Chobani CEO Discusses his Business, Immigration and the Future of Food Retailing

Posted By Crystal Beasley

By Lisa Fu and Mollie Simon
Cox-SABEW Fellow, University of Georgia

NEW YORK – The founder and CEO of Chobani said he created the business from a bold, yet simple premise.

“I thought everyone deserved a perfect cup of yogurt,” Hamdi Ulukaya said, adding he was convinced that the yogurt style from his native Turkey would win consumers.

Speaking to reporters at an October conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, Ulukaya talked about staying close to his products and his people during a session moderated by MSNBC correspondent Ali Velshi.

Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, who started out making and selling feta cheese, recounted how he made a $700,000 bet in 2005 to buy a Kraft factory that had closed in upstate New York.  With a workforce that included five employees from the old facility, Ulukaya sold his first cup of yogurt in a Long Island grocery store about two years later.

“Where Kraft saw a dead factory, you saw a future,” Velshi said of Ulukaya’s gamble.

Today, Ulukaya has a net worth of $1.8 billion, according to Forbes. But, despite his wealth, he has worked to remember his roots, stay close to production, and give back to his employees. He said he grew up hating businesses and CEOs, but now sees how they can help people.

He said the practice creating employee-friendly companies is still alive in the United States, but he recognizes that you cannot go “so far that you disadvantage the marketplace.” He noted, for example, that he cannot get the math of retirement savings to work out for his employees.

Chobani made waves in April 2016 when Ulukaya announced the company’s 2,000 full-time employees would receive an ownership stake in the private company. His idea was to keep workers invested in what they were doing rather than spending money on more managers and productivity studies, Ulukaya said.

Velshi asked Ulukaya about one group of workers in particular–immigrants–and what he thought of the Trump administration’s attempts to curb legal immigration.

Ulukaya said conversations about immigration are important to have, but said he has strong views on the tradition of immigration in the U.S. because of his personal experiences. He said he believes immigrants are people who “come here and create things.”

But, creating things is not easy, and he acknowledged the challenges inherent in a food industry facing significant change.

Ulukaya outlined his predictions for the industry: smaller retail stores, more click and collect programs which allow for online ordering paired with in-store pick up, growth in delivery services, and a resurgence in individualized experiences.

“I see the milkman coming back,” Ulukaya said.

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