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Growing Bigger, Keeping it Real

Growing Bigger, Keeping it Real
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A TRUE interview with Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO and founder of Chobani

The Chobani journey—from the purchase of a decommissioned yogurt factory in Central New York to the No. 1 yogurt brand in the U.S. in less than five years—is by now a familiar saga of the entrepreneurship of its founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya. But after hitting $1 billion in sales last year and graduating from the ranks of upstarts, what’s next for the Greek yogurt sensation? Ulukaya talks to TRUE about his determination for the company to stick to its culture (pun intended).

TRUE: What is the biggest challenge for Chobani moving forward?

Ulukaya:  When we first started making Chobani, we didn’t face many competitors. Greek yogurt wasn’t mass market in America at the time, so we were able to spark something that was exciting and new here. We focused on making the best product we could and on bringing real food to more people. For a long time, others in the business almost ignored us, seeing us as a quiet, small shop. Now, they see us as something very different. We’re starting to see a more competitive market—and we’re ready for that. Competitors are trying to catch up and some are attempting to hop on the bandwagon with fake, inauthentic products. It’s a shame, really. We will focus on protecting the Greek yogurt category that we’ve built here in the U.S., showing consumers what is real and what is not.

TRUE: Chobani is up against some very established names in Greek yogurt, such as Dannon and Yoplait. How do you fend off such formidable competition?

Ulukaya: While we’re always focused on perfecting our product, it’s not just the quality of our yogurt that makes us different. Our heart and passion as a company will take us to the next level. We will stay true to who we are and we will continue to move quickly and thoughtfully. The advantage we have over some of our competitors is our nimbleness, our ability to adjust very quickly, our lack of corporate bureaucracy. For example, we just opened our Twin Falls plant, which is the largest yogurt manufacturing facility in the world, and we built it in just 326 days. That’s pretty awesome.

It is those two things—thoughtful decisions plus quick and brave execution—that make us who we are. None of that has changed or will change. We have the most passionate people who work incredibly hard to make Chobani a success— we can’t sleep because we are so excited with the possibility of everything we can do. We have amazing ideas and very few barriers to bring these ideas to life.

TRUE: Chobani has been able to establish a personal relationship with customers. How do you avoid losing that?

Ulukaya: Our approach with consumers and customers has always been to keep it personal. In the beginning, we didn’t have money for marketing and advertising— and Facebook was free. We quickly saw that our products were something that people loved to discover and share. So we started a conversation with our fans. I still check our Facebook daily to see what fans are saying about our product and read our customer service emails. You can’t ever lose sight of that feedback. You have to build the same kind of personal relationships with your retail partners. They’re a huge part of our story and success.

TRUE: What is the biggest change in how you approach your job today versus 3 to 5 years ago?

Ulukaya: I’ve never understood why things have to get harder, as a company grows. Our goal is to keep it simple. We actively think through how we can structure our processes, people and products in a way that avoids complexity.

I still spend a lot of time at our plants, particularly in Central New York. That is my home, and always will be. I still walk the plant floor on a regular basis, and if our plant employees have to work a holiday, I try to spend it there with them. It’s the little things that maintain our strong culture.

But now with offices and facilities in eight locations around the world, I have to put a lot of trust in my leadership team to continue and expand upon that tradition. We lead by example. I can’t be everywhere all the time, but I’ll never lose that connection with our employees— they are my family and the lifeblood of Chobani’s success.

TRUE: Will your mission as a company change in any way with your new size?

Ulukaya: We started Chobani to give people access to real, wholesome food, regardless of whether they lived in a big city or rural town. We will never deviate from this, no matter how big we get. We started with just five people, and five years later we are almost 2,500 employees strong. But despite this growth, we still make each cup of Chobani with only natural ingredients like milk, cultures and real fruit. We still painstakingly think through all our decisions—from our dairy farmer partners, to our fruit suppliers, to how our packaging looks on shelf. I’m a firm believer that if people see that even the smallest details matter, the rest will fall into place.

Our mission is still not accomplished. I don’t think we’re ever there. Yes, we’re the No. 1 yogurt brand in America, but we’re just getting started. The idea that we’ve made it or that we’re there doesn’t exist in our DNA. Every day we aim to do it better. And that’s what we’ll keep doing. Maybe that’s our secret.

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About the author

Hamdi Ulukaya grew up on a dairy farm near Erzincan, Turkey. After emigrating to the U.S., he followed his father’s advice and started a feta cheese company. In 2005 Ulukaya made a decision that changed his life: He bought a shuttered factory in Central New York and launched Chobani, now the best-selling yogurt in the U.S.

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