There are few things as American as a classic rags to riches story, and Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya seems to fit this classic narrative to a T. Born into a family of nomadic sheep herders in Turkey, he came to America with just $3,000 in his pocket and, through hard work, vision, and a bit of luck, managed to build a billion-dollar yogurt business.  

But while Ulukaya might seem like the perfect example of old-fashioned business success, from the TED stage in April (hat tip to Swiss Miss) he explained that his views on what it means to be successful are wildly different from the traditional business playbook. 

In fact, rather than seeing himself as the usual pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps capitalist hero, he thinks of himself as an "anti-CEO" calling the shots at his company from the "anti-CEO playbook." The typical rules of business success, he flatly declares, are stupid. Here's what he's replaced them with. 

1. Businesses exist to maximize shareholder value? Nope. 

"Today's business books say businesses exist to maximize profit for the shareholders. I think that's the dumbest idea I've ever heard in my life," Ulukaya says. If businesses shouldn't try first and foremost to make money for their owners, what should they aim for? "Businesses should take care of their employees first," he insists.  

In 2016 Ulukaya took the unusual step of giving his 2,000 employees shares in the company. "Some people said it's PR. Some said it's a gift. I said, 'It's not a gift'... They earned it with their talent and their hard work," he explains. 

2. Ask not what your community can do for you; ask what you can do for your community. 

In a veiled swipe at Amazon's recent HQ2 beauty contest, where cities competed to show how many tax breaks and incentives they could offer the online behemoth, Ulukaya believes companies shouldn't approach communities with their hand out. Instead, businesses should go to struggling communities and ask, "How can I help you?" 

"Go search for communities that you can be part of. Ask for permission and succeed together," Ulukaya advises, citing the resurgence of the community around his company's second factory in rural Idaho to show how this can work out for the benefit of everyone. 

3. Your boss isn't the board. It's the consumer. 

"Today's playbook says the CEO reports to the board. In my opinion the CEO reports to the consumer," says Ulukaya. He takes this point so seriously that, in the early days of Chobani, the telephone number on each pot of yogurt was his own personal line. Customers could literally phone up the CEO to chat. 

"The consumer is in power. That's the reason business exists," he reminds leaders. 

All of which sounds idealistic. And it is. But Ulukaya insists it is also a recipe for a deeper, more meaningful (and clearly still very remunerative) kind of success.  

"If you're right with your people, if you're right with your community, if you're right with your product, you'll be more profitable, more innovative, and you will have more passionate people working for you and a community that supports you," he concludes. 

Intrigued? Check out the complete talk below. 

Published on: Jul 18, 2019
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