The following article was originally published in Fast Company.
Hamdi Ulukaya never planned to move to America, much less start a yogurt business that would make him a billionaire. Things so easily could have been different. He might have gone into Turkish politics or the family cheese-making business, perhaps even married the hometown girl who his mother claimed would be perfect for him. He thinks about it a lot.
Instead, Ulukaya got hauled in for questioning by the Turkish police one day, and his life went in another direction.
At the time, in the early 1990s, Ulukaya was studying political science at Ankara University. A Kurd who grew up raising sheep in the mountains of eastern Turkey, he had gravitated toward the contentious Kurdish-rights movement, attending demonstrations and publishing a politically minded newspaper. Though Ulukaya has always strongly disavowed violence and wasn’t involved with the extremist group the PKK, he nevertheless attracted the attention of the Turkish government, which then—as now—sometimes harshly cracked down on activists. Ulukaya knew people who had been taken by the authorities and simply never came back. Was he about to be jailed? Tortured? Killed?
More than two decades later, Ulukaya was in Twin Falls, Idaho, recalling that fraught era. The founder and CEO of the multibillion-dollar yogurt business Chobani was at the largest of his company’s three manufacturing plants, where he had assembled senior staff to go over plans for the next year and beyond. Ulukaya is a quiet man with oversize features and a subtle magnetism that’s occasionally punctured by an endearingly goofy high-pitched laugh. Unlike many CEOs, he radiates more warmth than authority, and his manner is unhurried, even when his schedule is hectic (his schedule is always hectic).
During a break from the meetings, Ulukaya had brought me to a local coffee shop, where he was drinking tea and sharing memories of his early years. Thinking back to that scary time in Turkey, when his budding Kurdish consciousness could have gotten him into serious trouble, he seemed easily transported, as if his old life never felt too far away.
Ulukaya was lucky that day in Ankara; the police let him go with a warning. But the incident left him shaken, and he knew that from then on, life in Turkey would be hazardous. He decided he had to leave. Europe, he thought, but then somebody he met suggested the United States. “I didn’t know anything about America,” Ulukaya recalled. “It didn’t connect with me at all. We thought capitalism was the reason for the suffering of poor people. The guy said, ‘Don’t be stupid, go to America.’ I looked at him and said, ‘I would never go to that capitalistic place.’ He said, ‘You think Europe is better? You go to America and try to learn English.’ ” The man pointed Ulukaya to a service that helped students attend school in the U.S.
Four months later, in October 1994, Ulukaya arrived in New York City, a skinny young man with a small suitcase and $3,000 for living expenses, on his way to Long Island’s Adelphi University. He spoke almost no English. “I was extremely scared,” Ulukaya said. “I was aware that this was going to be very, very difficult. But I was excited.”
What happened next is one of the business world’s most unlikely stories: An aimless young anticapitalist immigrates to the U.S. simply because he needs a place to go, and through grit, determination, and eerie prescience about changing American tastes somehow builds a massive brand that eventually dominates the $3.6 billion Greek yogurt industry, besting international conglomerates such as Danone and General Mills. But Ulukaya has done more than that. He has begun to forge a new kind of business leadership, one that fuses competitiveness with an unusually strong sense of compassion.
In just the past year, he has launched a program to give away up to 10% of Chobani’s equity to his workers and instituted a generous six-week parental-leave policy. No unions or worker groups pressured him; he just decided on his own. He also employs more than 400 refugees, which is proving increasingly controversial in the Trump era. Ulukaya’s actions have brought both death threats and invitations to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where in January he challenged other business leaders to take more responsibility. “You have to lead by example,” he says. “Chobani can inspire a new way of business, a new way of work, a new way of innovation.” Despite his newfound wealth and prominence, the activist spirit of Ulukaya’s youth remains as strong as ever.
Beneath Ulukaya’s relaxed charm, he is a fierce busi-nessman with an obsessive zeal for every detail of his expanding grocery empire, from pH levels to production-line operations to packaging. His first meeting at the Idaho plant last December was with VP of research and development Kai Sacher, a German-born food scientist with a penchant for cowboy boots and Western wear who previously spent 20 years working for Dannon. They met up inside the complex’s R&D center, currently housed in a set of temporary trailers adjoining the main factory. Ulukaya, Sacher, and other members of the department gathered in a small room whose walls are lined, floor to ceiling, with glass jars of ingredients: coffee sprinkles, chipotle granola, honey-roasted sesame sticks, spiced walnuts, salted pretzels.
