|Sonia Vallis might be an only child, but she grew up with a sibling that has now become like another child to her. That sibling is LPD Music International. Her father, Harry Bernstein, founded the Michigan-based company in 1963, importing instruments from Mexico and selling them to music stores. From a young age, Vallis’ father expected her to help out at the company he founded.
“When I was in my early teens, my dad would bring home work for me on Friday nights, and set it on the dining room table. I’d wake up Saturday mornings and be greeted by the stacks of invoices to stuff, labels to apply on flyers, etc. And during summer breaks, I’d go to work with him and pull orders in the warehouse,” said Vallis. “I thought he was being unfair, because I wasn’t paid to do these things, and it prevented me from being with my friends. I didn’t understand it as a kid, but, looking back on it now, I’m glad he did it. He had a great work ethic and this was his way of making sure I had that work ethic, too.”
Despite her early involvement with LPD, Vallis was resolute in her desire to go out on her own and make a name for herself outside of the family business. Call it a case of sibling rivalry.
“Growing up, my father spent a lot of hours at the company, so I didn’t see him much. He would come home from work late, when I was going to bed, and I would leave early in the morning for school. On vacation, I remember sitting in the hotel lobby for an hour or more while he was on the phone checking on the business,” she recalled. “I probably resented the company a bit for taking my dad away from me. I felt that I took the backseat.”
So Vallis left her family behind in Michigan and pursued a career as a management consultant, but fate had other plans for her. Her father had a terrible rollerblading accident in 1994 that left him almost paralyzed. So she put her career on hold and came back to Michigan to help run the family business.
Vallis was greeted with some skepticism among LPD employees when she first came on board as the company’s HR manager. Not only was she a woman in her 20s, but she was also the boss’ daughter.
“People didn’t know me, my background or my work ethic. They didn’t know I had two degrees that were relevant to what I was hired for,” said Vallis, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Management from Central Michigan University and a Master of Science degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology from Springfield College in Massachusetts.
Eventually, she gained the respect and trust of the employees at LPD but, in the process, she feels like she lost some of the personal relationship with her father. “Our relationship took on a different role,” Vallis said. “We were good partners, but we lost touch of the personal aspects along the way. It seemed every conversation turned to business.”
As she grew with the company, Vallis moved into the role of general manager and, ultimately, owner and president after her father succumbed to lung cancer in 2007. Vallis’ psychology background and past work experience helped prepare her for the leadership role she was destined to take.
“I held a variety of jobs prior to LPD. I was a waitress, a salesperson and a counselor. These experiences taught me how to deal with people, to adapt quickly and to be flexible because one answer doesn’t fit all situations,” said Vallis, who has adopted the same attitude toward her employees. “You have to recognize that everyone has different needs and responds differently. So what motivates one person doesn’t always motivate another. I try to keep that in mind when dealing with my employees.”
What others at LPD don’t know is that Vallis has been advocating for them long before taking on ownership of the company. When she first started there, “People at the company thought I was being brought in as a spy,” she said. “The funny thing is that I was actually working on ways to make LPD a better place to work. I increased their insurance benefits and the number of personal days. I started having company picnics and holiday parties. We didn’t do that before,” Vallis continued. “My dad thought I was trying to change too much too soon, but my psychology background made me more aware of the people side of the job, when management sometimes wasn’t.”
Doing It All
Now that Vallis is the owner, this people person misses face-to-face interaction with her employees. “When you’re a business owner, you have to wear many hats and you aren’t always afforded the time to deal with your employees on an individual basis,” said Vallis. “Your focus changes to more detailed paperwork or more project-oriented tasks. So I don’t get as involved with the day-to-day activities as I was when I was the general manager.”
There is one person at the company she’s closer to, though. She met LPD’s vice president, Tom Vallis, on the job and, today, he is her husband and the father of her two children. While Vallis’ mother was home to take care of her while her father ran the business, Vallis and her husband are both equally involved with both the company and the kids, making for a difficult balancing act.
“It’s hard to run a business together with your husband when you also have young kids. We focused on our careers and had children later in life,” said Vallis, whose daughters are 2 and 6. She also has two teenage stepsons from her husband’s first marriage. “It would be nice if one of us had a 9-to-5 job, but we’re good about splitting chores. Whoever has more energy will take them on or, if one of us has to work late, the other will pitch in. I’m lucky that my husband is very involved with the kids.”
No matter how hard it is to strike the right balance between work and home, the experience only makes Vallis a stronger and more capable boss to her family of 20 LPD employees. “Being a boss, mom, wife and daughter, and with the variety of jobs that I’ve held, I’ve had many roles. Each has given me a different perspective from all levels,” she said. “I feel that makes me more well-rounded and gives me a greater understanding of people, which hopefully makes me a better leader.”
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