John Vellinga With His Wife Katherine And Children In Front Of Tiff Poster

Spending more time with your kids is key

Exclusive Interview with John Vellinga, CEO of Zirkova Vodka

DAD.CEO interviews John Vellinga, the creator of the Zirkova Vodka brand, a sought-after speaker on radio and television, including two appearances on Canada’s Dragons’ Den reality business show – for which he won a Viewers’ Choice Award.

DAD.CEO: You’re a CEO and a committed dad, what’s your secret to making it work?

John Vellinga: First – get your priorities straight.  Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in work.  When your kids truly need you – or just want to be with you for a moment – take time out.  It’s fleeting!  Don’t miss out on a snuggle – or a bed-time story – over a spreadsheet or a project that could be done later – or after they go to bed.  On the flip-side, don’t let the kids pull you away from something truly important over something trivial.  They need to understand – and have YOU demonstrate – that commitment is important – it’s a good lesson for them.

Second – find a time that is just family time.  When you can’t be pulled away – and they know that they have you.  And make sure your team knows that.  They will protect you.

Third – use the schedule.  It works great for meetings and business.  Also, use the same schedule for the family.  Put it in.  Make that time as inviolable as a Board meeting (within reason).

John Vellinga And His Family Posing For Photograph Overlooking City Of Toronto Canada From CN Tower

John Vellinga and his family a top of the world-famous CN Tower in Toronto, Canada

DAD.CEO: What is the best advice you have received on being a father that you use in your daily life with your children?

John Vellinga: My Dad gave me the best advice: “the only way to screw up a kid is to make them feel like they are not loved.  If they know they are truly loved, they will be OK”. 

My Dad was an airline pilot and a University Professor in his “spare” time.  And he was an amazing Dad.  Somehow, on obviously limited time, it felt like an amazing relationship, and that we had tons of time together.  It was key moments.

DAD.CEO: The word NO is a powerful word in business, but how does its meaning work with your children or do you believe in the opposite in YES with them?

John Vellinga: NO is an awesome word.  Almost as good as YES, when used correctly.  I like to be a YES to life, especially when it comes to my kids.  But sometimes NO, is OK.  Like – NO – you can’t go over to “so-and-so’s” house tonight, because I am not driving you and I am busy.   But – YES - “so-and-so” can stay over at our place!  No skin off my nose.  I can work and chaperon at the same time.  We all win.

Most important, is in their own choices.  They need to get the power of NO.  Sometimes for obvious reasons – especially for girls.  But mostly because being a YES to life sometimes means promising things you aren’t committed to.  Don’t do that. 

DAD.CEO: Being on the road a lot, how do you make time at home count with your children?

JV: Eating Together is big.  We try to do that as much as possible.  Honestly, our kids’ own commitments cause as many conflicts as my own.  But whenever possible, a meal together can be magic.  We also try to eat at home.  We seldom eat on the go.

DAD.CEO: How do you ‘unplug’ with your family/children in what is now a more and more digital age of everything?

John Vellinga: No devices at the table!  Big rule.  Also, we guilt each other into putting it away.  Playing board games and card games is a good escape.  So is vacationing in a place with no or spotty internet connections!

DAD.CEO: What top 3 lessons did your father leave you with that you feel are still relevant in today's digitally connected world?

John Vellinga:

1. Projects and Chores are Awesome – my Dad and I have great memories of fixing things, renovating the cottage, etc.  My son and I do the same things.  Working together to better our home – and being partners – is an incredible time.

2. Embrace Each Other’s Hobbies and Interests – I make sure that I spend the time to be at our kids’ main things – be it musical theatre, sports, or hobbies.  I try to include them in my stuff whenever possible!

3. Quality beats Quantity – my Dad thought it better to spend a short, great time together, than vice versa

John Vellinga With His Son And Father Posing For Photograph

3 proud generations of Vellinga's. 

DAD.CEO: What would be your top 5 tips for being a successful DAD.CEO?

John Vellinga:

1. Make sure your kids know that you love them above all else

2. Have them take on their own challenges.  They should be as busy as you are – doing what they love

3. Be an example.  That means showing you’re committed to your goals and won’t be easily distracted

4. Make sure they know they’re important.  Your business is a priority, let them know that so are they

5. Fill them in on what you’re doing (when they’re ready).  It is interesting and educational.

John Vellinga Taking Selfie Photo With Son At Buffalo Bills Football Game

Father-son time in Buffalo, New York for a Bills Football game

DAD.CEO: How do you balance work versus family life - Do you have a system or tricks that help you lead at work while mentoring as a father?

John Vellinga: Don’t commute.  Work close to your home.  Or live close to your work.  Spending 3 hours a day driving is insane, regardless of any payoff or cheaper real estate.  My commute is under 4 minutes – 2 minutes if the lights are green.  I live and work in Oakville.  It’s close to the city if I need it.  But even then, I refuse to take a meeting downtown before 10 am or after 2 pm.  Too much time wasted.  The math is undeniable.  You get 4 times the Q-time if you don’t commute 90 minutes each way.

John Vellinga Quality Vs Time Comparison Chart

John Vellinga's Quality vs Time comparison chart

Steal time and be flexible.  So many people miss their kids’ things because of the “9-5” trap – and the fact that they work too far away to join in on their kids’ activities.  Think outside that.  Live/work close.  Take the time when needed and make it up when it doesn’t matter.  Be there for the 1 pm concert.  You might miss bedtime that day, but so what? 