The R&D team had laid out a series of potential Chobani products for Ulukaya to taste—some of them iterations of current concepts, others entirely new categories. (One of these will likely debut this summer.) Ulukaya plunged a paper tasting spoon into the first sample, scooped a heap of product into his mouth, and stared off toward the opposite wall for several long seconds. “You’re going somewhere with this,” he finally said. The CEO then fired off several sharp technical questions, which might have been more illuminating if only I—like Sacher—had a master’s degree in dairy science. He tried a bit more. Taste. Pause. Stare. “I don’t think it’s there,” he said.
Sacher reminded Ulukaya that it had been less than a week since they hatched this idea over the phone, and the R&D scientists had worked all weekend to cook up a trial batch. (Product development in the food industry usually takes years.) “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Ulukaya said. “Good job. That’s a fast turnaround.”
At Chobani, “fast” is serious praise. Speed is both a guiding principle and key competitive advantage—a big part of how the company has, since it launched in 2007, muscled its way to more than 19% of the current overall yogurt market, hauling in some $1.5 billion in revenue in 2016. According to Nielsen, Chobani currently owns 36% of all Greek yogurt sales—a category that barely existed before Ulukaya came along and today accounts for 46% of yogurt purchases. Chobani now makes nine different product lines, including the popular Flips (yogurt with a “sidecar” of crunch-adding dry goods such as chocolate chips and nuts), along with several Mediterranean-style dips.
Chobani’s high metabolism allowed Ulukaya to build the enormous Twin Falls plant in just 326 days, at a cost of $450 million, and it’s how he continues to speed new products to market, keeping competitors off-balance.
Last year’s big launch was a line of flavored-yogurt drinks, which the company decided to green-light in February and had on shelves by July. “I go with my gut feelings a lot,” Ulukaya tells me later. “That got into our culture. We just go boom, boom, boom: fast.”
Ulukaya’s distinctive character has always defined how Chobani operates. Ask people who work closely with him, and they’ll tell you that there are effectively two Hamdis: the driven businessman out to obliterate his rivals, and the empathetic humanitarian. “I’m a shepherd and I’m a warrior,” he says when I ask about the two sides of his personality. “I come and go between those two. I’m a nomad, and nomads are the most real people. You can’t pretend.”
Working at Chobani means constantly toggling between each of these bosses. “He’s an emotion-driven guy,” says CMO Peter McGuinness. “He wants to grow the business and be a fierce competitor. But he’s got a giant heart and conscience and wants to do the right thing, regardless of market share, money, all that kind of stuff.”
Ulukaya’s beneficent side shows up all across Chobani. The company’s products are all-natural: no preservatives, only non-GMO ingredients, milk from cows not treated with the bovine growth hormone rBST. Chobani has always given 10% of its profits to charitable causes, and Ulukaya is eager to help the communities in which his company operates (in 2011, he renovated a public baseball field near his upstate New York plant, for example). Chobani also pays above-average wages, and that new family-leave policy offers full pay for any new parent, including foster and adoptive parents. Ulukaya has put a great deal of thought into cultivating a spirit of warmth and enthusiasm that most people wouldn’t associate with working in a factory, and when you spend time at the company’s plants, the positivity is obvious.
Then there’s the other guy. “I hate my competitors,” Ulukaya says. “I have to create an enemy, and I have to get rid of it, in a metaphoric way. I don’t hate people; I hate the idea. We hate Big Food.” Last year, Chobani released a series of hardball ads that went after its chief adversaries, Danone and General Mills. The commercials highlighted artificial ingredients used in some Dannon and Yoplait yogurts. “Potassium sorbate? Really?” said an incredulous voice-over in one spot. “That stuff is used to kill bugs!” After the campaign’s targets protested, Chobani pulled the ads, and Danone and General Mills quickly won a preliminary injunction in federal court. Though Ulukaya can’t comment for legal reasons, he does say that running the commercials was his decision.
