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Earth Friendly Products is continuing on its growth course under a new generation of leadership.

The maker of plant-based cleaning products is expanding its Orange County manufacturing facility and executive offices and plans to move in May from its 90,000-square-foot Garden Grove facility to a 125,000-square-foot plant in Cypress.

The company makes more than 150 products ranging from hand soaps and laundry detergents to window cleaners and odor removers, about 70,000 tons a year in all, roughly 30% of which comes out of its Garden Grove facility.

Earth Friendly was honored in the large-company category at the Business Journal’s annual Family Owned Business Awards luncheon on Nov. 19 at Hotel Irvine (see related coverage, pages 5, 6, 8 and 10).

The OC operations have long been the company’s biggest producer. It also has plants in Washington, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, and Athens, Greece, its first international location.

Earth Friendly has 350 employees, 84 of whom are in Orange County.

Its local office is also a co-headquarters alongside the company’s Addison, Ill., facility, said Chief Executive Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, who added that the Midwest office “contains much of the administrative functions, and the Orange County office is for the executive functions.”

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Van Vlahakis

Vlahakis-Hanks took on the top post this year after her father and company founder, Van Vlahakis, died in April. She worked with him for about 20 years, most recently as executive vice president overseeing the Orange County operations.

“It was a devastating loss. He was a wonderful father and a great leader,” she said. “I’m really glad I had the ability to work with my father each and every day for the last two decades. It’s important that I had the one-on-one time with him. I am lucky for that. I had the opportunity to work in every aspect of this company.”

Van Vlahakis, who was born in Crete, moved to the U.S. in the 1950s and studied chemistry at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He worked in the janitorial services industry after graduating and started Venus Laboratories in Illinois in 1967, focusing on safer and more effective industrial cleaning supplies. He set up a production facility in 1971 and expanded operations to California in 1977. He established Earth Friendly in the late 1980s as part of Venus Laboratories.

His daughter said the recent leadership change meant the company needed to put a strong organizational structure in place.

“It was one of the first initiatives for the company. Sometimes in family-owned businesses, [organization structures] don’t exist as they would in other corporate entities. For the first time in 47 years, a strong organizational chart was established.”

Earth Friendly created a chief financial officer position and filled it with Mike Palmatier, a veteran of accounting firm Sikich LLC. He also serves as chief operating officer.

Vlahakis-Hanks’ husband, Eric Hanks, handles sales for the Southwestern region, and stepdaughter Monica Hanks, who was previously executive assistant to Van Vlahakis, is now the company’s new brand director.

Growth

Financial details of the company were not available, but it has grown revenue by about 6% year-over-year as of Sept. 30, and is looking for more growth, including in international markets.

“The company has enjoyed so much growth,” Vlahakis-Hanks said. “We opened a sales office in Greece, and we still have plans to open a manufacturing facility there. And I’d like to do Asia from then on. Business in Asia is growing, especially in China, with our baby products.”

Disney Partnership

Earth Friendly has a partnership with the Walt Disney Co. under which it has a Disney Baby Ecos line of laundry detergents and other products.

“We’ve got the contract for Disney Baby products in the Asian market,” Vlahakis-Hanks said. “For 2015, e-commerce is a big initiative. And we’re going to have a complete rebranding of our line. We’ll have a whole new look, new labels, new brands.”

She said Earth Friendly strives to operate as its name says.

It has the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment certification, which recognizes businesses that “ensure that their ingredients and finished product line up on the green-end of the health and environmental spectrum while maintaining or improving product performance,” according to the agency.

The company has reached carbon neutrality at its manufacturing facilities, avoiding more than 53 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually, and has switched to 100% renewable electricity.

Earth Friendly also received certification for being “zero-waste” in its operations. Environmentally responsible efforts are making a difference, according to a report by the company’s director of sustainability, Nadereh Afsharmanesh. The company said recycling, for instance, has brought more than $139,000 in financial benefit since 2010.

Various employee incentives are also in place, including $2,000 given to employees who buy “eco-friendly cars,” $1,000 to those who relocate closer to work, and $2,000 to employees who install solar panels at their homes.

Friendly, ‘Socially Responsible’

Vlahakis-Hanks said it’s “absolutely, very important” for the company to be not only environmentally friendly but also socially responsible.

“Both are extremely important to our business,” she said, adding that Earth Friendly is among the companies that pay the highest ranges of minimum wages to employees. “We hope to serve as a model for other businesses. Increasing minimum wage became a highly heated topic. People ask, ‘Are you still profitable?’ Yes, we’re still profitable. And there are other costs to replace employees. Many of our employees have been with us more than 20 years.”

Vlahakis-Hanks was honored in June at the OC Global Women’s Conference in Anaheim. The company has also received accolades, such as the CleanTech OC Company of the Year Award and the Green Manufacturing Excellence Award from the Association of Washington Business in 2012.

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