unfortunate.”
Who she is in awe of, and why: “Certainly my parents. My father, growing up in Nazi-occupied World War II Greece, he lost his father in the work camps. He saw so much atrocity as a young child.”
“He came to this country with so much determination. He was 18 years old, had $22 in his pocket, lived in homeless shelters, yet went on to build our business. At the same time, my mother, growing up in foster care and being a ward of the state and all of her struggles, and what an amazing job she did as a mother. Both of them I’m very much in awe of.”
What people think they know about her: “People think my father was a great influence on me because he was an extraordinary visionary and he dedicated his life to creating a sustainable world, and that’s absolutely true.”
“But I think what people don’t realize about me is that my mother was equally as influential in my life. She was an amazing woman. She had so much adversity in her life. I look at my mother, and she’s no longer with me, but when she was living, she grew up in foster care, she was a ward of the state, she went through so much. After having me she struggled with cancer. She never missed one important thing in my life. She gave me an amazing childhood despite the childhood she grew up with. She was wonderful role model for me as a mother, as wife, and certainly her compassion and dedication and love also fuel me greatly in the work that I do here.”
Before becoming CEO, Vlahakis-Hanks directed the company’s public relations efforts and served as executive vice president.
She’s also been immortalized on film (sort of), portrayed by Shannon Elizabeth in the movie “A Green Story” about her father’s journey to the U.S. as a young Greek immigrant and building a company from the ground up.
Her greatest challenge: For Vlahakis-Hanks, making the transition to CEO after the unexpected death of her father and “really making the transition from being executive vice president to really managing and strategizing as CEO, and putting together the right team to sit alongside me at the helm of our company… was a very challenging time.”
“My father was 79 but you would’ve thought he was 39, and I certainly expected to have him for a lot longer. He had a very unexpected heart attack.
“It was so personally devastating because I lived across the street from my father and we worked together everyday, it was like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Getting up that next morning and making sure our company went on and we stayed on course — taking on that role would certainly be the greatest leap that I’ve ever taken.”
On “managing up”: From 2003 to 2014 I worked side by side with my father… During those years… I oversaw the development of four of our manufacturing facilities… I learned that my success came from being the most effective employee I could be and creating value for my boss and for my company.
What she feels she still needs to learn: I have a tendency to micromanage because I’ve worked in all the positions and I know them very well. I think in a family business it’s hard to let go of the details. I think you really have to practice and apply solid management strategies. I need to practice identifying the talent and empowering my team to make the best decisions about details I used to manage. I really need to work hard at giving my team decision rights and the authority that they need to implement their plans without micromanaging them.
“I surround myself with a very smart group of men and women. I actually have a high percentage of women in my C-suite and that diversity really helps me make the best decisions.”
How she knows when it’s time to step away: “I really don’t like to resolve conflict by elevating my voice. So when I’m at an impasse, that’s when frustration is likely to set in. If I feel like I’m going to raise my voice, I know it’s really time to step away because I don’t find going to that place to be productive. The more emotional the conversation, the less productive the outcome will be. That’s always a key thing for me.”
Three words she’d use to describe herself today: “Dedicated. Not just to my role but to my family. Innovative. I think I’m very innovative, staying at the forefront of green chemistry in marketing and sales and in what we’re doing as a company. Passionate. I’m very passionate.
“I believe in what I’m doing. It’s a wonderful position to be in when you’re doing something that you love, and I love what I do.”
On being a mother and a CEO: “My little daughter, she teaches me to pay attention to details and to really appreciate and be grateful and practice gratitude and really see the joy in life. My stepdaughter really teaches me to have faith. She’s got a really strong spiritual foundation and I think she’s been a tremendous support to me.”
“I travel a lot for business… and I often look for opportunities to bring my 11-year-old daughter with me. I really want to achieve that work-life balance that I think is very challenging for many working mothers. Lots of times it’s really wonderful if I can incorporate her into those travels as well.”
We spoke with Earth Friendly Products CEO Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks about working to make the world a greener place and filling the big shoes her father left behind. Read more at: bizjournals.com