There is, inevitably, some tension between these two Ulukayas. Sourcing all-natural products is expensive and complicated, which can hurt profit margins, and the company’s aversion to preservatives led to a 2013 partial recall due to mold issues. But ultimately, these twin motivating forces tend to cohere. “If you want to have a modern brand, they’re not at odds at all,” says McGuinness. “The leaders of tomorrow more and more realize that having a strong head and a big heart is where you need to be.”
Ulukaya has always had trouble sitting still, and rather than spend his time at a desk, he prefers to roam the floors of his factories, chatting with workers or even sometimes standing off by himself, watching cup after cup skitter down the line to get filled, sealed, boxed, and sent on its way. No matter how busy things get, he will often insist on making time during the day to walk outside and think, strolling through lower Manhattan near Chobani’s New York City office or exploring the rolling hills around his original plant in upstate New York.
One afternoon during his Idaho trip, I joined Ulukaya as he took a head-clearing drive to the nearby Snake River Canyon, a breathtaking gash in the Twin Falls landscape that is home to the area’s famed Shoshone Falls. He parked at a scenic overlook and got out to walk around, breathing deep in the cold air and snapping photos of a small roadside waterfall that had frozen midstream. Back in the car, his mood turned reflective. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t travel back to my childhood,” he says. “Like the ice thing we just saw—you see something and it reminds you of home. It could be a light, a taste, a song. It reminds me of my mother’s food or sitting around the fire, of us kids playing in the snow or watching the stars.”
Ulukaya grew up in eastern Turkey’s Erzincan province, where his family raised sheep and goats and made Tulum cheese. They spent winters in Iliç, a tiny town near the Euphrates River accessible only by a train that ran through twice a day. When the cold broke, the clan headed up into the Munzur mountains with their flock, roaming the high meadows and sending cheese back on horseback to trade or sell. Ulukaya’s father, stern and traditional, was a respected leader in the community, and his mother, who didn’t finish elementary school, was known for her empathy and generosity. It was a profoundly simple life. “If you’re a little better off, it doesn’t mean that you have more things,” Ulukaya says. “It just means that you have more sheep.”
When he was 11, Ulukaya went off to boarding school; even at that young age he was restless. “We were in this little town and had no interaction with outside,” he says. “I always wondered what’s behind the mountain—I would make stories in my head. I always wanted to go. So I left.” High marks on a college-entrance exam won him a slot in Ankara University’s prestigious Faculty of Political Science, where he enrolled in 1991. Then came his budding human-rights consciousness, that run-in with the police, and the subsequent plan to escape to America. Which is how Ulukaya found himself, at age 22, at a new school on Long Island, with little grasp of American culture and no clue how his life was going to unfold. “I. Am. Hamdi,” he remembers repeating in his rudimentary English classes. “I. Am. From. Turkey.”
Half of Ulukaya’s $3,000 nest egg was gone after just a month, and to save money, he transferred to New York’s public Baruch College, supporting himself by working for an Armenian rug merchant and pumping gas at a Brooklyn filling station. It was a low time for Ulukaya—missing his family, unable to return to Turkey, just trying to get through the next day, the next month.
At school one day, Ulukaya was told to write a paper in English about any subject he knew well. After class, his teacher stopped him. “You can make cheese?” she asked. It turned out she had a weekend farm upstate, and she invited him to take the bus up and give her a lesson. “I didn’t realize America had farms,” he recalls with a laugh. Ulukaya fell in love with the area, which reminded him of home. He persuaded his teacher to give him a job on the farm, milking cows and shoveling manure. He moved nearby and enrolled at SUNY Albany.
Ulukaya’s business career began almost by accident. In 1995, one of his five brothers, Bilal, moved from Turkey to join him upstate, and at one point their father came over for a visit. The patriarch wasn’t impressed with what passed for feta in the U.S., and he suggested the boys import the real thing from their cheese-making brothers back in Turkey. That plan didn’t prove economically feasible, but Hamdi ultimately decided to make his own. In 2002, using seed money from family members, the brothers launched a little feta cheese company called Euphrates in Johnstown, New York. Within a couple of years, he had built it into a successful small business, generating enough income to finally feel a little comfortable in his new American life.
