Hamdi Ulukaya

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Hamdi Ulukaya
Chobani President and CEO Ulukaya Delivers Remarks (7256160358).jpg
Ulukaya receiving the National Entrepreneurial Success Award of 2012 from the SBA
Born 1972 (age 42–43)
Nationality Turkish,[1] and American
Ethnicity Kurdish[2]
Occupation Entrepreneur, businessman
Known for Chobani, Founder & CEO
Net worth $1.4 billion

Hamdi Ulukaya (born 1972) is a Kurdish American[3] entrepreneur and businessman. He is the owner, founder, chairman, and CEO of Chobani, the number one–selling strained yogurt brand in the U.S.

Originating from a Kurdish dairy-farming family in a small village in Turkey, Ulukaya came to the U.S. in 1994 to study English and took a few business courses as well. He started a modest feta-cheese factory in 2002 on the advice of his father, but his real success came from taking a major risk: purchasing a large defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York in 2005. With no prior experience in the yogurt business, he created a yogurt empire, Chobani, that went from zero to over $1 billion in annual sales in less than five years, becoming the leading yogurt brand in the U.S. by 2011.[4][5][6] The popularity of his Greek-style yogurt also sparked the rise in Greek yogurt's market share in the U.S. from less than 1% in 2007 to more than 50% in 2013.[4] Ernst & Young named Ulukaya the World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013.[7] The success of his yogurt empire made Ulukaya a billionaire, and according to Forbes, his net worth as of 2014 is $1.4 billion.[8]

Early life, education, and early career[edit]

Hamdi Ulukaya was born in 1972 to a Kurdish family in Turkey. His family owned and operated a sheep, goat, and dairy farm near the Euphrates River in Ilic, Erzincan Province, making cheese and yogurt.[9][10][11] The family often led a seasonally semi-nomadic existence tending and herding their flocks, and Ulukaya is uncertain of his exact birth date because he was born during one of the family's mountain treks.[11]

After studying political science at Ankara University, in 1994 he moved to the United States to study English at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York.[12] In 1997 he moved upstate and transferred to the University at Albany, State University of New York where he enrolled in a few business courses.[12][13]

He ended up taking a job on an upstate farm, and when his father visited he convinced Hamdi to import the family's feta cheese from Turkey after tasting the inferior cheese available locally. When the imported cheese proved popular, Hamdi opened a small wholesale feta cheese plant of his own, called Euphrates, in Johnstown, New York in 2002.[11][13][14] The venture was modestly successful but by the two-year mark it had just barely broken even;[15] Ulukaya later recalled, "It was two years of the most challenging days of my life."[13]


Inception and development[edit]

In the spring of 2005, Ulukaya noticed a piece of junk mail advertising a fully equipped yogurt factory for sale in South Edmeston, New York, 65 miles west of his feta cheese factory.[15] The 84-year-old factory had been closed by Kraft Foods.[15][16] Although he initially threw the flier away,[16] Ulukaya toured the plant the following day and decided to buy it, against the advice of his attorney and business advisor.[14] Ulukaya financed the purchase within five months with a loan from the Small Business Administration plus local business-incentive grants.[11][14][17] He initially named his new company Agro Farma, and hired a handful of the former Kraft employees.[13][17] As a first task they painted and repaired the neglected factory.

Ulukaya felt that American-style yogurt was too sugary, watery, and artificial, and much preferred the thick, strained yogurt he grew up enjoying on a daily basis in Turkey.[15] His aim was to create a quality, tasty, natural, and affordable strained yogurt for the U.S. market. He brought over a yogurt master from Turkey, Mustafa Dogan, with whom he spent nearly two years developing and perfecting his own yogurt recipe.[14] Using different bacterial cultures at differing temperatures and durations, they tested hundreds of recipes to come up with a yogurt with the desired taste, texture, and natural shelf life.[16]

Strained, or "Greek" yogurt as it is called in the U.S., is much thicker, creamier, and tangier, and more protein-rich, because the whey is strained out. To manufacture strained yogurt, Ulukaya needed a million-dollar commercial machine called a yogurt separator, which the American-style Kraft factory did not have. He found a used one in Wisconsin and negotiated to buy it for $50,000. On his trip to pick up the separator, the name "Chobani" – a variation on çoban, the Turkish word for shepherd – popped into his head.[11][16]

Ulukaya made Chobani yogurt without preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors, or gelatin, and used only milk from cows not treated with growth hormones.[11][14][18] Since he couldn't afford advertising, he invested time and money on the product's packaging, using a distinctive new bowl-style shape to differentiate the brand,[14][15] and ensuring its design and bright coloring stood out from other yogurts.[16] The first line-up of Chobani flavors included plain, vanilla, strawberry, peach, and blueberry.[11]


Ulukaya wanted Chobani to be easily affordable. Rather than marketing to small specialty stores, he aimed the yogurt at the regular dairy sections of mainstream grocery stores and national chains, thus aiding the product's rapid growth and adoption by consumers.[13][15][19]

In October 2007, he shipped his first order of Chobani, a few hundred cases, to a grocer on Long Island. The store repeated the order the following week.[9][16]

Ulukaya's early business approach included strategies the big companies did not use. Rather than pay stores a slotting fee, which his start-up company could not afford, he paid stores in yogurt rather than in cash to stock his wares, and also negotiated to pay off the slotting fees over time as the yogurt sold.[15][20] He also implemented in-store samples so customers could taste the product and purchase it immediately.[21] Lacking the budget for traditional marketing, after hearing customers phoning in saying they loved Chobani, Ulukaya had his small team reach out to bloggers, Facebook, and Twitter to have constant and direct communication with consumers.[22] In 2010 he also created a sampling truck, the CHOmobile, which handed out free cups of Chobani yogurt at festivals, parades, and other family-friendly events all over the U.S.[17][23][24] In its first year, the sample truck gave away 150,000 full-size containers of Chobani.[22]

