Thursday, March 23, 2017

Biz: The Yogurt King

 -Fast Company

Hamdi Ulukaya never planned to move to America, much less start a yogurt business that would make him a billionaire. Things so easily could have been different. He might have gone into Turkish politics or the family cheese-making business, perhaps even married the hometown girl who his mother claimed would be perfect for him. He thinks about it a lot

Instead, Ulukaya got hauled in for questioning by the Turkish police one day, and his life went in another direction.
At the time, in the early 1990s, Ulukaya was studying political science at Ankara University. A Kurd who grew up raising sheep in the mountains of eastern Turkey, he had gravitated toward the contentious Kurdish-rights movement, attending demonstrations and publishing a politically minded newspaper.

 More than two decades later, Ulukaya was in Twin Falls, Idaho, recalling that fraught era. The founder and CEO of the multibillion-dollar yogurt business Chobani was at the largest of his company’s three manufacturing plants, where he had assembled senior staff to go over plans for the next year and beyond. Ulukaya is a quiet man with oversize features and a subtle magnetism that’s occasionally punctured by an endearingly goofy high-pitched laugh. Unlike many CEOs, he radiates more warmth than authority, and his manner is unhurried, even when his schedule is hectic (his schedule is always hectic).

 An aimless young anticapitalist immigrates to the U.S. simply because he needs a place to go, and through grit, determination, and eerie prescience about changing American tastes somehow builds a massive brand that eventually dominates the $3.6 billion Greek yogurt industry, besting international conglomerates such as Danone and General Mills. But Ulukaya has done more than that. He has begun to forge a new kind of business leadership, one that fuses competitiveness with an unusually strong sense of compassion

 In just the past year, he has launched a program to give away up to 10% of Chobani’s equity to his workers and instituted a generous six-week parental-leave policy. No unions or worker groups pressured him; he just decided on his own. He also employs more than 400 refugees, which is proving increasingly controversial in the Trump era. Ulukaya’s actions have brought both death threats and invitations to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where in January he challenged other business leaders to take more responsibility. “You have to lead by example,” he says. “Chobani can inspire a new way of business, a new way of work, a new way of innovation.” Despite his newfound wealth and prominence, the activist spirit of Ulukaya’s youth remains as strong as ever.

 At Chobani, “fast” is serious praise. Speed is both a guiding principle and key competitive advantage—a big part of how the company has, since it launched in 2007, muscled its way to more than 19% of the current overall yogurt market, hauling in some $1.5 billion in revenue in 2016. According to Nielsen, Chobani currently owns 36% of all Greek yogurt sales—a category that barely existed before Ulukaya came along and today accounts for 46% of yogurt purchases. Chobani now makes nine different product lines, including the popular Flips (yogurt with a “sidecar” of crunch-adding dry goods such as chocolate chips and nuts), along with several Mediterranean-style dips.

Ulukaya’s distinctive character has always defined how Chobani operates. Ask people who work closely with him, and they’ll tell you that there are effectively two Hamdis: the driven businessman out to obliterate his rivals, and the empathetic humanitarian. “I’m a shepherd and I’m a warrior,” he says when I ask about the two sides of his personality. “I come and go between those two. I’m a nomad, and nomads are the most real people. You can’t pretend.”
Working at Chobani means constantly toggling between each of these bosses. “He’s an emotion-driven guy,” says CMO Peter McGuinness. “He wants to grow the business and be a fierce competitor. But he’s got a giant heart and conscience and wants to do the right thing, regardless of market share, money, all that kind of stuff.”

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