One evening in his Johnstown office, Ulukaya was working his way through a pile of junk mail, tossing most of it in the garbage. After he finished, he sat thinking for a few minutes, then grabbed the trash can and dug through it. He pulled out a flyer from a real estate company, now covered in tea leaves and cigarette ashes. FULLY EQUIPPED YOGURT PLANT FOR SALE, it read, along with a few photos of the factory, a Kraft Foods facility located about 90 minutes away.
Ulukaya picked up the phone. “It just was curiosity,” he says. “If it was a year earlier, I would never pay attention. I was just feeling like, Okay, I can build a life here. I can survive.” The price of the factory, he learned, was just $700,000, fully equipped. “I thought they left a zero off,” he says. “I know what these things cost. It was impossible.” But the figure wasn’t a mistake. After all, what kind of lunatic would want to buy a faded, 80-year-old yogurt factory? “Can I come see it?” Ulukaya remembers asking the agent. “He said, ‘Yeah, come tomorrow.’ ”
Chobani’s New York plant is located in the tiny hamlet of South Edmeston, perched between the tranquil Unadilla River and a cemetery with graves dating back to the early 19th century. Built in 1920, the factory for many years produced Philadelphia cream cheese, which, it turns out, was never made anywhere near the Liberty Bell. By the 1980s, Kraft had refitted the building to make Breyers yogurt, until, in late 2004, it decided to halt production at the facility.
When Ulukaya showed up in early 2005 for a tour, the plant was in the process of shutting down. “The feeling was like somebody died,” he says.The 55 employees, soon to be out of jobs, had little hope for a rescuer. “It was emotional,” says Maria Wilcox, who at the time had worked in the Kraft factory’s office for 21 years. “I had visions of the building with weeds growing up around it.”
But Ulukaya sensed possibility. Dissatisfied with the thin commercial yogurts filling the shelves of American grocery stores, he often made strained yogurt at home—the delicious thick stuff he had eaten with every meal back in Turkey. Now he wondered: Could he turn “Greek style” yogurt into a business?
Ulukaya’s lawyer was unenthusiastic. “He said, ‘Hamdi, what are you talking about? You’re telling me Kraft is closing the plant, and you are going to do something with it? They’re looking for an idiot. You’re the idiot.’ ”
Six months later, Ulukaya was holding the keys. Having funded the purchase with a loan from the Small Business Administration, now all he had to do was develop a product, learn how to mass-produce it, and somehow convince people to buy it. His first move was to hire back a handful of Kraft-plant employees, including Wilcox, who answered phones and eventually handled purchasing and other key tasks, and Richard Lake, the outgoing production supervisor. “Hamdi said that [the operation] was going to be twice as big as Kraft’s was,” says Wilcox. “I thought, Wow, okay. That’s ambitious.”
From the start, Ulukaya was determined to do things differently. There was the yogurt, of course. Greek-style brands such as Fage had been gaining popularity among urban food connoisseurs, who appreciated its nutrition profile as much as its taste: high protein, low fat, and less sugar. But to most of mainstream America, yogurt still meant the familiar runny stuff. Ulukaya’s big gamble was that Walmart customers would love strained yogurt, too, if only they were exposed to it.
Another way the CEO thought he could differentiate his brand was through packaging. He decided to put the yogurt in European-style tubs, which are shorter and wider than American cups. And while most yogurt companies printed their logo and product info directly onto the plastic—resulting in a muted, washed-out look—he invested in brilliantly colored plastic sleeves that could be wrapped around cups at the factory. With its bold colors and sharp graphics, Chobani yogurt would prove hard to ignore.
In October 2007, the first cup of Chobani-brand yogurt rolled off the line, bound for a kosher grocery store in Great Neck, Long Island, which had agreed to make a trial purchase of 150 cases—not even an entire pallet. It took the small team 12 straight hours just to fill that first order. As the business grew, Ulukaya insisted on placing his products not in the organic specialty aisle—where imported (and more expensive) Greek yogurt was usually hidden away—but next to the familiar megabrands in the regular dairy case. This was initially a tough sell for grocers, but he pushed hard, and early believers such as Fairway and ShopRite discovered that when they followed Ulukaya’s strategy, Chobani tubs really moved. From there, things expanded fast. “I knew it was never going to be about selling anymore,” says Ulukaya. “It was about making. Can I make enough?”
