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The American dream has rarely been as fully realized as it was for Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant who came to the United States from his family’s dairy farm in 1997 to attend college and convince Americans to change their taste in yogurt.
To describe the success of tangy and upscale Greek yogurt in the marketplace as meteoric is to understate the reality. Ulukaya’s company, Chobani (Greek for “shepherd”), now controls 17 percent of the overall yogurt business in the United States, far ahead of its chief Greek competitor, Fage, or any other yogurt brand, for that matter. Ulukaya, who started his company in 2005 by buying an unused Kraft yogurt factory in economically depressed Central New York, is now a billionaire.
Sales of Chobani’s yogurt have increased 400 percent since 2009, and the company is valued at $1.1 billion. Chobani has the top brand awareness in the Greek yogurt category, (due in part to Chobani’s sponsoring the 2012 Olympics in London and proving to be a savvy user of social media.)
“Why is this so sweet?” Ulukaya asked the first time he tried American yogurt, and it was the right question to ask. The conventional wisdom that Americans wouldn’t take to tart yogurt proved completely wrong—it’s 25 percent of the market now—and traditional leaders Dannon and General Mills (Yoplait) missed the developing trend. Of course, they’re making up for it now by introducing a blizzard of Greek yogurt products. But it could be too late to regain their former dominance—as one illustrative example, the Big Three automakers let Toyota take the lead on hybrid cars and haven’t been able to make a dent in Prius sales since.
The free market enabled Ulukaya’s success, but another corner of the American system could take it down. The yogurt mogul’s pediatrician ex-wife, Ayse Giray, sued him last summer, claiming that she underwrote the launch of the business. She’s asking for a controlling 53 percent stake in the company.