Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya on Challenging the Leadership Norm

Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukay

He’s a self-described Turkish nomad and an “anti-CEO”. The founder of Chobani built a fortune from an abandoned factory and has used his power to challenge what leadership looks like.

Current role: Founder, chairman and CEO, Chobani
Tenure: 15 years
Age: 49
Previous roles: Founder of Euphrates feta cheese business; sheep, goat and dairy farmer.

How do you define good leadership?

I’ve never studied leadership but I’ve observed who is a leader and why it’s important. To me, leadership is about the one who serves and that comes from a moral centre. It’s not about the self; it’s about the greater cause or the greater good. For me, that means the people and the community.

In your 2019 TED talk, which has had more than four million views, you spoke about the need to have anti-CEOs. What do you mean by that?

I grew up in Turkey [in the small village of Íliç] and I wanted to look at business from that perspective, from that village. When I drove to the factory [in upstate New York that he’d go on to buy after it had been closed by Kraft], it reminded me that even though I’m thousands of miles away from Turkey, I see another selfish act of business in this town – another village with a factory and factory workers. That is the business or CEO that I do not like. What I wanted to do was not be the one I grew up hating so I had to follow a different playbook. I’d never seen a boardroom. I’d never met anyone who had done this before. So I had to come up with my own style of running a business. When people are committed to their job and the environments they live in, if you have those people – these stakeholders – as your pure purpose, that isn’t against profit, growth, innovations and cost savings. That to me was the anti-CEO.

Do you see business shifting and really focusing on employees?

The sole purpose of business is not just for the benefit of the shareholders but the responsibility of the stakeholders – this line has been used in the past few years in World Economic Forum conversations. People are having conversations about this, I think, because they’re very much convinced that we want more from business. The global challenge that we’re facing is the responsibility of business. Young people who are coming into the workforce want to join companies that have a purpose. There is a conscious pursuit. I celebrate this but I also worry that it’s check-the-box language. But I respect that it’s a complete transformation of business, with this process coming into play in the next five, 10 or 20 years.

I hope you’re right...

We don’t have any other choices. When I started my journey I acted this way because I thought, “This is the only way I can operate; this is the only way I can run a business.”

If I can go back to that time, Hamdi. In 2005, you bought a $700,000 factory to start Chobani, with four workers. As you said, you had no business skills. Chobani now has revenue of $2 billion every year and you’re preparing to list the company. Has your success surprised you or did you always believe in yourself?

When I bought the factory, I interacted with the people in that factory and some of them are still here. I trust my gut because I like to think that I really see people. I have that closeness. I had no doubt Chobani would work… It’s magical to see, of course, but I’m never surprised. There’s a lot of work behind it but clearly it’s a joy to work at and what ties into it is the purpose. It becomes a joyful experience.

You’ve described Chobani as a people-first business. Is that why you chose to give your employees a share of the business in 2016 and double the minimum wage in 2020?

I never thought it was justice that people who work the hardest make this [a lesser amount]. But at the end of the day, it’s not, “Look at how they are living.” It’s the right thing to do and the right thing to do for the business also. It’s good for business. These people are thinking about their future, their families. If their families are healthy, if their children are healthy, that contributes to how they work. They’ll be there for a long time and if the people love the place they’re going to make sure that every single cup of yoghurt they make is made with love. You have to start with your own people.

Thirty per cent of your workforce are immigrants and refugees. That was a deliberate decision on your part and has had a huge impact, hasn’t it?

Yes. I had one simple line. If I can make everyone feel at home, it would be a magical place. If I can create a culture where they can come as who they are – they don’t have to pretend to be something they are not in the workplace. I wanted to connect people from different places around the world, who have had difficult times in their life and had difficulty finding jobs, to be part of a community. And when they come to our plant and our places and are part of a community, everyone can benefit from it. I’ve seen with my own eyes what it means to be a refugee and I thought if I can get a collection of companies to give them a chance – language, transportation, training, all that support – they can join these companies and contribute for the purpose of society. That was in 2016 [when he set up Tent, a not-for-profit organisation that encourages businesses to integrate refugees] and today we have 250 companies and hundreds and thousands of jobs. I would call a CEO month after month to convince them to come and be a part of this. It became a movement.

It’s about so much more than KPIs, isn’t it?

I went into the [Melbourne] factory yesterday and they had a big lunch. Australia is a place where people come to work – we have 40 countries in our company and almost 50 per cent of our people were born outside of Australia. Fifteen languages are spoken. It’s not a huge company [in Australia]. It’s mind-blowing that people come from different backgrounds and are together and celebrate their diversity and differences.

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You’ve remained outspoken on social issues at a time when many CEOs, particularly in the United States, are starting to pull their heads in. Why is that?

The whole reason of existence is making a difference in people’s lives. A company is a collection of people, not just some buildings. As a person I will not be quiet and I don’t want the company to be quiet.

I read an article where you said you’d been angry all your life. How have you managed to take that anger and channel it into something positive?

I really think that we are shepherds and warriors. Sometimes we fight and sometimes the fight could come out as angry [laughs]. As long as it comes from the right place. Sometimes anger is channelled into love – the love for what we do every single day.

How important is humility in leadership? I know you once asked your factory workers to punch you if you got too big for your boots.

Of course, you have to be more strict about leaving your ego behind. It’s extremely important to be grounded. My mother used to say to me when I was growing up, “You are never less than anyone but you are never more than anyone.” That’s just life really. You don’t want anyone to look down on you and you don’t want to look down on anybody else. But you also have to let people know what you’re made of and you have to let people know what you have is special. You have the right to share and to make statements. I tell my team and I tell myself that you shouldn’t hold onto those things in the name of humility.

How did you balance scaling your business and keeping the culture intact? It seems to be something that many startups struggle with.

I always say that the strongest cultures are built in the toughest times. How you interact with your people and how your people interact with each other is the most critical time of culture building. When startups go to the next level, the leader has to protect the culture. When the culture starts being changed, it is the saddest thing I see. And it means that the culture really wasn’t that strong to begin with.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give a brand-new CEO?

Be with your people, be on the floor with your people and be yourself.

SEE ALSO: Kate Quirke on Why Leading with Empathy Is Non-Negotiable

Illustration by Marc Némorin

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