June 16, 2016 / 1:06 PM / 4 years ago

CEO injects philanthropy into family's culture of money

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Julie Smolyansky has spent more than a decade as chief executive officer of her family’s successful business, but her path to the corner office was unplanned.

Undated handout photo of Julie Smolyansky.

Smolyansky, 41, assumed control of Lifeway Foods Inc, maker of kefir and other dairy products, when her father died suddenly of a heart attack in 2002.

Her mother and brother are also involved in the company, which had revenue of $118 million in 2015, as well as in a family charitable foundation. In addition, Smolyansky founded a nonprofit, Test400k (test400k.org/), to eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits.

The family has come a long way from its arrival in the United States from the Ukraine when Smolyansky was a baby and her parents had only $116 to start a new life.

Reuters talked with Smolyansky about her views on estate planning and philanthropy as well as values she wants to teach her two young daughters.

Q: Given that your father passed away without a written estate and business succession plan, how does your family now make financial decisions?

A: We have family meetings. We do them as retreats. It’s hard to get everybody together, even though we all live a mile away from each other.

We talk about succession, what gifts are going to happen. Is anyone getting married? Births happening? All these things we’ve had to navigate in the last few years. It gets complicated.

We also always build in some sort of social impact piece. For example, we were off in the Caribbean, and we booked a whole thing about the environment. We thought about how running a business with a manufacturing facility impacts our environment. What kind of plastics can we use? When you physically see coral reefs disappearing, it impacts your decisions.

Q: What do you think your family foundation will look like years from now?

A: It should definitely continue on, and as we make more money, we can give more away. That’s pretty important to us.

I learned a lot of this from Ted Turner. I joined his United Nations Foundation Global Entrepreneurs Council, and I got a perspective of how these multigenerational families do it. I asked Ted his biggest advice, and he said: “Make more money, and give it away.”

I want to leave a legacy for my parents and myself. I want that to be something that is known – that we are generous, that we have thought of others. We should share that and hopefully inspire others to do what they feel compelled to do.

Q: What about the future of the company?

A: In 100 years, realistically, the company will get too complicated and big for the kids. There are fourth-generation businesses out there, but they are super-, super-rare.

It would be awesome to say it stays in the family, but the last thing I would want to do is make anyone feel burdened.

Q: Your children won’t remember the kind of financial struggle that shaped you, so how do you pass along your values to them?

A: I don’t remember a day in my life when I was not working in some way. My first paid job, I was 14, but worked as a 6-year-old. We weren’t poor, but I still remember when my parents dropped a pizza one night, and they picked it up, scraped up the cheese, and we had it for dinner.

And that’s what I tell my children about. This next generation, they have access to so many things. I’m trying to make my life more comfortable, and they happen to be along for the ride.

Q: How do you include them in the charitable works that you do?

A: When I am involved in a charity of any sort, I share with them what I am doing and what I hope the impact will be, whatever is age-appropriate.

There will come a big demand on them to give back to the community. I view it as one continuous circle. What people are always looking for is higher purpose. More money does not buy more happiness. What brings you happiness and joy is impacting the world, helping somebody else.

See more Life Lessons here

Editing by Lauren Young and Lisa Von Ahn

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