Back in 2005, Hamdi Ulukaya stumbled upon a classified ad for a yogurt plant recently closed down by Kraft. After initially ignoring the ad, Ulukaya had a gut feeling that he should at least visit the plant.
It’s a good thing he listened to his gut. Otherwise the story of his company, Chobani Inc., may be very different today. After seeing the plant Kraft had for sale, Ulukaya bought it on the spot and went to work perfecting the recipe for Chobani Greek yogurt based on his belief that everyone, regardless of income or location, deserved access to delicious, high-quality yogurt.
“I grew up with yogurt,” says Ulukaya, who is founder and CEO of the New Berlin, N.Y.-based company. “Being from Turkey, a big part of our diet was yogurt.”
It wasn’t just a gut feeling that made Ulukaya visit the plant, but it was also a gut feeling that Chobani would make it in the world of yogurt in retail.
“I didn’t analyze it too much,” he says. “It was nothing but a gut feeling. Everyone I knew that had a knowledge of business were looking at the category and at who was closing a plant, which was Kraft. Everyone who looked at the idea was against it.
“I would be convinced for a day by the people I talked to and then the next day I’d change my mind. The only thing I knew was there was a big opportunity in yogurt.”
Here’s how Ulukaya built a yogurt empire that has gone head-to-head with category veterans Dannon and Yoplait.
Keep the faith
Chobani began with the hiring of five employees. However, the initial employees, including Ulukaya himself, lacked the experience in launching a yogurt company.
“I built the company based on people, not with experience from before, but willing to learn and try anything,” he says. “We had a bunch of people that had never done this before. None of us had run companies. None of us had worked in high levels of companies. None of us were from Fortune 500s.
“Whatever you look for in people to bring them into a company — none of us had it. Most of the people came in from an entry-level position and now they’re leading departments. Chobani not only became a business that grew, but Chobani was like a school to us, including myself.”
With that mentality Chobani’s first yogurt hit shelves 18 months after Ulukaya bought the Kraft plant, and has since grown to become America’s No. 1 yogurt.
“It was not easy, but what we found out was what is seen and what is reality are two different things,” Ulukaya says. “The category was owned by two major companies. Dannon and Yopliat owned about 70 percent of the market, and they had been there for years. As a startup, you go to the specialty stores first. That’s how you start and you grow and once you reach a certain level then you go to the big retailers.”
Ulukaya didn’t want to do that. He wanted to go to the big retailers first and be in the regular dairy isle.
“That was a crazy idea and nobody thought that would go, but at least we tried,” he says.
“When we tried, we convinced one retailer in New York, ShopRite. The result from that was we were able to expand to a couple of other retailers. After the second or third customer that we had success with for our yogurt I knew it wasn’t going to be about selling — it was about making enough. So from that moment on I lived in the plant.”
Chobani has grown from five employees to almost 2,000 today. The company started out with one truckload of milk a day and now uses more than 4 million pounds daily. Its products are now available nationwide as well as in Australia, the UK and Canada.
Build a culture that breeds passion
Chobani’s success has been driven by Ulukaya’s passion, which earned him the title of EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 U.S., and subsequently, the 2013 World Entrepreneur Of The Year. That success has also been a result of Chobani’s culture of delivering the highest quality.
“We have a reason for doing what we are doing,” Ulukaya says. “We want to make an awesome product for everybody. We want to make it nutritious, delicious and accessible. While we are making it, we want to build things around it. We want to be a part of the community. We want to be places where we can make a difference. That gives people reasons to get together and do something awesome.”
As Chobani has expanded and its core team has grown-up, it’s been important to transfer that culture and belief to everyone else.
“That passion was so strong, and I think we are so connected to our business. I am personally so involved in the business, especially in the plants, that having those one-on-one conversations and being an example, not just preaching and putting things on the wall, but by living it and putting in hard work, affects us more,” he says. “We built Chobani on those qualities.”
Chobani has gone from nothing to $1 billion in five years. That kind of growth can be stressful, but Ulukaya enjoys what he does and that’s what pushes him forward.
“It has its highs and lows, because let’s face it, it’s not easy,” he says. “They asked Steve Jobs what was the most important thing in business and he said, ‘Passion.’ If you don’t have passion you would give up when things get difficult. We have so much passion and love for what we do that it becomes a part of our life. I personally don’t separate my personal life from my business, because I’m doing something that I love.”
Ulukaya calls that passion “The Chobani Way.” He doesn’t expect any of his employees to have to pretend they enjoy what they’re doing or act differently than who they are.
“I have never become different depending on whether I was involved in business or in my personal life,” he says. “You don’t have to pretend to smile. You come as you are and you just try to learn it. That became ‘The Chobani Way.’”
How to reach: Chobani Inc., (877) 847-6181 or www.chobani.com