Greek-American Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, President and CEO of ECOS®, is not just a successful business leader but also an influential and dedicated environmentalist.
In an in-depth interview with Greek Reporter, she explains how her company, which makes the environmentally friendly ECOS Laundry Detergent and other household cleaners, adapted to the coronavirus pandemic by prioritizing the health of its employees and scaling its operations to meet the global need for cleaning products.
She also shares why ECOS pays one of the highest minimum wages in the industry and her hopes that the incoming US administration will strengthen environmental and health policies.
2020 was a turbulent year for many US-based businesses as the pandemic hit. But, as Vlahakis-Hanks explains, ECOS was well-suited to meet the challenge with its mission to protect the health of people, pets and the planet.
“I’ll never forget March 15th, when orders came at eight times the normal rate, which would normally have been a celebratory event, had it not been for the pandemic,” she recalls.
Cleaning products are the number one weapon in the war on Covid-19. People need them more than ever. Demand from hospitals, care facilities and residential homes has skyrocketed. People rushed to the stores, concerned that the supply chain would be disrupted.
“When the entire world shut down, we had to ramp up to meet the unprecedented global demand for cleaning products,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. For her, 2020 was a very challenging year because, as she says, “the most important thing for me was to protect my team and to keep them safe and healthy.”
ECOS put immediately in place strict safety protocols, including six-foot spacing, mask and glove use, frequent handwashing, temperature checks, and increased cleaning and disinfecting.
In addition, renowned experts were invited to speak to the team on new developments about Covid-19, and the company expanded its already generous sick pay policy to allow sick employees to use vacation time without standard notice.
“We literally had t-shirts saying ‘Stay 6 feet apart,’” Vlahakis-Hanks says. “We’re still constantly updating our protocols to follow the latest science to protect our team.”
When the pandemic hit, ECOS sent home anyone who could work remotely, such as sales, innovation, marketing, and finance personnel.
The result was excellent, busting the myth that remote working is inefficient and ineffective. But, as Vlahakis-Hanks notes, for this to work one important ingredient must be in place: the right company culture.
“I’m so proud of my team. When you build a company with the right company culture, the team comes together and rises to the challenge. They were very productive and efficient, and they remained focused.”
She says although remote working was introduced out of necessity, it could be start of a new approach to the workplace. While the company is planning to return its remote workers back to the office in June 2021, “I’d be open to looking at hybrid models in the future for non-essential team members,” Vlahakis-Hanks says.
“At the end of the day, it’s important to create a work environment that works for team members as well as employers – we had a positive experience of seeing that work in practice.”
ECOS, a member of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, has been a front-runner in supporting its employees with a strong health insurance policy, family-friendly benefits and a fair living wage, paying a minimum wage of $17 an hour, one of the highest in the industry.
“Paying a fair wage is good for employees and for companies, as well as the economy. When you take care of your team, they take care of you with quality work and dedication,” Vlahakis-Hanks tells Greek Reporter.
She says that a business model that pays low wages is unprofitable in the long run because of the high costs of employee turnover, low productivity and loss of corporate memory. “Businesses must understand that to have be successful in the long term you must take care of your people.”
Passionate for the environment
Vlahakis-Hanks has been recognized for her highly effective leadership and influential voice in the green movement and in corporate social responsibility. She has been instrumental in making ECOS a model for green business practices and a leader in the green cleaning products market.
She says that her passion to save the planet was instilled in her by her late father Van Vlahakis.
“I had the great fortune to be Van Vlahakis’ daughter and have the opportunity to learn from my father the importance of protecting our planet and being environmentally responsible. He was a passionate, visionary person who instilled these values in me from a young age.”
ECOS has been a winner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice Partner of the Year Award for the past several years, recognizing the company’s commitment to safer ingredients and innovative green science.
“It’s such a gift to be able to work all day long for what you are passionate about and what you believe in.”
She believes that businesses should do more for the environment. “If we leave it up to governments, we’re never going to hit the urgent timelines that are critical for planetary health.”
“I feel a huge sense of duty and obligation to do my part, and I call on all other businesses to do the same, because we only have one planet that we all share.”
Vlahakis-Hanks is optimistic about the future of green issues following the November election in the US.
“I had a close working relationship with the Obama administration and also with Joe Biden as Vice President. Never before in the history of the US have we had a president whose entire political career has been advocating for Greece, Cyprus and the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”
She is well-placed to know, following her close association with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris over the years. “President-elect Biden made climate change one of the top issues in his campaign, and Kamala Harris has an exceptional record in defending the environment,” she says.
“I first met Joe Biden 23 years ago when I was the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Council and he was the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Over the last two decades, I’ve worked with him not just on Greek issues but on Green issues too. He’s the best of the best.”
Award to Harris
Every year, ECOS gives an award to an influential person who advances green causes. In 2019, the ECOS Environmental Champion Award was presented to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the “Green Patriarch.” The year before, in 2018, then-Senator Kamala Harris was honored.
“We gave the award to Senator Harris because at the state level in California, and later in the Senate, she demonstrated exceptional leadership in the protection of the environment. She spent her career fighting against pollution and toxic chemicals. She has always been committed to the protection of critical ecosystems,” Vlahakis-Hanks tells Greek Reporter.
She notes that as a senator, Harris led the Living Shorelines Act, which helps communities to protect against rising sea levels. She also co-sponsored bills that closed loopholes for oil companies and fought to ban agricultural use of dangerous pesticides and stop gas and oil leases in the Arctic Ocean.
When she was District Attorney in San Francisco, she established the first Environmental Justice Unit, and as a California’s Attorney General she prosecuted large corporations for illegal dumping and pollution violations.
“She has an unbelievable track record as an environmental champion, and that’s why we gave her the award in 2018. She brings that huge commitment and passion with her as she heads to Washington, D.C.”
Missing Greek summers
Vlahakis-Hanks shares her frustration that due to the pandemic she and her daughter were unable to visit her beloved Crete last summer. “Without going to Greece, I feel like we didn’t have summer yet.”
She says that since she was 10 years old she has visited Greece every summer. The only exceptions were this year, when she gave birth to her daughter, and when her mother passed away.
“I look forward to it every year, and so does my daughter. It’s such a great tradition to go and see our family, to swim in the warm waters. It’s such a beautiful place to rest and recover and recoup. But also I miss my team there in Greece, the ECOS Hellas team.”