Chobani’s Anti-CEO Is a Pro-Employee Billionaire in Expansion Mode

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Fifteen years ago, the Chobani founder bought a shuttered dairy factory and began making Greek-style yogurt. His privately held company now earns more than $1.5 billion in annual revenue—all while distinguishing itself as a champion of Good Business. Here, Hamdi Ulukaya explains his magic formula to Bloomberg Businessweek Editor Joel Weber.

Joel Weber: Hamdi, you’re a Turkish Kurd who came to the U.S. and became a billionaire selling Greek yogurt to Americans. What other food could have taken you on such a journey?

Hamdi Ulukaya: I cannot imagine anything that could replace the magic of yogurt, which transcends cultures and lands. Tea, maybe?

And what is it about yogurt?

I go back to my childhood in Turkey. That’s where this journey started. It didn’t matter if you were poor or rich, you couldn’t imagine a table without yogurt. It’s something that represents equality, nature, nutrition. I always missed it when I got here—living in upstate New York, I always thought, “Where is that yogurt? It can’t be so hard to make.” And I was also sad that such a simple food was absent on kitchen tables here in the U.S.

This has been such a challenging year. What lessons have guided you?

That life is fragile. That we could make long-term plans but, you know, life brings surprises—some good and some not so good. That human fundamentals are what matter most, and sometimes we don’t talk about it. We don’t acknowledge it—it’s just there. And I think this pandemic brought a consciousness to those fundamentals. In business, fundamentals are, for us, the culture. And you don’t build cultures for defensive reasons. You do it because that’s the way you want to live. But it turns out, the most powerful engines during this time are these unspoken rules. This motion just takes over, and everything operates.

Chobani got its start with a loan from the Small Business Administration. What more should the U.S. be doing right now to support small businesses?

I think every effort. Whether you believe in government help or not, [we need to] do everything to keep these places open and help them through this pandemic. We shouldn’t be shy about it—we should be all for it. Small businesses are the engine for the economy: They become tomorrow’s large companies and innovators. And they are devastated. We as consumers, we have to be conscious of that and act accordingly. Buy locally, buy locally online, and show up—go to your local stores.

In the past decade, America has lost thousands of small dairy farms. The economics are just awful; the suicides of dairy farmers have been especially troubling. How can we help the industry and these vulnerable farmers?

I grew up on a farm, and I worked on a farm when I arrived here. Seeing that small farmers, many of them multigenerational, are going through this—it’s heartbreaking and alarming. So what happens? They close down. And then what happens? Some of the farmers, they get larger.

A lot of farmers do this work not because it’s profitable; they do it because they love it. They do it because that’s what they learned from their fathers, their grandmothers. It’s a tradition they hold and advance, and they exist in these places where hard work is essential and respected.

At Chobani, we know we also have to make conditions on the farms align with today’s and tomorrow’s consumers. We started Milk Matters about a year ago, drafting a coalition with farms, universities, and fair trade where tomorrow’s farms and farm conditions can be designed. Otherwise, we are moving forward with these really tough conditions, and that would be bad for society.

Chobani’s Anti-CEO Is a Pro-Employee Billionaire in Expansion Mode

Between upstate New York, where Chobani started, and Idaho, where you’ve expanded, you have intimate relationships with rural America. What do you want others to know about these communities they might be missing?

Whatever success we have experienced, I give all the credit to these communities. That’s where the magic happens. My story started with a closed factory in a small upstate town. The men and women I work with at Chobani have a human spirit that is something I cannot put a value on. And I’ve always said: Close your eyes. Put your finger on a map. Pick a town where you haven’t been, and go there—start whatever you want to start. I guarantee you will be blown away with your journey.

In a TED Talk you gave last year, you talked about the anti-CEO, a noble leader who puts his employees before anything else. How has that idea evolved since?

The pandemic has just made it very clear. The men and women we work with are the reason we exist. Looking back at the year, Chobani broke all the records we had in the past, even though the conditions are completely different. The pandemic showed us that investing in our people, in their families, that thinking of them in the whole picture, is not an expense.

How soon do you think we’ll see a $15-an-hour minimum wage at the federal level?

I don’t know about the federal level. There are states who will lead this and shape this. To me, we as companies have responsibilities to do these things; we cannot let the government decide. There were times we needed that, but it’s now our responsibility. The numbers are very clear. It’s impossible to make a living, even with $15. So no matter what happens on the federal or state level, we have to do what’s right, which is to bring the minimum wage to at least $15.

Something like 30% of Chobani’s employees are immigrants and refugees. What do you hope to see from the incoming Biden administration on the immigration front?

I’m an immigrant. I came here 25 years ago. And this is what we know America’s all about. It’s this place where you can come and be part of the dream. I think what America has is a magic. That whoever you are and whatever your background, if you have the right intentions and an imagination, and you obey the law, you can reach your dream and be accepted as who you are. This is what America’s all about. If we care about society as a whole and this country as a whole, we should preserve what this country’s been about for all its existence.

If you could persuade hundreds of business leaders to make one change, what would it be?

