Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkey-born Kurdish immigrant to the United States, began his multi-billion dollar yogurt company Chobani in 2005 after seeing a newspaper advertisement for the sale of an old yogurt factory. Ulukaya, who owned a feta cheese company not far from the yogurt factory’s location, was familiar with the dairy business and proceeded to buy the yogurt factory – against the advice of his business advisor and attorney. This factory was, at the time, over 80 years old and had been a former Kraft Foods factory before its closing and subsequent sale to Ulukaya.
Ulukaya decided to revamp the abandoned factory and hired a few former Kraft employees to help him re-paint and restore the factory to proper working conditions. Drawing largely from his Turkish culture, Hamdi began work on his own version of Greek yogurt (also called strained yogurt) with the intention of creating a less sweet, thicker version of traditional American yogurt. After nearly two years of development and testing, Hamdi was satisfied with his results and began preparation for official production. His first major step towards his company launch was a trip to Wisconsin to purchase the milk-separator machine necessary for Greek-style yogurt production; a trip during which the name ‘Chobani’ (derived from çoban, the Turkish word for shepherd) came to him.
After changing his company’s name and establishing the initial first few flavors (plain, strawberry, vanilla, peach, and blueberry), Ulukaya focused on creating strong visuals for his brand, which was the reasoning behind his now iconic bowl-like shaped containers. Hamdi, having grown up in a rural, dairy-farming community, wanted to focus on creating a yogurt that was preservative free and contained no artificial coloring or flavors. Unlike many other yogurt manufacturers, Chobani creates yogurts that do not contain gelatin (which is made using animal products) and are therefore safe for vegetarian and plant-based consumers. In 2009, two years after its first launch in 2007, Chobani products hit major U.S. warehouse stores and began its steady ascent to its current position as the number one selling Greek-style yogurt company in the U.S.
Hamdi Ulukaya, now aged 46, arrived in the United States in 1994 to study English at Adelphi University and is now the founder, owner, chairman, and CEO of a $5BN company. Having arrived with only $3,000USD, Hamdi was unsure of his future and relied heavily on his resilience and determination to open his first company and then eventually launch Chobani. Many of the challenges he faced initially helped him develop business strategies, such as collaborating with bloggers and online personalities, that helped to build his business without the traditional advertising funding or investors that many other companies rely on.
Hamdi Ulukaya has been heralded by business organizations and companies for his unique approach to paying his staff and factory workers (Chobani has an average employee payout of $150,000USD a year) and credits his generosity to his working-class upbringing. Despite his hefty net worth, which falls at $1.7BN, Ulukaya has committed to building a company that cares about its consumers and its employees, a trait that many successful business owners lose as they gain success. Arriving in the United States as a simple Turkish-Kurdish immigrant, Hamdi Ulukaya has built his company into something many could never have imagined he would – the true definition of the ‘American dream’.