DAD.CEO: How do you feel you have evolved as a father and a CEO from the time your first child was born to this present day?

John Vellinga: I used to do whatever it took – and said no - without any explanation.  It was “implied”.  Now, I seldom say no to my kids when I know it matters a lot to them.  I will drop what I am doing and be there.  At the same time, I have had to miss some really important things because of major business commitments.  I always let them know why it’s important and what is going on.  ALWAYS let them know that they are the most important thing – even if sometimes it doesn’t seem that way.

DAD.CEO: Being a leader that deals with financials often… can you give us 5 tips that a father should be teaching his children on finance/money so they may have a chance to succeed in life?

John Vellinga:

1. Never talk to kids about the $/hour.  It makes them think of themselves as a cost or something less than money.  And never talk to young kids about money or economics.  They don’t get it. They just want YOU.

2. Let your (especially) young kids know that what you are doing is for them – for their school and future (even if that is not entirely true!)  They will understand

3. When they get old enough (10+), give them a little exercise in capitalism – like the lemonade stand.  They will start to get how it works. When they are old enough and have worked for $/hour, help them realize that time is more valuable than money.  Hopefully, they will understand the value of entrepreneurship and leverage

4. Always demonstrate that money is a means to an end – not vice versa – and never the direct route to happiness!

5. Let them know that there is only one definition of success – following your passion and having that business or career be an authentic expression of who you are, good money, medium or barely getting by.  If not, you are in the rat-race, CEO – or not.

John Vellinga With Daughter Cassie

John Vellinga with his daughter Cassie

DAD.CEO: Some businesses have father-son/daughter day… have you brought your kids to work with you before? If yes, what was that experience like?

John Vellinga: Yes!  My daughter actually works for our company.  She took over the office cleaning duties from a rather sub-par supplier.  She does a really good job but sometimes is unreliable due to school and other commitments.  Our Office Manager reminds her that she has a job to do.  And that job might not be there unless she is able to meet all of her commitments.  She learns to get her ass in there are do her duty and balance her commitments.

My kids love coming to the office and doing homework at a desk or in the Conference Room.  Sometimes on weekends, they like to be there to do work or projects.  They like the energy of a work-place.

DAD.CEO: If you could mention one moment that you could go back and change, what would it be?

John Vellinga: As an entrepreneur, it would have been easier if one of us had a good and steady-paying job.  Maybe we should have done that?  Seems like a good idea that we both agree on.  Then again, look at everything else I said.  Maybe not.  We both had the advantages I spoke of earlier.

DAD.CEO: How do you bridge the gap between your generational thinking and your children in order to stay relevant and influence them?

John Vellinga: I bought them both turntables and a whole bunch of LPs.  They get it.

DAD.CEO: Do you feel that mothers who are CEOs have it harder at balancing their work/life duties than DAD CEOs?

John Vellinga: No question.

The first and most obvious thing is that only women can give birth.  That in and of itself is an 18-month commitment (minimum).  This makes it harder for women and creates a disruption in their careers.  Women are mothers.  Mothers seem to matter way more to young kids – and vice versa. It’s harder for women to tear themselves away from the workplace or put off their commitments to kids and family.   They also have a lot of leadership roles around the household that fathers have a hard time sharing in.

Having said that, women are sometimes mothers – or at least still have those feminine instincts.  These are instincts of nurture, leadership, and development that are crucial to being a good CEO.  Men need to learn these (or fake them).  Women seem more inclined to know them.  In so many ways, women are better and more naturally equipped to be a CEO than men are. But then are saddled with the biological necessity to be the ones who do it all for the rest of life.  So it’s tough without the right partner.

"I am in awe of them, quite frankly."

In subtler ways, my wife and I are changing roles in business. She is becoming CEO and I am becoming her support.  Our kids are now older.  I have noticed that kids get more into Dad when they get a bit older!  So, we now have the chance to change roles up a bit.  I hope that she will be one of your first interviews with MOM.CEO!


John founded Multiculture Bevco Inc. which wholly owns Zirkova Vodka available in Canada and the United States (New York State). He was the CEO until trading roles with his Wife Katherine who recently took over the responsibilities of Chief Executive Officer. John now serves the role of Chief Experience Officer (CEO).

John Vellinga With Wife Katherine Each Holding Up Zirkova Vodka Bottles

Dynamic Duo CEOs. John and Katherine Vellinga of Zirkova Vodka

John has 30 years of experience in a variety of industry sectors, including marketing, manufacturing, logistics, distribution, and retailing. In Canada, he has worked with leading companies such as P&G, Canadian Tire Corp, and General Motors. In 1997, he moved to Ukraine and was a founder and Managing Partner of Emergex Business Solutions (EBS), which has since grown into one of Ukraine’s largest private management consulting firms.

Since starting Zirkova, John has been a sought-after speaker on radio and television, including two appearances on Canada’s Dragons’ Den (investment show like Shark Tank) – for which he won a Viewers’ Choice Award – as the favorite pitch of seasons 4 and 5 as well as being voted on by the hit show’s TV audience. In 2014, John was nominated for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the year in Canada.

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