Birko President Kelly Green: “Be humble; At the end of the day, a good leader should hang their ego at the door”

Carly Martinetti
Nov 12 · 9 min read

At the end of the day, a good leader should hang their ego at the door. Be humble. Don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability to your team. No one is perfect, and most of us just want to work together to solve problems.


As the third-generation owner of Birko and a Colorado native, Kelly Green carries on the vision for food safety started by her grandparents, Ward and Florence Smith. By creating the Birko Advantage — highly trained experts offering exceptional service, the best chemistry, and the most innovative equipment — she is committed to continuing their legacy. In 2014, Kelly was recognized as a Woman of Influence in the Food Industry by The Griffin Report of Food Marketing. She was also named a finalist for the 2012 and 2014 Outstanding Women in Business award, sponsored by the Denver Business Journal. Under Kelly’s leadership, Birko was ranked #34 in the 2014 Top 50 Family-Owned Companies by ColoradoBiz magazine and Birko was named a 2013 Top Company winner by ColoradoBiz magazine.


Thank you so much for joining us Kelly! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My grandparents, Ward and Florence Smith, started Birko out of their garage in 1953. It’s remained in the family and has continued growing for 66 years and counting. Growing up, I heard family conversations about the business all the time. Over the years, I became very passionate about food safety and how Birko can make a positive impact.

My grandmother was an amazing woman and a major role model and inspiration to me. The chance to follow in her footsteps is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My grandfather was the brilliant chemist and salesman while my grandmother was overseeing the details of the business. From ordering raw materials and bookkeeping to customer service, she was the glue that kept everything together. She took over in 1978 after my grandfather passed away and continued playing an active role as Birko’s president into her 80s.

My grandmother could have sold the business when she lost her wing man, but instead, she jumped into the president/CEO role in the midst of a predominantly male dominated industry –the chemical manufacturing world; which was the core business to supplying our key customers with processing chemicals to keep their plants clean and operationally running. She believed in the business, Birko employees and partners.

When I entered the business in 1997 as the third-generation majority, it was a true honor to continue the legacy my grandparents founded.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Not many people have the privilege of inheriting a business, and at times it can feel like both a blessing and a curse. One of the most interesting challenges I faced when taking on a leadership role within Birko was the initiative of moving the company forward with diversification for a sustainable future. In addition to a long-term succession plan for the new executive team I needed to build to help growth the business for the next generation.

At the time of the transition, there were a lot of people who were ready to retire, and there was an immediate change of the guard when my Grandmother exited the business. When I came into the business, there was only one computer in the entire building. That should give you an idea of the scope of change that needed to happen.

As a third-generation owner, I noticed we had been resting comfortably with our existing and very loyal customer portfolio, but it was time to expand our base into other markets for a sustainable future. Birko also hadn’t come out with new products for more than a decade. The foundation was there, but the competition was quickly increasing.

I had to convince the existing team that change needed to occur while reassuring the incoming team members that change was going to take place. Successfully taking on these challenges and balancing an evolving corporate culture was certainly interesting–to say the least. The key takeaway here is treat your team with respect and communicate a well thought out plan.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on, I was visiting one of our longtime customers in the beef processing industry. The sales team and I went there to listen to the customer’s pain points to gain a true understanding of our customer base.

As we walked through the beef packing plant on the harvest floor, I was paying such close attention to the customer that I wasn’t watching what was happening around me. Suddenly, I was knocked to the floor by a beef carcass that was moving through the area.

The customer joked with me and said since I was from Birko, I shouldn’t have a difficult time finding product to get clean!

It was one of those funny and humbling moments where your close advisors say… “Welcome to the big leagues, kid.” I suppose I learned the importance of listening to your customer, while also paying attention to the environment you reside.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Birko was built on the simple but vital concept of listening to our customers’ pain points and help them solve food safety problems. We’ve consciously developed our product base, including chemistry, equipment and service, around customer needs.

I see how many companies like ours have been bought out by larger corporations over the years. Yet, Birko has done an excellent job growing at an aggressive pace without having to seek out private equity. The fact that Birko has remained family-owned through more than six decades makes us unique and allows us to have solid relationship with those we serve. It’s also enabled us to keep the idea of listening to the customer as part of our DNA and company culture.

