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August 16, 2019

Shifting CEO’s Focus from Profits to People

Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani, a leader in the Greek yogurt industry, gave a talk at a TED conference last April. His talk titled “The anti-CEO playbook”, explores the history of Chobani and how the company’s humble beginnings shaped the way Ulukaya leads as a CEO.

Ulukaya’s journey as a CEO began after stumbling upon a dilapidated factory in upstate New York. When seeing the factory for the first time, Ulukaya noticed two things: a building whose current tenant had rendered it worthless and 55 employees who were tasked with tearing down the factory they had worked at for years. Ulukaya left, called his lawyer, got a loan, bought the factory, and offered those 55 employees new jobs.

While rebuilding the factory and creating a community within a company, Ulukaya questioned the way business is supposed to be done. Instead of making decisions that are best for company profits, as the traditional CEO would, he decided to prioritize people. Ulukaya states, “It’s time to admit that the playbook that guided businesses and CEOs for the last 40 years is broken.” He then breaks down the hypothetical anti-CEO playbook into its four purposes: Gratitude, Community, Responsibility, and Accountability.


Ulukaya shares that, a few years ago, Chobani made the decision to give all their employees shares in the company. Many questioned if the decision was to benefit public relations, as that would be the motive for most CEOs, but Ulukaya states, “They earned it with their talent and with their hard work… The new way of business—it’s your employees you take care of first. Not the profits.”


Ulukaya continues by discussing his thought process when Chobani needed a second factory. Instead of following tax incentives, he went to Idaho, saw how the people could benefit from a factory being built there, and planted the seed for prosperity. He encourages other leaders to “Go search for communities that you can be part of. Ask for permission. And be with them, open the walls and succeed together.”


Discussing who to hire, Ulukaya notes that Utica, a city one hour from Chobani’s original plant, had many Southeast Asian and African refugees in need of jobs. He reflects that “Today, in one of America’s rural areas, 30 percent of the Chobani workforce are immigrants and refugees. And it changed us for the better.”


Finally, Ulukaya shares that while many CEOs feel they answer to the board, he answers to the consumer. For the first few years, the customer service number for Chobani was his personal contact information. He explains, “You see, if you are right with your people, if you are right with your community, if you are right with your product, you will be more profitable, you will be more innovative, you will have more passionate people working for you and a community that supports you.”

Now 14 years after its inceptions and 12 years in business, Chobani is the top Greek yogurt brand in the United States and the second biggest yogurt maker in the world. Their annual sales are around two billion dollars with no cap in sight. Could Ulukaya’s decision to disregard the old methods and follow the anti-CEO playbook be simply a coincidence? Doubtful.


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