Real Leaders

Hamdi Ulukaya: The Turkish Immigrant Who Just Made Americans Richer

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Hamdi Ulukaya is an immigrant from Turkey who came to the USA with nothing and within 10 years is running a Yogurt company worth billions. He just gave 10% of the company to his employees – worth 100,000’s of dollars for each employee. He also gave $700m to Syrian refugees.

Ulukaya is the owner, founder, Chairman, and CEO of Chobani, the number one selling strained yogurt brand in the United States. Many consumer might recognize the name, but most don’t know the story of how it began.

In 1994 Ulukaya travelled from his family dairy farm in a small village in Turkey to America. His original goal was to study English and take a few business courses. On the advice of his father, and with his knowledge of dairy, he started a modest feta-cheese factory in 2002. It was met with moderate success until he decided to take a major risk in 2005: the purchase of a large, defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York.

With no prior experience in the yogurt business, he persevered and today has a yogurt empire, Chobani, valued at over $1 billion in annual sales within the first five years. It became the leading yogurt brand in America by 2011 and the popularity of his Greek-style yogurt had the knock-on effect of sparked the rise in Greek yogurt’s market share – from less than 1% in 2007 to more than 50% in 2013.

Ernst & Young named Ulukaya the World Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013 and the success of his yogurt empire has made Ulukaya a billionaire. According to Forbes, his net worth as of 2016 is $1.92 billion.

In April this year, Ulukaya handed his 2,000 full-time employees a surprise: an ownership stake in the company that could makesome of them millionaires. He is giving up to 10 percent of the company to his employees when it goes public or is sold. The number of shares given to each person is based on how long they have worked at Chobani. The average employee payout will be in the region of $150,000 with the earliest employees standing to get a staggering $1 million.

Ulukaya has stated that higher wages for employees leads to greater corporate success. Not only does he promote the position that companies can succeed when they pay their workers more, they also have a moral obligation to do so, stating that, “…for the sake of our communities and our people, we need to give other companies the ability to create a better life for more people.”

In an interview with Ernst and Young Global Chairman and CEO Mark A. Weinberger, Ulukaya took the position that businessmen should promote a sense of purpose in their corporate culture to create a climate of positive change in business and the world. He stated that companies should focus on humanity and not just on their bottom lines. “Business is still the strongest, most effective way to change the world,” he said.


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