Hamdi Ulukaya built the best-selling yogurt brand in the US after arriving 23 years ago from Turkey. Today 30% of his employees are immigrants and refugees and he donates millions to refugee charities.
Ulukaya gave away a tenth of Chobani’s equity to his workers, making some of them into millionaires
Hamdi Ulukaya is a Turkish immigrant who popularised Greek-style yogurt in the US. He started in an old factory which dairy giant Kraft was selling off. With no business experience his Chobani brand yogurt eventually took off, and today the company is turning over more than $1 billion in annual sales. Last year Ulukaya gave away a tenth of Chobani’s equity to his workers in shares, effectively turning some of the longest-serving employees into millionaires, and Chovani is actively hiring immigrants and refugees.
A remarkable story from shepherd’s boy in Turkey to billionare philanthropist
Hamdi Ulukaya is proud of his Kurdish heritage, but when he was a young man he decided that a the life of a shepherd was not for him. Instead he sought out an education in America.
The 44-year-old, who is now renowned for his philanthropy, employs 2,000 people to make his trademark thick, creamy ‘Greekstyle’ yoghurt.
It has been a remarkable journey and he says he owes much of his success to techniques and tastes discovered during his time as a shepherd’s boy in the hills of northern Turkey.
"I feel like I have travelled a thousand years," says the man whose company Chobani is now responsible for 20 percent of all yoghurt sales in the US.
"My family would go up in the mountains with their sheep and goats. They would start in the early spring and go higher and higher up in the summer. When they got to the top, it was time to come back down again."
Hamdi, one of six brothers, was born in the mountains in the north of Turkey during one of his family’s treks and there’s no reliable record of the precise date. It was never his intention to settle in the US, but at university in Ankara he had run into trouble with the authorities who took a keen interest in his involvement with the Kurdish rights movement.
Though he’d done nothing wrong and has always disavowed violence, he feared for his safety and decided to flee Turkey. He arrived in New York in 1994 with £2500 (€2800/$3325) in his pocket and able to speak only a few words of English."I was extremely scared," says Hamdi, who studied English and took a business course. "I was aware that this was going to be very, very difficult. But I was also excited."
Within 5 years sales of Chobani reach $1billion with factory producing 2 million cases per week
In 2005, after a brief spell as a cheesemaker, Hamdi bought a bigger factory from the dairy giant Kraft, and branched out into thick Greek-style yogurt, claiming that the typical thin American yoghurt was "so horrible". Relying on traditional methods, he chose the brand name Chobani: the Turkish word for shepherd.
It took two full years to perfect the taste and consistency, achieving the thickness by straining the whey. He travelled to Greece and Turkey, sampling different types, and hired Mustafa Dogan, a "yoghurt master" from Turkey. He also forged links with big supermarkets who agreed to sell his yoghurt, and took Chobani products to festivals and other events in a small truck.
Within just five years of launch, annual sales of Chobani yogurt had reached a billion dollars and the factory, in the small town of New Berlin, was producing two million cases a week.
Every day 70 tankers of milk arrive there and the next step was a second plant – a £350million factory in Twin Falls, Idaho – creating hundreds of new jobs.
It’s all the more remarkable as yoghurt, made by adding live cultures to milk, is a relatively new addition to Western diets. Although a Middle Eastern staple, it arrived in Europe only in the 1920s and a few years later in the US.
In addition to rave reviews for his produce, which includes seasonal flavours such as watermelon and pink grapefruit, Hamdi also began earning a reputation for excellent employee relations.
He’s referred to by his first name by his workers and in 2012 selected five to accompany him on a trip to the London Olympics, which his company sponsored. Each Thanksgiving everyone gets a turkey and a bucket of feta cheese.
"You should have joy together," he states of his relationship with the workers. "We don’t make work a stressed place. We make it a fun place." He once gave his workers permission to punch him in the face if they ever felt he was getting too big for his boots.
Hamdi named World Entrepreneur of the Year by the accountant Ernst & Young in 2013
The generous philanthropist has already donated millions of dollars of his own money to help people fleeing Syria. Currently his employees come from 19 different countries and around 300 are former refugees. Last year he shocked the corporate world by giving 10 percent of his company to workers in the form of shares. For the longest-serving, they could be worth a million dollars.
In 2013 he was named World Entrepreneur of the Year by the accountant Ernst & Young.
Hamdi lives near the factory and there’s an office in New York. The company opened its first café in the city last year selling, of course, all manner of yoghurt. When asked to put a finger on the reasons for his success – Chobani even has a plant in Australia now – he says: "We say our yoghurt has to be delicious and it has to be nutritious. Yoghurt should be something that you can eat at any given day, any given time, without feeling guilty."
Before Chobani arrived on the scene, American yoghurts were typically full of preservatives and artificial ingredients. Hamdi also debunked the myth that sweet-toothed Americans would only buy yoghurts packed with sugar."I was always told yoghurt had to be sweet to appeal to Americans," he adds. "But when people go to Turkey or Greece, within 15 minutes of their return they start talking about how much they enjoyed the yoghurt there."
However, it has not all been entirely without controversy. In 2014 Chobani was forced to withdraw from the British market after falling foul of rules which prevent the yoghurt being described as ‘Greek’ when it’s not actually made in that country.