Maria Bartiromo, USA TODAY1:39 p.m. EDT June 16, 2013
Hamdi Ulukaya stumbled on a dilapidated yogurt plant Kraft wanted to unload. The rest is Chobani history and a tale of American success.
Small business is the key to job creation in America. It is the engine for growth. So with the economy bouncing along the bottom, with 2% growth, I turned to one small-business owner who started with nothing but created a billion-dollar Fortune 500 business while creating thousands of jobs. He happens to be an immigrant who experienced the American dream. Hamdi Ulukaya came to America from Turkey with just a few thousand dollars in his pocket. He stumbled over an abandoned dilapidated yogurt plant that Kraft was looking to sell. And today, Chobani yogurt is the leading yogurt brand in the world and is a case study on what is possible in America. Our interview follows, edited for clarity and length.
Q: What can you tell us about the environment and business today? How are things going?
A: We're growing about 50% this year again, which is huge. We had very big growth in the early years, and the plant that we built in Idaho was helpful because we made all of our growth from our one plant in Upstate in New York. And we badly needed another plant. We are close to 3,000 people now. We are taking advantage of this coolness of Greek yogurt. And we have a duty to make sure that the consumer knows what to expect from Greek yogurt.
Q: Yours is an amazing expansion story over the last five years. And that first plant was the plant you stumbled over and acquired to begin the business. How did you do it?
A: We had the right product. And we had it in the right place. And I think we had the right approach, which was making a delicious, nutritious, natural and accessible product.
But what happened was I saw this ad for a yogurt plant for sale. It was in my junk mail pile and I threw it into the garbage can. And then about half an hour later, with the dirt on it, I picked it up from the garbage can and I called out of curiosity.
The ad had some pictures on it. And the next day I said, "I'll come and take a look at it." Until that moment, I never had planned to start a business. I had just had two years of hell with my small cheese company. And I didn't even have any type of financial strength to be able to buy anything, including a house. So I just went there out for curiosity. And when I left the plant, I started thinking I could do something with it.
And in the next two years, I thought about it and realized that this was going to be a Greek yogurt plant. This was going to be the cup size. This was going to be this delicious. I literally lived in the plant for 18 months to make that perfect cup. And then five years after, it just exploded. I did not have all the ideas right from the beginning. I just jumped in and learned the swimming right in there. I didn't have a business degree. I didn't have experience to work in somebody else's office. I never built or ran a department. So I was on this journey, and when the time came to make a decision I was just going with my gut. And I realized my gut was a combination of what I have learned from my family back home and
what I have witnessed here in America. And I think I had a good seed. And I found a great soil to make it a tree.
Q: You said that Greek yogurt has become cool. Why do you think so?
A: It became a great fun for people. It was a wow effect. When we launched Chobani in fall of 2007, the Greek yogurt market share in the United States was less than 1%. And today it is almost 60%. So we take quite a bit of credit for that. What we did was make it for everyone, and we made it delicious. And when people tasted it for the first time, this wow effect came in. People said, "Oh, I can't believe it's delicious. And it's different than what we were used to." Or, "I can't believe it's non-fat," or, "I can't believe it's got double protein." People would say, "Wow, I tasted this in Turkey or Greece when I visited there but never here." People got healthy with Chobani. Because in America, we eat way less Greek yogurt than the rest of the world does, especially in Europe and South America, and Canada. And this awesome, nutritious product is lacking in our diets.
Q: How do you see small business today, as far as funding and support?
A: I started my business with a small business administration loan. Without that, I could have never bought that old plant. These things help, and it works. But we can do better. There are a lot of studies about small businesses and how they make a difference in their community and create a lot of jobs and values. So we need to focus on small businesses or entrepreneurs who want to start manufacturing or making things. And there are hundreds of them. Entrepreneurship is seen as if you're in Silicon Valley or New York City and starting an app business or a social-media business, which is cool. But what we really have to focus on is people who make things, and how can we fund them, and how can we encourage people to stay in their community and make a difference in their community. Then they will open factories and stores for the next 10 years and 15 years and maybe 50 years. These are the businesses that create value and jobs.
Q: Are you hiring right now?
A: Absolutely...that old plant that we turned back to life opened four different other factories somewhere else because of the butterfly effect. So you open the Greek yogurt factory. Then somebody has to make a cup factory. Somebody has to make a foil factory. Somebody has to make a fruit factory. Then the farmers have to add more cows. Then the people have to work on the farms. Then the trucks have to go up to those factories. All of that contributes to billions and billions of dollars invested and thousands of jobs created.
Q: I love that they call you the Steve Jobs of yogurt. How does that make you feel?
A: I love it. He was one of my heroes.