Hire refugees. We have created a coalition of 140 large organizations around the globe, all of us trying to help this vulnerable human population—millions of people who are just looking for an opportunity to be part of something. And this isn’t charity, it’s a business practice. We ask companies to be part of social issues: Your responsibility is not only to make money for your shareholders, but to all stakeholders. Where we are going the role of business is very clear. I think the question is how. How do I get involved with this new kind of operating the business? Simple. Just make the first step. We can make an impact in society really fast.

Millions of Americans have become food-insecure this year. What can we do?

We’ve always partnered with food banks, which are amazing, as are their volunteers. But today, you’re looking at the cars that are driving to these food banks and the type of people that are coming into the food banks, and it’s like, “Whoa, we have a major issue on our hands.” You know, keeping schools open—don’t forget: A lot of kids, that’s where they get their only meals of the day. So access to good, nutritional food is an essential topic here. We’ve tried to do our part during the pandemic by sending a truckload of yogurt every single day to a food bank around the country. No one in this country should go hungry. We need to remove this from our society once and for all, and especially for our children. I think this is a topic where we all can get together, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat.

I want to go back to 2005, when you bought a dairy factory but didn’t yet know you were going to start Chobani, or even make yogurt. What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

Not knowing much at the time actually worked for me. Sometimes we crowd our minds with too much information. And at the time, I had a gut feeling. Our experience and resources were so limited. But we had a big dream, and that dream was mixed with passion, love, and—I’ll be honest—anger. Why was this place being abandoned by business?

When I look back, I always try to see if I am too distanced from that person who started that place, who got on the factory floor to work shoulder to shoulder every day. Not to make so much money, but to bring the dream alive—to fix this place so we can fix ourselves.

When you look at yogurt, there’s Before Chobani and After Chobani. Consumption, especially of Greek yogurt, has increased dramatically. And it shows that any category can be upended quickly. What advice do you have for Davids fighting Goliaths?

One thing people don’t realize in food is it’s not the product idea that’s important. It’s in the fundamentals of operation. I personally believe, at Chobani, we are all factory workers. I am a factory worker before I’m anything else. Our plants are the core of what we do. People don’t see that, they think it’s just cute-looking ads and cups. But the retailers are going to ask you, “Can you deliver?” In a way, we are an operations company.

My advice to food people is, No. 1, product—you have to have a product, or at least a vision of a product. And No. 2, pay attention to the fundamentals, operations, and food safety.

I started Chobani Incubator to bring food startups and entrepreneurs a similar mindset, to show them that this is not a big deal. What’s most important is what’s in you—how you see the world and how big you dream. And if I was talking to myself in the beginning, this is what I would have loved someone to tell me: Pay attention to your people, your product, and food safety. And have a good financial partner in place aligned with your view of the world.

Unfortunately, a lot of amazing startups and good food companies who could make a massive impact on the food system end up being in the hands of large corporations. So what I say to entrepreneurs is pick partners aligned with your views. Either make money and move on, or go for something more long-term. Chobani has gone through maybe three, four, five stages already. Where we are today is more like an established corporation without being too big or too slow, yet with resources and capabilities, so we can innovate and move forward and produce and deliver.

Chobani’s portfolio has grown recently—nondairy products as well as a big push with probiotics. What’s the most challenging aspect of expansion?

I think the challenge is know-how. Do you know about this? Do you know what you want to do? What about the market? And there’s new competition.

What is the biggest challenge to companies like Chobani is having discipline around why you innovate. Because ideas come from all over the place. And there’s this stigma: If your brand is loud, then you can put your brand on anything and it will sell. And that’s the worst thing you can do.

You need to be connected to why you innovate. What kind of solution are you going to offer? And why is that aligned with what you believe and what you want to do? What we want to do is go from category to category and say: Is this a good category? Is this good for people? And how can I make it better? Food should make you feel good. Food should remind you to be good to yourself.

How big of an opportunity is probiotics?

I don’t know. But every cup of yogurt we’ve ever produced had hundreds of billions of probiotic counts. We never talked about it; we just made sure the yogurt had it. And we got better and better at it, and now we know more. Personally, I believe that taking care of the gut can prevent illnesses and conditions. It’s food as medicine, and I think probiotics plays a massive role. The science is catching up.

How were you able to innovate in a pandemic?

It’s been crazy. I’m very close to the product. We connect over Zoom, we send samples to each other. I think that’s what makes us very unique, that we are really all about the product. And we are very lean. We don’t have a lot of hierarchy.

I’m pretty amazed how on innovation, production, sales, distribution, and also doing good in the community, how well the team has performed. It’s amazing. And on top of it, my responsibilities have never been this few, ever. So the team has actually taken over and does these things by themselves.

You have some side businesses—Euphrates feta cheese, which predates Chobani, and La Colombe Coffee Roasters. How involved are you?

I have a very emotional connection to Euphrates, because that’s where I started everything. They do a lot better than what I did back then. It’s making what it’s making, and they do a great job. I love La Colombe, and I see myself more like an investor, or a partner to the founders, Todd [Carmichael] and J.P. [Iberti]. I’ve always loved what they do and how they do it. I think it holds a seed that could [reshape] the category in a very dramatic way. They just take their time, because there’s no rush. They just want to make things right. But I don’t get involved too much.

If you weren’t in the food business, what would you be doing?

First, I would have loved to be a soccer player. I was good at it. And I love the game. Otherwise I think I would have been associated with farms somehow, something close to nature.
 
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