Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Chobani

Hamdi Ulukaya

Hamdi Ulukaya. Photo: US Department of Homeland Security. Public Domain

Hamdi Ulukaya is the creator and CEO of Chobani, one of the most popular and well-known yogurt brands in the world. Ulukaya, who was born in Türkiye in 1972, emigrated to the US in 1994 in order to study English and gain business knowledge. He bought a modest yogurt factory in upstate New York in 2005 and started making Chobani yogurt, which has subsequently gained popularity in the US and abroad.

Hamdi Ulukaya had a difficult road to success. He had to overcome many obstacles, such as a lack of money, cultural disparities, and resistance from the US dairy sector. But he overcame these challenges and founded one of the most prosperous food companies in the world thanks to his tenacity and love for producing a high-quality, healthy product.

Background and Early Years of Hamdi Ulukaya

In a small hamlet in eastern Türkiye, Hamdi Ulukaya was born into a Kurdish family. His parents were wandering shepherds who lived in the lowlands in the winter and the mountains in the summer. Ulukaya grew up in a tent and did not start going to school until he was eight years old. Despite his modest upbringing, Ulukaya was a smart, inquisitive boy who cherished education. Languages piqued his interest, and he used the radio to teach himself English.

Ulukaya immigrated to US at the age of 22 to pursue a degree in English at Adelphi University in New York. He did various jobs to make ends meet, such as dishwashing and cab driving. Also, he enrolled in business classes where he started studying the US food sector and economy.

Ulukaya’s father called him in 2002 and requested that he return to Türkiye to assist with the family’s feta cheese business. Ulukaya spent several months studying the process of manufacturing cheese after returning to Türkiye. He soon discovered, however, that there was little room for expansion because Türkiye’s feta cheese business was already fully developed. He made the decision to go back to the US and look into a fresh business venture.

Founding of Chobani

In upstate New York, Ulukaya acquired a tiny yogurt factory from Kraft Foods in 2005. He recognised an opportunity to produce a superior, nutrient-dense yogurt with a thick, creamy texture that was manufactured entirely of natural ingredients. His new business was called Chobani, which is Turkish for “shepherd,” and he started making yogurt the old-fashioned way, just like he had learnt in his father’s cheese factory.

Hamdi Ulukaya wanted to make a product for Chobani that was both delicious and nutritious. He thought that yogurt was the perfect American cuisine since it was high in protein, low in fat, and portable. Additionally, he intended to develop a product that all Americans, not just the wealthy, could afford and use. In his opinion, the US yogurt market was ripe for disruption.

“For years, I had asked why yogurt was so bad here. I was always told yogurt had to be sweet to appeal to Americans,” Ulukaya told Inc. “But when people go to Türkiye or Greece, within 15 minutes of their return they start talking about how much they enjoyed the yogurt there.”

At the beginning, Ulukaya had to overcome many obstacles for Chobani. Because his product was more expensive than competing yogurts on the market, he had to persuade shops to stock it. The cultural contrasts between the American and Turkish dairy businesses were another obstacle he had to overcome. But, within five years of launching the business, Ulukaya told Entrepreneur that Chobani could be found “in every major supermarket, in club stores, convenience stores and airports”. At that point, the company began struggling to keep up with demand.

Despite these difficulties, Ulukaya overcame them with his zeal and tenacity. He put in a lot of overtime and contributed all of his savings to the business. He also consulted with other business owners and authorities in the food sector, such as Gary Hirshberg, the creator of Stonyfield Farm, and David Barber, the proprietor of Blue Hill Farm.

According to Crunchbase, Chobani raised $750m in funding through a debt financing in 2014.

Success and Influence of Chobani

Hamdi Ulukaya’s dedication to excellence and emphasis on innovation are responsible for Chobani’s success. He listens to staff feedback and comments from clients and experiments frequently with different flavours and ingredients. The company has also begun to introduce non-dairy alternatives in the line-up.

The US food sector has been significantly impacted by Chobani. By releasing a premium, all-natural product at a competitive price, the firm has challenged the traditional yogurt market. Other food businesses have been motivated by it to concentrate on health and wellness and develop goods that are affordable for all people.

Chobani has had a favourable effect on all the areas in which it conducts business. The business has invested millions of dollars and thousands of jobs in the upstate New York economy. In addition, it has contributed millions of dollars to charities that support refugee aid, famine relief, and education.

Chobani benefits from a lower net operating profit after-tax margin than most of its competitors. It consistently generates over $1bn in revenue. In 2022, company put plans for an IPO on hold, citing unfavourable market conditions. Instead, it will focus on the strong execution habits that have helped to make it a household name while continuing to drive profitable and sustainable growth.

Philanthropy and Social Justice Work by Ulukaya

In addition to being a successful businessman, Ulukaya is a passionate supporter of social justice. He established the Tent Foundation in 2016, a non-profit that aids refugees all over the world. The foundation collaborates with businesses and governments to provide refugees with employment possibilities and the assistance they need to start over in their new life. He’s also a signatory to the Giving Pledge, underscoring his commitment to donate the majority of his personal wealth.

Ulukaya’s leadership at Chobani also demonstrates his dedication to social justice. The business is very dedicated to sustainability, and it has taken several steps to lessen its impact on the environment. With workers from more than 20 different nations, it also has a diverse and inclusive staff.

The Leadership Style of Hamdi Ulukaya

Honesty, humility, and passion define Ulukaya’s leadership style. He is renowned for taking a hands-on approach and being eager to collaborate with his staff. He has also received accolades for his dedication to give his staff the flexibility to innovate and take chances.

“Just about anyone can make a good product, but it’s the people that count,” Ulukaya said. “In the end, it’s the employees who will take it from a kitchen-table idea to the next level. There are a lot of important things in business, but the people portion comes first.”

Hamdi Ulukaya has initiated a profit-sharing program for Chobani employees and makes a point to recruit and support immigrants and refugees. Nearly a third of Chobani were born outside the US. Ulukaya has also launched an incubator for food startups.

“You can call it social entrepreneurship, you can call it whatever you call it. If you create an environment where everyone is passionate, equally recognised, the product is making changes in people’s lives, the community is benefiting, in the end, it makes things a lot easier. You sleep better; have fewer meetings, motivational speakers and bosses. From the profit-making perspective, it’s the smartest thing to do,” Ulukaya told Forbes. “In my opinion, business — the motivation of creating wealth and value — is good, there’s nothing wrong with it. While I’m doing this, I’m making an impact on peoples’ lives in a positive way, so it’s win-win for everybody.

“Business is the biggest force that can make a difference in people’s lives. It’s not an NGO, just a business; the only difference is the consciousness.”

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