Exclusive: Chobani CEO on TPG’s mega-investment
FORTUNE — Hamdi Ulukaya has built Chobani into a $1 billion-in-sales company in just five years, erecting his first manufacturing plant for less than $1 million with a Small Business Administration loan. He has a little more firepower for Chobani’s next phase of growth, a $750 million investment from private equity firm TPG Capital announced this week.
In an exclusive interview with Fortune, Ulukaya, Chobani’s CEO and founder, says the TPG alliance will provide him not only with money but guidance and sophistication as he seeks to expand internationally and into new product lines. “You need a different team now than you did three years ago,” Ulukaya says. “It’s a different business.” (TPG will take two board seats.)
Ulukaya declined to discuss the details of the arrangement with TPG, but a person close to the proceedings said that the deal, while structured like a loan, comes with warrants for TPG that can be converted into equity — the amount of which is dependent on certain performance goals.
Ulukaya says that an IPO, while not likely to happen in the next year, is probably the company’s next act rather than taking on any additional outside investors.
The abundance of parties interested in taking a stake in Chobani (he declined to name them) let him be very picky, Ulukaya says. But TPG was the right fit for the yogurt maker. “It’s a company that has a reputation for working well with fast-growth companies,” says Maggie Wilderotter, chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications and a Chobani board member. “It’s also good with founders and entrepreneurs.”
The TPG deal is just the latest step in Chobani’s attempt to professionalize. It recently made some big hires, such as chief marketing and brand officer Peter McGuinness, previously CEO of DDB Chicago, and CFO Dipak Golechha, a former Procter & Gamble executive. The company advertised during the Super Bowl and sponsored the U.S. Olympic team.
Chobani’s rise hasn’t been without its stumbles, such as a recall of moldy yogurt in the fall. Another hiccup: Ulukaya’s ex-wife Ayse Giray is suing him, claiming a stake in the company. (“I don’t worry about that at all,” he says.)
While the dominant player in Greek yogurt, Chobani is facing an increasingly crowded market. Greek yogurt now makes up more than 50% of the yogurt space, up from less than 1% when Ulukaya started his company. Chobani is starting to roll out new products that could help further differentiate it from its competitors. New offerings include Greek yogurt mixed with oats, a dessert product, and a line for kids. “Innovation is big,” Ulukaya says. The company tested many of the products in Chobani’s café in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood before launching them.
The TPG capital will help fund Chobani’s new products and international growth into markets like Asia and South America — the company just started exporting to Singapore, Malaysia, and Panama.
Chobani’s success has fed off the increased demand for natural and healthy products. “The brand reminds people to be good to themselves,” Ulukaya says. It is an idea he wants to tap into as he looks beyond yogurt. “We’re not a yogurt company,” Ulukaya stresses. “We’re a food company.” He believes Chobani will eventually do for other product segments what it did for yogurt — transform a category that’s “lousy, not delicious, and not natural.” “It’s the biggest business opportunity ever,” he says, “because the world is changing and everybody wants to have better food in their stores.”