We focus on hiring some of the best chemists and food safety engineers in the industry so that we can provide our customers with expert advice and innovative solutions.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the most exciting things we’ve introduced at Birko recently is Elite 360® precision application technology. We spent years developing a way to effectively harness electrostatics for use in antimicrobial intervention. It is a food safety game-changer that is just now being implemented in the beef processing industry with poultry and produce soon to follow.

Essentially, this innovation allows food processing facilities to dramatically reduce potential harmful bacteria that can attack a food plant. And, thanks to the precision application, it does so while significantly reducing the amount of chemicals and water needed to do an effective job. That translates to cost-savings and sustainability benefits for food processors. Elite 360® technology presents major improvements in comparison to traditional methods.

For the general public, it represents the promise of a safer food supply chain. The CDC estimates foodborne illnesses has the potential to impact millions of lives each year, and we hear about food recalls in the news all the time. Elite 360® and upcoming innovations from Birko will protect public health and help build trust between consumers and food companies.

When I hear someone say, “I don’t want chemicals on my food!” I remind them that they’d never clean their bathroom or kitchen counter with warm water only. It’s the same concept with cleaning a food plant. Chemistry eliminates harmful bacteria within food plants. Plus, it’s important for consumers to realize that the chemicals we use at Birko include things such as lactic acid, which is an acid the human body can produce and protects against bad bacteria from growing and causing human illness.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

What has been most important for me is understanding the audience, which could be your customers or your team. Know who they really are and consider the things that keep them up at night. Not everyone has the same fears and aspirations, so understanding the individual is key.

If you can figure out what drives the people on your team, you’ll understand how to motivate them to do their best work. Many times, that requires having real conversations and some of them may be difficult. But people want to talk about themselves. They want to be heard, and they want honest feedback on how they can be better.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

In addition to understanding what motivates people, you need to clearly communicate your vision and direction for the company with your team as well as the expectations you have of them. The team needs to know where the ship is heading and how their contributions to the company play a role. Find out what obstacles are preventing them from reaching their full potential and do what you can as a leader to get those things out of the way rather than creating more obstacles.

At the end of the day, a good leader should hang their ego at the door. Be humble. Don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability to your team. No one is perfect, and most of us just want to work together to solve problems.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

First, I’m thankful for our long-time customers at Birko. These are the individuals who have trusted Birko for 66 years! I have literally grown up with them! Many of them have been so gracious to me personally and to the company. They’ve been honest with us when Birko hasn’t met their expectations, and that strong relationship continues to help Birko improve.

I’m also extremely grateful to my longtime friend and business partner, Mark Swanson, who currently serves as Birko’s CEO. We met in graduate school when we were both pursuing our MBAs. He was well on his way to working for Fortune 500 companies when he took a leap of faith and joined us at Birko. It is somewhat unusual for a family-owned business to hire a CEO, but he’s been with the company for 11 years now and we have doubled in size with a strategic plan in place that will last through the next generation!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m extremely proud to have set up scholarships in my grandparents’ names to educate the next generation of food safety science innovators. The Ward Smith Scholarship is awarded to students at Texas A&M, and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) awards the Florence Smith scholarship in my grandmother’s name.

I was also particularly happy with a recent effort in which Birko partnered with United Fresh, an organization connected to the produce industry. We helped bring salad bars to underserved and underprivileged schools. It was very rewarding to contribute to that program and see better nutrition come to schools where kids need it most.

What are your “4 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Know your numbers: Before you do anything, you need to understand the numbers behind the business you’re in.
  2. Use email for information only: Email can be a major time-waster, a distraction, and can be easily misunderstood if you’re not careful. Limit that form of communication to just the facts whenever possible.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions: Early in my career, I was always worried that the more questions I asked the dumber I would look. Turns out it is quite the contrary.
  4. Write Thank You notes: My grandmother told me to get personal stationary and send handwritten letters to show appreciation to customers and deserving employees. Following that advice that has paid off in spades for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will.”

13. Authority Magazine has some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment reading this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

This is an easy one for me. I would love to sit down with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I think she is a rock star! She is the perfect example of working through adversity and achieving successful outcomes. I think she is brilliant and a class act.

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Carly Martinetti

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Authority Magazine
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