In 2009, the chain stores Stop & Shop and ShopRite began carrying Chobani,[25] and by the middle of 2009, Chobani was selling 200,000 cases a week.[16] Later that same year, a major breakthrough came when the warehouse club stores BJ's Wholesale Club and Costco began carrying the brand.[13][19]


After BJ's and Costco began carrying Chobani in 2009, the company doubled it sales every year through 2013.[26] With an eye on Australian and Asian markets, in 2011 Ulukaya acquired Melbourne dairy producer Bead Foods, and began manufacturing and selling Chobani in Australia.[22][27] In mid 2012, he initiated a $88.5 million expansion for the company, acquiring 100 acres next to its upstate New York facility and building an 80,000-square-foot addition. The expansion was partially funded by $1.5 million in New York State grants.[28][29]

Since strained or Greek yogurt uses three times the amount of milk per cup that unstrained yogurt does, to keep up with Chobani's ever-increasing market, and demands for higher and higher quantities of milk, in December 2012 the company opened the world's largest yogurt factory in Twin Falls, Idaho, a $450 million investment.[30] In 2012 Chobani had more than $1 billion in annual sales,[31][32] and in 2012 it became the world's leading yogurt brand.[4] By dint of his success, Ulukaya joined the world's billionaires in the early 2010s; his net worth as of 2014 is $1.4 billion.[8]

Ulukaya began adding new product lines to his brand in 2010, beginning with Chobani Champions, a Greek yogurt designed for children. In 2013 he added the Chobani Bite, a small indulgent yogurt with flavors including chocolate; Chobani Flip, yogurt with a separate section of toppings; and Chobani Simply 100, marketed as the first and only 100-calorie Greek yogurt made with only natural ingredients.[33] In 2014 he launched Chobani Oats, a blend of Greek yogurt, steel-cut oats and fruit; Seasonal varieties, including watermelon and pink grapefruit; Chobani Indulgent, a healthy dessert yogurt; and a 4%-fat plain Greek yogurt marketed as particularly good for cooking and baking.[34]

In 2012, he opened Chobani SoHo, a retail yogurt cafe in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district.[11] The cafe offers various exotic and gourmet dishes using flavors of fresh Chobani yogurt and gourmet toppings, as well as sandwiches, soups, and coffee.[35][36][37]

Following the success of its product in Australia, in 2014 Chobani expanded its distribution to Asia and Latin America, beginning with Singapore, Malaysia, and Panama. The company announced plans for the Caribbean as well.[38] In April 2014, Chobani reached a deal with private-equity firm TPG for a $750-million investment, which will fund the company's expansion and the launch of its newest line of products.[39]

Influence and advisorships[edit]

Ulukaya has been noted both for his extraordinary entrepreneurial success and also his commitment to making affordable, delicious, and nutritious foods using only natural ingredients.[40] In addition to receiving many entrepreneurship awards, in April 2014 he was named by President Barack Obama as an inaugural member of the Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreurship (PAGE) initiative – 11 selected business leaders who will champion and encourage entrepreneurship in the U.S. and abroad.[41][42][43] Also in 2014, the Culinary Institute of America honored him with its Leadership Award (Augie Award) in the Health and Wellness category.[44]

Ulukaya is a member of the Upstate Regional Advisory Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York,[45][46] and he is a Vice Chair of the corporate fund board of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.[47] He is also on the board of the Pathfinder Village (Community for Down syndrome) Foundation in Edmeston, New York.[48] He has delivered commencement addresses at institutions including the Culinary Institute of America,[49][50] the Sage Colleges,[51] and the University at Albany in New York,[52][53] and has received honorary doctorate degrees from Colgate University,[12] the Sage Colleges,[54] and the University at Albany.[52][55]

From its inception Ulukaya has given 10% of his company's net profits to charitable causes, and to individuals and organizations working towards positive long-lasting change.[56][57] In 2010 he established the company's charitable arm, the Chobani Shepherd's Gift Foundation, now called the Chobani Foundation, to manage this philanthropy.[57][58][59][60] Donations have included major grants to support famine relief efforts in Somalia,[58] and to underwrite the New York City Pianos project launched by Sing for Hope.[61][62]


Ulukaya's success and entrepreneurship has garnered him numerous awards, honors, and superlatives. These include:

  • Ernst & Young U.S. Entrepreneur of the Year 2012[67]
  • Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2013[7][69]
  • Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship (2014)[41][42][43]

Personal life[edit]

Ulukaya lives in New Berlin, New York, not far from Chobani's South Edmeston factory and headquarters.[70] He was briefly married in the late 1990s to Ayşe Giray.[71]

Ulukaya has additional offices in Manhattan and Twin Falls, Idaho.[72][73] His pastimes when he is not working include sailing, traveling, and spending time with his two German shepherds.[74]


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  44. ^ a b "2014 CIA Leadership Award Honorees Represent 'The Power of Food'". Culinary Institute of America. January 24, 2014.
  45. ^ Upstate New York Regional Advisory Board. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  46. ^ 2013 Annual Report. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  47. ^ Corporate Support: The 2014 Corporate Fund Board. The Kennedy Center.
  48. ^ Pathfinder Village Foundation Board. PathfinderVillage.org.
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