The staff, about 30 people by 2008, worked frantically, sometimes pulling all-nighters to keep up with the orders, often grabbing naps when and where they could—chairs, countertops, floors—before starting the whole process over again. “The next five years, I never left the plant,” Ulukaya says. “I don’t remember anything I did—day or night—that wasn’t related to yogurt.” What kept everyone going, despite the crazy pace and background hum of barely contained chaos, was their CEO. “He always had a vision of where he wants it to go,” says Lake, who still works at Chobani as a lead project manager. “We just figure out a way and make it happen.” Between 2008 and 2012, the South Edmeston plant grew to 600 employees, cranking out as much as 2 million cases of yogurt per week. Chobani sold $1 billion worth of product in 2012. By then, it had completely remade the yogurt business. Danone and General Mills were initially unprepared. “We were so fast—so fast,” says Ulukaya. “When the large companies woke up, it was already too late.”
Today, a steady stream of trucks rattle up and down the two-lane county road that leads to Chobani’s New York plant, delivering milk and fruit, and hauling away carton after carton of finished cups. A 160,000-square-foot warehouse and office complex now operate across the road, connected via a nifty covered bridge with a conveyer-belt system inside. You can still make out the white walls and blue awnings of the squat original building beneath the layers of contemporary industrial infrastructure, but the site’s impressive sprawl of storage tanks and refrigeration equipment marks South Ed—as the factory is known inside the company—as a flourishing modern facility.
In early January, I made the 30-mile drive from South Edmeston to Utica, New York, to visit the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. Located in an imposing 1930s brick-and-stone building that for many years housed a Catholic school, the refugee center is a crucial resource for displaced people, having helped resettle more than 16,000 refugees since it opened in 1981. Utica has long embraced refugees—people born in other countries now make up nearly a quarter of the city’s population—and in recent years a steady stream of immigrants have arrived after fleeing war or persecution in countries such as Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, and Bhutan. Some are fresh from conflict zones, while others have spent their entire lives in camps.
My trip to the center came less than three weeks before the inauguration of Donald Trump, and employees were nervous about the incoming administration’s hostility toward immigration and refugees. (Their fears proved warranted: The MVRCR is now facing serious budget issues as a result of Trump’s policies.)
Even so, the center’s enthusiastic staff and bright, flag-lined main corridor radiated optimism—a welcoming atmosphere for people who’ve escaped often unimaginable hardship and face daunting challenges. Among other things, the center offers assistance with housing, immigration paperwork, and basic life skills: how to call 911, how to drive in the snow, sometimes even how to work a light switch or use indoor plumbing. Finding work is often a refugee’s greatest hurdle; employment assistance, then, is one of the MVRCR’s primary functions.
When Ulukaya called the center in 2010, they were thrilled to hear from him. At the time, the fast-growing Chobani needed more workers, and it had already hired extensively from the pool of former Kraft employees and other candidates from the immediate area. Ulukaya had heard that refugees were struggling to find jobs, and he saw a way to solve his staffing issues while at the same time help people who desperately needed it—people who reminded him of himself when he first arrived in the United States: nervous, uncertain, and unable to even communicate.
Employees at the refugee center were excited, but they warned that there would be obstacles—language, transportation, significant cultural differences. “I said, ‘Well, these are easy to fix,’ ” Ulukaya recalls. “ ‘We can provide transportation, we can bring translators, and Chobani is a place where everyone is welcome. Look at me: I’m from a different part of the world. It’s going to be okay.’ ”
The experiment started slowly—5, 10, 15 refugees, brought on initially as temps. Ulukaya hired buses to run back and forth from Utica, and while there were inevitable hiccups, the difficulties proved surmountable. Ulukaya would sometimes stop by to check on newcomers like David Tamba, a 31-year-old Liberian who moved to the U.S. in 2008 after spending most of his life in a Guinean refugee camp. Hired by Chobani in 2012, he still works at the South Ed plant, operating a case packer. “How do you like it here?” Tamba remembers Ulukaya asking him not long after he started. “Do you have any problems? Don’t be scared. Just let us know.”
