In 2005, Hamdi Ulukaya purchased an old yogurt factory in upstate New York that had previously belonged to Kraft. Two years later his business, called Chobani, sold its first yogurt.
Today, Chobani is worth billions and has filed to go public.
The brand wouldn’t be where it is today without the leadership of Ulukaya, who grew up as a farmer’s son with no business background.
His leadership style, which includes hiring refugees, ignoring language barriers, and putting people first, has been crucial for his success.
Ulukaya is the CEO, owner, founder, and chairman of Chobani. A Turkish immigrant, he came from a family of nomadic sheepherders. In a New York Times interview, he recounts going up the mountains with animal herds to make yogurt and cheese and then returning to the village in winter. What he most treasures about this time is the sense of community and safety.
Later in his life, he went to a boarding school that prepared its students to become teachers, but he never finished. Instead, he decided to go to Europe until he was approached by a stranger who suggested he go to America instead. So he decided to go to university, and by 1994 he arrived in the U.S. with $3,000 in his pocket and a small bag.
In 2002 he got his start in the American food industry following his father’s advice to begin in the feta cheese business. However, he was not happy. He thought he would go out of business every day, and it worried him. One day, he saw an ad for a fully equipped yogurt plant and got a good feeling. He called his lawyer and bought the factory.
In a recent interview with Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast, Ulukaya explained that when he bought the factory, he realized accessing quality food was still tricky. The industry is separated into two worlds: regular and specialty. There are big brands, which are affordable but perhaps lower quality, and specialty, which are more expensive and often unrealistic for the masses.
Ulukaya had the idea to make quality food to feed to his children and sell it on the mass market. Less than five years after purchasing the yogurt factory in 2005, the company achieved over $1 billion in annual sales, according to Bloomberg. By 2011, it became the leading U.S. yogurt brand.
As CEO and founder, Ulukaya always puts people and their communities first, which builds positive relationships between the company and the people.
Ulukaya told Fortune that the CEO playbook is broken. Growing up a farmer’s boy from a rural part of Turkey, he saw the ugliness of the irresponsibility of business. He describes the distance between the leaders and the community as a big crack.
Ulukaya doesn’t have a traditional CEO background; he didn’t go to business school and had limited experience in the business world.
But when Kraft left its factory, he saw an opportunity and took it. After buying the factory, he turned it around by working with people side by side.
When Chobani opened a new factory in Idaho in 2011, Ulukaya went to the state before breaking ground to speak with the farmers directly about what they needed from businesses, according to Worth.
In 2016, the New York Times also reported that Ulukaya surprised his full-time employees by giving them ownership stakes based on how long they had worked there. He attributes the success of Chobani to the strength of its team.
By 2019, Ulukaya’s net worth was $2 billion. The same year, Inc. magazine named him one of the most important entrepreneurs of the past decade. By 2020 the company was earning $1.5 billion in annual revenue and distinguished itself as a champion of good business, according to Bloomberg.
Chobani also raised the hourly wage for employees to $15 per hour in 2020, which is more than double the federal minimum wage, according to Forbes.
Early on, something that distinguished Ulukaya as a leader was that he shared his authority to better empower the people around him. The difference between the people who left the yogurt plant and Ulukaya is that those who left didn’t see people, whereas Ulukaya arrived because he did.
Ulukaya followed the teaching of Persian philosopher Rumi, who said that there is hope for a treasure where there is ruin. This translated into his life because while Kraft left the factory as a ruin, Ulukaya saw it as a treasure. He saw a community and people he could trust.
The CEO built Chobani on the pillars of trust and acceptance. In upstate New York, diversity was once rare in the little town where the factory is located. However, after Ulukaya arrived and created Chobani, he started hiring immigrant workers who would come to work from Utica. While all these people had different backgrounds, he believed that there wouldn’t be social clashes among them and that the community would accept them.
He believes that while refugees have helped the company grow, the company has also impacted their lives, because the moment that you can stand on your own two feet and provide for your family is when you stop being a refugee. Once people get to know each other and learn from each other, they appreciate each other and what they have.
In 2016, Ulukaya founded the Tent Partnership for Refugees after signing the Giving Pledge to help end the global refugee crisis. The partnership is made up of around 200 multinational companies such as American Express, Airbnb, Bain & Company, Coca-Cola, Doordash, EY, FedEx, Ikea, and Twitter, who are all committed to including refugees. Member companies come from different industries such as technology, consumer goods, professional services, etc.
To date, members of the partnership have pledged to hire more than 39,000 refugees, support more than 5,000 refugee entrepreneurs, and tailor products for more than 144,000 refugee customers.
According to Worth, an estimated 30% of Chobani’s workforce is made up of refugees and immigrants. The CEO has looked past language barriers. According to its website, the company has also volunteered more than 24,000 hours, donated more than 55 million of its products to feed families and communities in need, and given more than 175 grants.
Today the company is the No. 1 selling strained yogurt brand in the country and has expanded into making other products like oat milk, plant-based coffee creamers, dairy, probiotic drinks, and coffee. Ulukaya wants to keep the company the way it has been, focusing on the community, the society, and the food produced, bringing healthy ingredients into people’s lives.
Looking ahead, he wants to make his company have a more significant impact but keep it the way it has been. In July 2021 the company filed for an IPO on the Nasdaq as CHO. Reuters has reported that its valuation could exceed $10 billion.
Chobani has said it plans to use the proceeds of the IPO to pay debt and reorganize its corporate structure.
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