In early 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cast a somber veil over the nation. The war not only disrupted essential services, it also brought an immediate sense of insecurity and fear among people in Ukraine and caused businesses to close. Katherine Vellinga’s business was one among many to be hit by the upheaval.
Fifteen years ago, Vellinga co-founded Zirkova Vodka, on discovering the birthplace of the alcoholic beverage in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine. Ready to share the authentic spirit of the country with the rest of the world, she built the brand with center-cut spirits, artesian water and a team of experts who had years of experience crafting vodka and fusing classical methods with modern technology.
“Despite the challenges of the pandemic in our industry, we sustained double-digit, year-on-year growth,” the Ukrainian-Canadian CEO tells The CEO Magazine. “Our Zirkova One and Zirkova Together Ultra Premium vodkas were top-selling Ukrainian vodkas in Canada and number four in sales among top-shelf, Super Premium and Deluxe vodkas, at one of the largest retailers of alcoholic beverages in the world.”
“We couldn’t distill in Ukraine and we couldn’t change the birthplace of the spirit. So we decided we would give Ukrainian vodka-making a second home in Canada.”
On the fateful day of February 24, 2022, however, Ukraine was subjected to a military intervention by Russia and life underwent a complete transformation.
“Everything changed overnight. Our immediate reaction was one of concern for our people in Ukraine and to focus on how we could help them and others during the critical time,” Vellinga recalls. Soon, their master distiller managed to escape the country with her family, and the team brought her to Canada.
Meanwhile, all production in Ukraine had come to a halt, material was stuck and the inventory in Canada was rapidly depleting. But with the expert now in their midst, they set out on a dual mission: to support those in need and to rescue their struggling business.
Crafting unity from chaos
“We undertook a massive effort to raise awareness in Canada – using our voice, our platform and our brand – by donating 100 percent of our profits on products for humanitarian aid,” Vellinga explains. “We couldn’t distill in Ukraine and we couldn’t change the birthplace of the spirit. So we decided we would give Ukrainian vodka-making a second home in Canada.”
And thus, the idea of Zirkova Unity was born.
“Zirkova Unity became a story of hope, resilience, bravery and optimism.”
Unity wasn’t just another product; it symbolized resilience and shared purpose during testing times. The brand used its resources, influence and profits to stand beside those affected by the crisis.
“Taking the idea from concept to shelf in less than four months, Zirkova Unity became a story of hope, resilience, bravery and optimism,” Vellinga says. “It was a story of collective action to make a difference.”
With the brand’s commitment extending beyond the product itself, profits from Zirkova Unity were channeled toward humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, providing much-needed support to a nation grappling with the consequences of a war. It was a testament to the idea that businesses could be agents of positive change.
Lessons in Resilience
Ask Vellinga about the valuable lessons she learned during the hard time, and she shares a few – all that have relevance beyond the world of business.
“In times of crisis, it is critical to clearly choose who you are going to be as a leader and what you are going to focus on, even if it seems monumental, risky or outrageous,” she says.
“In times of crisis, it is critical to clearly choose who you are going to be as a leader and what you are going to focus on.”
In the face of adversity, Zirkova Vodka’s story stands as an example of resilience and compassion. It’s a story of how a brand adapted, not just to survive, but to make a meaningful contribution to the world. As the dust settled by the end of the year, their master distiller returned to Ukraine and production of all three products commenced normally.
“Looking back now, it is miraculous what we accomplished. Restarting production in Ukraine has meant so much to the employees, local businesses and suppliers,” Vellinga says. “My husband and I have been named on the list of Canadians banned from Russia, a distinction we believe is due to our vocal advocacy, visibility and support of Ukraine. But our purpose drives us more than ever.”