Van Vlahakis, 79, an ecology-minded entrepreneur who manufactured and marketed environmentally safe cleaning products, including the best-selling ECOS laundry detergent, died April 6 at his home in Key Largo, Fla., his family said. The cause of death was a heart attack.
Vlahakis founded Venus Laboratories in the garage of his Chicago home in 1967. A decade later he changed the name to Earth Friendly Products and opened a headquarters and factory in Garden Grove, Calif.
With 300 employees and five manufacturing plants in the United States, the company topped $100 million in sales last year with biodegradable, chemical-free products sold online and in supermarkets and big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco.
Born on Crete on Jan. 14, 1935, Vlahakis immigrated to the United States in 1953 when he was 18; he had $22 in his pocket. He lived in homeless shelters and supported himself with odd jobs at bars and restaurants while attending Roosevelt University in Chicago. After earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1958, he found work in the cleaning products industry.
His first jobs exposed him to harsh chemicals that gave him headaches and caused co-workers to suffer from rashes and other irritations. Remembering that his mother used natural substances such as vinegar, olive oil and water for cleaning, Vlahakis decided to start his own business.
"I wanted to make something that was better for people, safer for the environment," he said last year.
His company has won awards for progressive business practices, including its use of renewable energy and offering employees financial incentives for buying hybrid or other green vehicles. The former poor immigrant also believed in providing a livable wage, paying workers at least $15 an hour.
His life was the basis for "A Green Story," a 2013 feature film with a cast that included Malcolm McDowell as a villain who tries to force Vlahakis to sell his company.