When Chobani opened its Idaho plant, Ulukaya discovered that Twin Falls is also a big relocation destination, and soon he was applying what he learned in South Edmeston to a new crop of refugee workers. Today, about 30% of the company’s 2,000 employees are immigrants, hailing from more than 15 different countries. About 400 are refugees.
Ulukaya believes that businesses can do more to foster and support community. Inspired by his experiences with refugees, in 2015 he launched the Tent Foundation, a nonprofit organization that, in addition to funding and organizing refugee relief efforts, is actively enlisting other companies to help deal with the human-displacement crisis. More than 70 firms—including Airbnb, Cisco, IBM, Unilever, and UPS—have signed up for the Tent Partnership for Refugees, agreeing to donate resources and hire displaced people, among other efforts. Ulukaya also signed on to the Giving Pledge in 2015, vowing to donate the majority of his wealth to help the cause.
While it’s easy to see how all of this benefits the refugees, something less expected has happened since Ulukaya started hiring people from MVRCR: It has also been a boon for Chobani. “It’s a good thing to do,” he says, “and on the business side, it’s a smart thing to do. These are the most hardworking, patriotic, honest people. They will give everything they have.” The impact has gone way beyond just solving staffing shortages; it has proven to be a morale booster, contributing to a spirit of community—a feeling among employees that the company stands for much more than just profits. “It’s hard to quantify in dollars,” says MVRCR executive director Shelly Callahan, “but it’s enriching in all sorts of ways that people don’t necessarily think about initially. People are looking for more meaning: in how they shop, in what they do for a living. Hamdi is someone who recognizes that, while he’s making a really good product, it’s bigger than that.”
In Twin Falls, I met two sisters in their early twenties who work the 2 p.m.-to-10 p.m. shift at the factory. Nisa, a production lead, and Amna, a filler operator, were born in a troubled country in the Middle East, and they came to Idaho in 2012, hoping to start over after years of dislocation and struggle. (To protect family members, they asked that I not use their real names or identify their home country.) Knowing that Ulukaya would be in town, they had surprised him at the office with a home-cooked lunch of traditional chicken and rice—a gesture rewarded with hugs from the clearly moved CEO. “He is like a magic, magic boss,” Nisa told me as she watched Ulukaya scoop chicken onto a plate. “Every day life comes more easy and becomes more beautiful. Today we are smiling, and it’s all because of Chobani.”
Nisa and Amna’s father, a policeman, was killed when they were young. Without a man in the family, they were vulnerable to harassment, and by the time they were teenagers they were being stalked by men who wanted to marry them. The more their mother said no, the worse it got: There were death threats and warnings of acid attacks, and armed men staked out their doorstep. The sisters were trapped, unable to leave even for school.
Their mother decided she had to get the family out of the country. She sold their house and found a smuggler who said he could get them to safety. Early one morning, dressed in black to avoid being seen, the three of them made their escape. Amna was 15, Nisa a year younger. It was the start of a 16-day journey—across multiple countries, through wilderness and over water, hiding out in crowded rooms full of strangers speaking unfamiliar languages, all with no idea where they were or what lay ahead. Finally, the smugglers packed them into a dangerously cramped secret compartment built into the back of a truck. There was no food, and breathing in the dark, windowless space was difficult. During the ride, a child next to them died.
At the Ukraine border, they were divided into groups. Nisa and Amna were in one, their mother in another. The smugglers said they would reunite the family on the other side and everyone would continue on to Germany. But once in Ukraine, the girls were dumped in a Kiev marketplace—filthy, starving, and terrified. “It was cold, we had no food,” Nisa says. “I had fractured my foot [during the journey] and couldn’t even walk. It was almost dark, and we just stood in the bazaar: waiting, waiting, waiting.” Getting desperate, they decided to start approaching strangers, asking if anyone spoke their language, begging passersby to help them find their mother. After many hours, they met a man who was from their country, and he agreed to let them sleep on the floor of his kitchen for just one night. He lived with his wife and two children in a single room, he told them, and didn’t have much space.
