Edward and Ludmila Smolyansky gear up for proxy battle at Lifeway Foods AGM

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

The latest innovation from Lifeway Foods is cultured oat milk, pictured on display at Expo West earlier this month. Image credit: Elaine Watson
The latest innovation from Lifeway Foods is cultured oat milk, pictured on display at Expo West earlier this month. Image credit: Elaine Watson

Related tags: Lifeway Foods, Kefir, Julie Smolyansky, Edward Smolyansky, Ludmilla Smolyansky

The family feud over who should lead Illinois-based Lifeway Foods and how it should be run has not been resolved, with former COO Edward Smolyansky preparing for a potential proxy contest at the upcoming AGM according to an SEC filing from March 17.

The latest filing - which you can read here​ ​- explains: “On March 11, Edward Smolyansky notified the corporate secretary of Lifeway Foods of his intent to nominate himself,​ [his mother] Ludmila Smolyansky, Robert Whalen, Austin Hollis and Iana Trifonova for election to the Company’s Board of Directors at the 2022 annual meeting of shareholders.

“As Mr. Smolyansky continues to prepare for a potential proxy context ​[sic] in connection with the 2022 Annual Meeting, the reporting persons​ [Edward and Ludmilla Smolyansky] intend to continue to engage in discussions with the company’s board of directors regarding their belief that the company should replace the CEO​ [Edward’s sister Julie Smolyansky, who has run the company since 2002], and commence an exploration of the company’s strategic alternatives."

Founded by Michael Smolyansky in the 1980s, Lifeway Foods​​ has been run by his daughter Julie as CEO since Michael's death in 2002​​,​ while Ludmila serves as chair of the board (her consulting contract with the company was terminated at the end of last year). Julie's brother Edward was COO until January 4  - FoodNavigator-USA understands he was terminated for cause - but remains a board member.

Independent directors of Lifeway board 'fully support' ​CEO Julie Smolyansky

The first public signs that the Smolyansky family members - who have a controlling stake in the business - were not on the same page, emerged February 25​ in a 13D form​​​ filed with the SEC in which Ludmila and Edward argued that Julie should be replaced as CEO, although they did not provide any explanation.

The independent directors of the Lifeway board responded with a statement saying that they "fully support"​ ​CEO Julie Smolyansky, who stressed that her “loyalty lies with our company, our brand, our customers, our employees, our shareholders, and my father’s legacy​."

'Everything hinges on Danone...'

According to SEC filings, Ludmila owns a 21.9% stake, Edward owns 16.2%, and​ Julie owns 13.2% in Lifeway Foods, which is listed on NASDAQ as LWAY. 

The other major shareholder in the company is Danone, which owned 22.38% of Lifeway as of September 1, 2021​​​, giving it significant leverage in any upcoming negotiations. It has not responded to requests for comment.  

In a post on investing site seeking alpha​​, investor Jeremy Blum said he believed the Feb 25 announcement "effectively puts Lifeway up for sale,​” adding that “Everything hinges on Danone... If Danone is neutral or sides with Edward/Ludmilla, the die is cast for a sale or change in ownership.”​

Read more about Lifeway's recent performance HERE​.

MSHRM_Oat_Lifeway-Foods

While the fermented dairy beverage kefir still accounts for the vast majority of its sales (82% of revenues), Lifeway Foods has expanded its portfolio in recent years, with cheese now accounting for 11% of revenues.

Most recently, it has moved into probiotic cultured oat drinkables under the Lifeway Oat​​ brand and developed a line of adaptogenic functional mushroom beverages​​ (pictured left).

Sales in the first nine months of 2021 were up 15.2% YoY to $88.1m at Lifeway Foods, which will report its full year figures next month.

Related topics: People, Beverage, Dairy, Manufacturers

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