Big Bet on Greek Yogurt, Big Payoff
As applications for the 2012 Inc. 500|5000 arrive, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. (For more information and to apply, go to (http://www.inc.com/inc5000apply/2012). One that caught our eye was Norwich, New York-based yogurt company Chobani.
When Hamdi Ulukaya sorted through his junk mail in his central New York home in 2005, he saw among the ads that Kraft was selling a fully equipped yogurt plant not far from his home. Ulukaya didn't think twice, he threw the ad out with the rest of the junk. While he had been confused by the low quality of American yogurt (especially it's high sugar and low nutritional value), the purchase seemed too far out of reach.
"For some reason I came back, picked the ad up and I went to see the factory that day," Ulukaya recalls. "I received an SBA loan and bought the factory in August 2005 with just five employees."
Ulukaya's chance purchase paid off. After spending time in his home country of Turkey perfecting the Chobani recipe (which includes 3 pounds of milk for every 1 pound of yogurt and all-natural fresh fruit chunks), the first case shipped to a store on Long Island in 2007. Thanks in large part to positive consumer feedback, Chobani's growth has been fast and steady ever since. The company reports a 2011 revenue of over $600 million and a whopping three-year growth rate of 2,662%.
Today Chobani employs 1,200 people, most of whom are proud to be a part of the community in which the yogurt factory is based. As the community grows with the company, Ulukaya sees everyone from the farmers to the sales people standing proudly by a product they've been an integral part of from the start.
"I don't believe that any business has the opportunity to go forward without paying attention to its surroundings," Ulkaya says. "From the beginning we tried to be a part of the community rather than take it over."
Ulkaya believes that all of the risks he takes (including purchasing a second plant in Idaho) will eventually pay off. This positive, winning attitude is infectious. So much so that Chobani has partnered with team USA for the upcoming summer Olympic games in London. As the Olympics found its roots in Greek culture, so, too, does Chobani in its yogurt.
"Five years ago there were a lot of unknowns, but we had this dream that we could make it," Ulkaya says. "It's similar to an Olympian: if you really believe in it and if you work hard for it and if you train hard for it, you can make it to the podium. You can get a gold medal."
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