Nisa and Amna ended up staying there for four years. Though their illegal status made life extremely difficult, Nisa studied English and did some work as a translator at a refugee center. Things gradually got a little better, but they kept searching for their mom. “There was no news,” Nisa says, crying quietly. “Coming today? Coming today? Coming today? Nothing happened.” To this day, they still don’t know what happened. “We are just hoping that she will be alive,” Nisa says. “That is the most important thing.”
At the refugee center, Nisa met a group of American visitors from the immigrant aid group HIAS, who offered their assistance. Working with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the relief workers helped guide the sisters through the vetting process and find them a new home. “They [eventually] told us, ‘Okay, tomorrow you will fly to United States,’ ” says Nisa, who was 18 at the time. “We were so happy.” They were reluctant to leave without their mom, but they couldn’t turn down the opportunity to move someplace where they would be legal and, they hoped, welcome.
Nisa and Amna arrived in Twin Falls exactly a week after the first cups came off the line at Chobani’s new plant, in November of 2012. Soon enough, they were both working at the company. The first time Ulukaya came by, Nisa had no idea who he was. There was a bit of water on the floor, and she asked the CEO to move so she could clean it. “He looks at me and says, ‘What is your name? Where did you come from?’ ” she recalls. “When he asked me, I was so full inside I just started crying. He hugged me and asked, ‘Why you are crying?’ I was feeling so emotional. I told him where I came from, how hard was life for us, and now I start working here. He was like, ‘Don’t worry. You are in a safe place.’ ”
Ulukaya’s commitment to refugees hasn’t been without repercussions. After a right-wing website published several articles last summer that criticized Chobani, social media outrage ensued, along with calls for a boycott. Ulukaya even received death threats. He was undeterred, but he describes it as a difficult time. “It hurt me,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to think anything weird about Chobani. Unfortunately, the online world is very weird these days. If anyone saw the people who are at Chobani and the opportunity we give and what kind of environment it is, I do not believe anyone would object. These are amazing people making great products and trying to do their best.”
After The New York Times published a story about the death threats last October, Ulukaya arrived at Chobani’s New York office one morning and found a big package waiting for him. It contained several hundred letters of support from strangers around the country. “Those letters,” he says, “were one of the best moments of my life.”
Later this year, Chobani plans to break ground on an elegant 50,000-square-foot office building in Twin Falls adjoining the Idaho factory. It will house a comfortable employee break room and cafeteria, an open atrium for town-hall meetings, and outdoor areas where workers can recharge. The Twin Falls plant is already the world’s largest yogurt-making facility, with up to 2.5 million pounds of milk coursing through its 1 million square feet every day. Rising out of a 109-acre field, its crisp edges and smooth white walls would suggest a high-end suburban shopping mall were it not for the prominent Chobani logo high up on the front. Inside, the building’s scale is hard to process, with a central corridor so long you can’t see from one end to the other. Smartly uniformed technicians huddle around data-crammed screens and gleaming, impossibly complex machines—a scene more reminiscent of a Bond villain’s lair than a factory making stuff called Almond Coco Loco and Coffee Brownie Bliss. Ulukaya still gets a little jolt of pride every time he drives past.
Ulukaya hatched the Twin Falls plant with Marc Abjean, Chobani’s head of manufacturing and technology, in 2011. They roughed out plans on the back of a napkin over a meal at a cozy pizzeria near South Edmeston, which Ulukaya had used as an unofficial office during Chobani’s early years. Twin Falls was a huge gamble—a way to increase the company’s West Coast presence, but also an infrastructure investment that would allow Chobani to significantly expand its focus. “If we were wrong,” Ulukaya says, “this was the end of the company.” Cash flow got so tight, Chobani needed a $750 million loan from private-equity firm TPG in 2014. But the new Flip line, which the plant was specifically designed to support, took off. In 2016, Chobani shipped more than 24 million cases of Flips, and sales jumped 52% from 2015. Flip products now make up 40% of the overall “mix in” market.
The expanded Twin Falls operation is part of the company’s next big transformation: from yogurt brand to what McGuinness describes as “tomorrow’s food company.” The idea is that Chobani’s values—taking care of employees, using natural ingredients, doing good in the world—can be applied to any number of other food products. Overall Greek yogurt sales were flat in 2016 (the category declined by 1%, according to Nielsen), after growing by double-digit percentages for the past four years. Chobani intends to move beyond its core products—maybe even beyond yogurt. It’s also looking to international markets: Chobani is now sold in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and other countries. Eventually, McGuinness wants people to think of Chobani as “a health and wellness company: It can be what you eat, how you act, how you treat people in the workplace—it’s a larger idea.”
