Leadership Lessons from a Yogurt Guru

Posted on Mar 10, 2014 by

Have you heard of Chobani yogurt?  If not, maybe you don’t spend much time in the yogurt aisle.  You see, Chobani has rapidly grown into a bona fide player (2011 sales are expected to top $700 million) and is now #3 among all yogurt brands, behind behemoths Yoplait and Dannon.  Chobani’s young founder, 40-year-old Hamdi Ulukaya, was the subject of a recent article on CNNMoney.  His inspiring story is worth sharing.

Ulukaya grew up in Eastern Turkey.  His family was involved in sheep and cow farming and yogurt and cheese making.  Although Ulukaya was not deeply involved in the family business, he says he learned from his father that “your reputation is your asset.”  He came to the U.S. in 1994 to learn English and attend business school but didn’t finish.  When his father came to visit, the elder Ulukaya told his son he should start a cheese business.  Initially skeptical, the younger Ulukaya followed his father’s advice and started a feta cheese company in 2002.

In 2005, Ulukaya opened a piece of mail that read: “Fully equipped yogurt factory for sale.”  He threw it away but later retrieved it.  Kraft was closing the plant and getting out of the yogurt business.  Despite his friends’ advice, Ulukaya followed his instincts and purchased the factory.  He hired a few Kraft employees and hired a “yogurt master.”  According to Ulukaya, “It took a year and a half to make a perfect cup of yogurt. Then we put our sales strategy together…We went to the big chains and said we wanted to put it in the regular yogurt section.”

The first 200 cases of Ulukaya’s yogurt proved popular with consumers.  The company branched out to BJ’s Wholesale Club in 2009 and Costco after that.  “We were overwhelmed and humbled,” says Ulukaya, “but not surprised.  Deep down we knew we had something really good.”  That’s an understatement.  By the middle of next year, Ulukaya expects to have more than 1,200 employees in New York, plus another 400 at the company’s new plant in Idaho.  “The yogurt story in this country is just getting started,” he says.  “We feel that as long as we stay true to who we are – quality, good-tasting products that are priced fairly and honestly positioned – our growth is limitless.”

Ulukaya offers several words of advice to leaders and business owners regardless of industry:

Trust your instincts.  “We won’t compromise.  All this growth has happened at the worst time this country has faced economically. But I trusted my instinct, and I designed the company to support it and support the growth.”

Keep direct contact with consumers.  “I don’t believe in ‘customer research.’  We just listen directly to consumers.  All feedback on our website comes directly to my BlackBerry.  Complaints are not a bad thing.  Complaints are an opportunity.  In fact, I have a lot of people who work for the company who started out as consumers.  Our head of marketing was a consumer.”

Keep ‘em happy.  “Nobody’s job is more important than anybody else’s.  The person who was answering calls is now the head of purchasing.  We interact very humanly with the farmers, the consumers, and the suppliers.  There is a spirit in this country I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world.  We don’t make work a stressed place; we make it a fun place.  You should have joy together.”

Seek perfection.  “I mean that I have to enjoy it.  It has to be nutritious, have real fruit, probiotics, and be low in fat or no fat, all natural, and hormone-free.  It has to be accessible in price for everyone, not just high-end consumers.  The market might go up and down, but as long as we keep up the quality, we are okay.”

Sounds like a tasty recipe for success.


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