CHOBANI – An Immigrant’s Tale

By Shlomo Maital

     Hamdi Ulukaya was born on October 26, 1972. He was originally Kurdish, from a dairy-farming and shepherd family in a small village in the Kurdish part of Turkey.   In Turkey Kurds are persecuted, in part because Turkey fears the long-standing Kurdish dream of an independent country, Kurdistan.  (Kurds have already carved themselves an autonomous region in northern Syria).   Hamdi was active in promoting Kurdish rights and had to leave Turkey as a result. He came to the U.S. as a legal immigrant, ironically a political refugee and hence eligible for entry.   Today? I doubt he would have been granted entry.

   Ulukaya is the owner, founder, Chairman, and CEO of Chobani, the #1-selling strained yogurt (Greek-style) brand in the United States.   Here is how he did it. It truly does depict the classic American/immigrant dream.

     In the U.S. Hamdi took some English courses and business courses. At his father’s suggestion he started a small feta cheese factory.    

   Hamdi Ulukaya heard of a plant in the town of New Berlin, New York, that was being closed by Kraft Foods, in 2006. It was for sale. Kraft had decided to get out of the unprofitable yogurt business. The plant was priced at $700,000.   Ulukaya called to verify the bargain-basement price. “One fermentation tank costs that!” he thought.   He got a $1 million loan from the Small Business Administration and from a local bank, hired several of the former Kraft employees as well as a “yogurt master” and launched his brand in 2007. It took him a year to perfect the smooth Greek-style yogurt.  He made a point of hiring mainly local people. 

   Ulukaya chose the name Chobani as a variation of the Turkish word çoban, itself derived from Persian čupân  meaning “shepherd”.

     Chobani yogurt really is the best. If you haven’t tried it… do so.

     Chobani has approximately 2,000 employees and is the top-selling brand of Greek yogurt in the United States. The company is worth billions.    

     On December 17, 2012 Chobani opened the world’s largest yogurt-processing plants in Twin Falls, Idaho. The one million square-foot facility cost $450 million and employs 300 people.  Hamdi said, “The state expects the total economic impact of our business there to be $1.3 billion.”   This was very unusual – Idaho is a highly conservative state, with a extreme right wing Governor. But he loves former immigrant Hamdi, who has brought jobs and prosperity to Idaho.   Despite this, some of the locals have made racist remarks.

     In April, 2016, Chobani announced it was giving 10 percent of its $ 3 billion ownership stake to its employees. Considering there are 2000 employees, this would be on average $150,000 per employee, or $300 million!     Some employees became instant millionaires as a result of this action, because share awards were based on tenure at the company. Hamdi does not believe this is philanthropy. It is good business – creating motivated loyal and creative employees.

     Hamdi has been active in Europe, helping refugees with money and moral support.

     My question is: Does President Donald J. Trump eat yogurt? Does he eat Greek yogurt? Does he favor CHOBANI Greek yogurt? And when he does eat it, does he think of the Kurdish immigrant who brought jobs, wealth and good yogurt to America? And..can he spell Chobani? C-H-O-B-A-N-I .  Long live Kurdistan.

      

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