In accepting a recent award for World Entrepreneur of the Year, Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya observed that in growing the company, he never thought about how it was seen by others.
“We just kept busy in the factory doing what we do,” he said. “But being honored like this is special.”
The company, founded in South Edmeston in 2005, now brings in about $1 billion a year in sales.
Ulukaya was talking about being named the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Of The Year at a June 8 ceremony in Monte Carlo. It’s the most prestigious business award for entrepreneurs, according to the company media release. It encourages entrepreneurial activity among those with potential and recognizes the contribution of people who inspire others with their vision, leadership and achievement.
Selected from a group of more than 50 country-winners from across the globe for this honor, Ulukaya was recognized for his “disruptive innovation to bring wholesome food to the masses; regeneration of a long-stagnant category; financial success; and personal commitment to building a world-class brand,” according to a media release from Ernst & Young, a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services.
“I am deeply honored to receive this award from Ernst & Young and in the company of such amazing fellow business leaders from around the world,” Ulukaya said in the release. “What began as just my personal commitment to make delicious and nutritious Greek Yogurt accessible to everyone has turned into a 3,000-person-strong company serving three markets around the world. I look forward to our next 3,000 employees and sharing our food philosophy with even more consumers as we expand into new markets.”
Chobani communications manager Lindsay Kos said the company was founded in 2005 when Ulukaya noticed a former Kraft yogurt plant was for sale in South Edmeston. With the help of a Small Business Administration loan, he bought it and started with five employees, bringing a yogurt master from Turkey. They worked on the formula recipe for 1½ years to perfect it. Today the produce is the top selling Greek Yogurt in United States and is sold in the United Kingdom and Australia. in 2012 sales were about $1 billion.
Ulukaya came to the United States from Turkey in 1994 to study business. He said the yogurt he found here was full of sugar and runny — nothing like what was available in Turkey — and he saw a need to fill. But unlike the other Greek yogurt that was available, he pushed retailers to stock in the main dairy aisles. He was focused on big-name retailers, which paid off.
One of those who met Ulukaya when he first bought the Kraft plan was Betsey Baio, who owns New York Pizzeria in nearby New Berlin with her husband Frank.
“We got to be very close in those early days,” she said. “It’s like having a friend who won the lottery.” When he comes into the restaurant, “he’s still just Hamdi. He hasn’t changed.”
His company has been very generous with donations to hospitals, YMCA, even the Jewish Temple in Norwich when it was vandalized, she said, adding there doesn’t seem to be an event in the area that he doesn’t sponsor. His employees are also very involved in the community, Baio said.
She met Ulukaya when he first bought the plant.
“I thought he would go bankrupt, and I would have to console him,” she said, and didn’t know how he was going to get his product to the market. But she didn’t realize how talented he was, she said.
“He has a gift for picking the right people for his management team. He surrounds himself with great people,” she said. “These people are so loyal — together they make it happen.”
In 2011, the company broke ground on a new plant at Twin Falls, Idaho, needed to meet the demand of the top-selling Greek yogurt in America. While there is worldwide potential, Chobani is committed to growing current markets, particularly the United States where per capita consumption is lower that in other areas, particularly Europe and Canada, Kos said.
Despite the expansion, “we are committed to South Edmeston,” where $250 million was spent to develop the plant, which today employs 2,000 people.
“This is our home,” she said, adding that only time will tell how much more Chobani can grow at that location. With that growth, inevitably comes some growing pains in the rural communities, Kos said. Whether it involves concern about water usage or traffic, “we are always listening to concerns and trying to be good partners,” including attending community meetings.
The company’s commitment to the community is also shown through donations from the Shepherd’s Gift Foundation, which distributes 10 percent of the company’s profits worldwide, Kos said.
As a privately held firm, the profit total is not released, Kos said. But since it became official in 2010, the foundation has donated to over 50 organizations especially around central New York, to such places as YMCA’s, schools and even building a Little League field in New Berlin.