Still, the path from here will bring challenges. “The things they’re moving into make sense, but they’re going to find a lot more competition compared to the way they originally got momentum,” says Randy Burt, a partner in the retail practice of strategy and management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. “Their competition is much more aware of them than they were in 2008.”
One surprising area of possible expansion is Chobani’s cafés, which serve exclusive yogurt concoctions (both sweet and savory) as well as Turkish-style simit sandwiches and other items. There are two outposts in New York City, including one that operates out of a Target. Another recently launched inside a Walmart near Houston, and McGuinness is hoping to have a couple more open by the end of 2017. It’s easy to see how these sleekly designed brand advancers could rapidly spread throughout airports, malls, and office-packed downtown areas.
An IPO, which would enable much faster expansion of products and markets, remains a possibility, but the one thing Ulukaya says he won’t do is sell Chobani outright. That is unusual. Most successful packaged-food startups eventually get absorbed by international conglomerates: Think Danone buying Stonyfield Farm or General Mills acquiring Annie’s Homegrown. Ulukaya started getting approached by suitors even in the early days, long before Chobani was a multibillion-dollar business. “I’ll be honest with you, I paused when somebody came and said, ‘Hey, you could get billions out of this,’ ” he recalls. “You say yes and take the money and go away, or you say no and stay and struggle. I was making calculations: I could [spend] $1 million every two weeks for the rest of my life and still have money left. It’s like, how do you spend $2 million every month?”
In 2016, Ulukaya was approached yet again, this time by PepsiCo. Chobani had been exploring the idea of selling a minority portion, but PepsiCo was only interested in a majority stake. Ulukaya decided instead to self-fund the next phase of growth. “They wanted to have control,” he says. “Without going into details, that [would be] the end of Chobani. This company has never been controlled. It’s the same with me: If you put boundaries around me, I’ll try to break it. Chobani has always been free. And in that freedom, it will do the right thing.”
But Ulukaya’s insistence on independence is about more than just ownership. When he first heard those rumblings of big-money offers back in the early days, he had to think hard about why running Chobani meant so much to him. “For the first time in my life, I was doing something,” he says. “Those years of journey were designed to come here and start this. I was amazed with myself, to be honest with you. That joy, that discovery of self, is so powerful that it is above and beyond anything. And you wonder: If I did this, where else can it go? What kind of impact can I make? I can’t end it here. I just discovered this guy. I’m not going to let him go yet.”
One afternoon, after spending several hours at the South Edmeston plant, I went for a walk in Columbus Corners Cemetery, which sits next to the Chobani property. I had just finished talking to two refugees who work in the factory, optimistic young men with tough histories who have found new lives working for a Turkish guy in rural America. It had just snowed, and fading gray sunlight glinted off of the factory’s metallic milk silos. I followed fresh deer tracks through the aged gravestones, taking in names from a different world. Content Olney, Died 1811. Experance Loomis, Died 1813. Harvey Tuttle, Died 1833.
Wandering through the grounds, I couldn’t help but wonder what these long-gone early Americans—buried in the shadow of the plant, some no doubt immigrants themselves—would have made of their neighbor Hamdi, that America-loving foreigner with huge ambitions and a generous heart. I thought about my own grandparents, themselves refugees, who came to this country in desperation and scraped together a future for their son, their grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren.
And I thought about Nisa and Amna, still scarred but starting to look ahead, to plot a life that might ease the path for their own kids and grandkids one day. The sisters are hoping to buy a house, and they plan to apply for U.S. citizenship this year. “These girls could be lost, damaged, wasted for the remainder of their lives,” Ulukaya had told me in Twin Falls. “But they are the light of the plant. Yes, I built a $450 million plant and all that stuff, but the part I love the most is becoming this hub for building lives. Refugees have gone through so much, just like these two girls. And seeing them smile and full of energy, it’s like a new world is created—while you’re making a cup of yogurt! Nothing is more beautiful than that.”
This article originally appeared in Fast Company.