The Amazing Story of Hamdi Ulukaya – Successfully Impacting the World With Greek Yogurt

Hamdi Ulukaya

The actual day he was born is unknown – much like Jack Daniel before him. They were both born into farming families – but that is where the similarities stop, at least in their early lives. For one thing, Daniel was born in 1850 while for Hamdi, the year was 1972. Daniel was born in Moore County, Tennessee – Hamdi was born in Erzencan, a town near the Euphrates River in Turkey. Daniel was Christian – Hamdi was Kurdish. 

Hamdi’s family ran a dairy farm, which also raised goats and sheep. They led a partly nomadic lifestyle as they herded and grazed their flocks, but their primary business was making cheese and yogurt. That was the life that Hamdi knew as a child. 

In 1994, when he was 22, he moved to Long Island, New York to attend Adelphi University. This was a truly bold act – moving to a new country and a culture he knew nothing about. As if that weren’t enough, he didn’t speak a word of English. He didn’t let the fact that he was a non-English speaking immigrant to the United States hold him back. Instead, he was determined to live the American dream.

After he had moved to upstate New York in 1997, his father visited from Turkey. After sampling the cheese available locally, his father convinced Hamdi to import and sell their family’s cheese. Doing so proved so successful that Hamdi started his own feta cheese factory, naming the business Euphrates in honor of his roots.

Sometimes the Law of Left Field comes into play. Such was the case for Hamdi when, in 2005, he happened to notice an ad featuring an old yogurt factory for sale only about 100 kilometers from his cheese factory. The building had been owned and operated by Kraft Foods before its closing. Hamdi toured the property the next day and decided to buy the factory and start a yogurt business.

His lawyer’s reaction to the call announcing the decision was not surprising. “The property is in deplorable shape. What makes you think you’ll be successful when Kraft wasn’t. Oh, and by the way, you don’t have enough money for the purchase.” Hamdi charged forward.

It took five months, but by putting up 10% of the price, he was able to secure bank funding which was guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. He then brought a yogurt master, Mustafa Dogan, to the U.S. He also hired four former Kraft employees who spent most of their time painting, cleaning and repairing the factory. For eighteen months, Hamdi and Mustafa worked on creating the perfect yogurt, the type Hamdi grew up with back in Turkey. There would be no preservatives, no GMO, nothing artificial – ever. Finally he had the right recipe and went to market in 2007.

Hamdi made a lot of wise decisions. In a bold move, he would avoid the specialty stores in which similar yogurts were sold and sell only in mainstream supermarkets dairy departments. He was determined to go head-to-head with the sweeter, thinner American style products, even though his yogurt sold at a nearly 50% premium. 

Today, Hamdi’s Chobani is the third largest selling yogurt in the U.S. The company employs over 2,000 people with revenue estimated to be $746 million this year. The privately owned company is estimated to be worth between $3 and $5 billion. Hamdi himself is said to be worth $1.85 billion. While those numbers are impressive, the real story is that they are the result of the efforts of a truly fearless brand – Hamdi Ulukaya.

Fearless Brands drive a company’s success

Hamdi Ulukaya is a true rags to riches story – a beautiful example of the American Dream come to life. Ulukaya was selected from 47 global candidates to be the World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013, an award begun by Ernst & Young. Ulukaya was a candidate as the United States Entrepreneur that year. Many noted the irony of that award being won by a person who is not a United States citizen.

Ulukaya addressed those comments in the same transparent manner in which he discloses the ingredients in Chobani. “I had a green card which affords me all the opportunities of a citizen other than voting – including paying taxes, and I pay a lot of taxes.” He considers America his true home and attributes ‘laziness’ to his not becoming a U.S. citizen.

Hamdi Ulukaya is clearly driven to succeed in business. It is important to note that Hamdi Ulukaya believes in ‘giving back’ and making a positive impact in the world. Chobani donates 10% of its after-tax profits to various charities. Hamdi began “TENT”, an organization dedicated to helping to address the global refugee problem – one he has a keener understanding of than most. He has also signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

He sees his work force as family. He has always encouraged employees to participate in the 401K program – and frets about those who chose not to. This week he announced his plan to allocate 10% of Chobani’s ownership to the employees. In so doing, he has guaranteed financial security for employees and their families. 

Ulukaya is a unique individual – one from whom there is a great deal we can learn.

Be true to your vision – Hamdi is not free from doubters and naysayers. His ex-wife is suing him, his management capabilities are often questioned and he is an immigrant – a Turkish citizen. Through it all he has remained true to his vision, his purpose, and his commitment. That is to produce an all-natural, high quality product, to be transparent in business, to care about his employees, to remember his roots and to make an impact on the world. Those are certainly lofty objectives – goals which he’s achieving. Ask yourself if your actions are in synch with your vision. Ask yourself if you really know your purpose and whether or not you’re on track.

Give value – always – Be focused on others first – determine how you can best serve them. Chobani went from startup to a billion dollar business in ten years by focusing on providing value. Hamdi Ulukaya says “People have great taste. They just need great options.” He capitalized on that belief by offering consumers a better tasting product, made with total integrity and transparency. Be certain that your brand consistently delivers value. 

Do good – This concept may sound simple – even idealistic. Guess what? It is both. Hamdi looked beyond business, dollars and profits. He was determined to do good and does so in a variety of ways. The more good your brand can add to the world, the more valuable your brand becomes. The more valuable your brand, the greater are the rewards you will enjoy. 

Hamdi Ulukaya has achieved great things in business and in life. He has done so because he is a fearless brand – as is Jack Daniel. There are obvious differences between the two. One an American Christian the other a Turkish Muslim. One born inthe 19th century – the other in the 20th century. Whiskey versus Greek yogurt.

What is important is to focus on the similarities – the traits they have in common. Each had an unyielding commitment to creating the best tasting, highest quality product. Each created a business born from their family’s roots. Each built highly successful companies and neither had a formal business education. Each are fearless brands.

You too can be like Hamdi Uluyaka (and Jack Daniel). Learn from their success. Focus on the similarities between you and don’t get wrapped up in the differences. Embrace your vision and clarify your purpose. Combine passion with your talent and remain relevant. You too can enjoy the success you desire. 


Friday's Fearless Brand Personal Branding

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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