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This $1.2 Billion Company Has a Great Product. That’s Not Why It’s Making Headlines

Hamdi Ulukaya championed against the travel ban and vowed to help employees impacted by the restrictions.

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BY Emily Canal - 30 Nov 2017

This $1.2 Billion Company Has a Great Product. That's Not Why It's Making Headlines

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Editor's Note: Inc. Magazine will announce its pick for Company of the Year on Monday, December 11. Here, we spotlight a contender for the title in 2017.

Chobani wasn't thrust into the spotlight this year for its seasonal yogurt flavors or new products; it was the company's employment of refugees that put it on the political mainstage.

Chobani, a multi-billion dollar Greek yogurt manufacturer, had been a long-time employer of refugees but after its founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya encouraged other businesses to follow his lead during the World Economic Forum in January 2016, people took notice. Ulukaya and the company faced online criticism -- including death threats - that intensified with the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump's travel ban the following year.

Ulukaya didn't back down; instead he championed against Trump's executive order and vowed to help employees impacted by the restrictions. But it's personal for Ulukaya. "As an immigrant who came to this country looking for opportunity, it's very difficult to think about and imagine what millions of people around the world must be feeling right now," Ulukaya wrote in an internal memo, obtained by CNN, after Trump announced his first travel ban in January 2017.

Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant of Kurdish decent, grew up on his family's sheep and goat farm making Tulum cheese. When he was in college studying political science, the Turkish police brought him in for questioning and spooked him enough to move to the U.S. in 1994 (he wasn't arrested or charged with any crimes). He landed at Baruch College in New York City where a professor learned of his background in cheesemaking and asked for a lesson at her farm upstate. Ulukaya loved the property and convinced his teacher to give him a job on the farm shoveling manure and milking cows (he also transferred to SUNY Albany). A year later his brother moved to the U.S. and by 2002 the pair had launched a small feta cheese company called Euphrates, according to Fast Company.

Then, in 2005, he saw a flyer announcing the sale of a Kraft Foods yogurt factory for $700,000. Ulukaya told Fast Company in 2017 that he considered it a steal. Using a loan from the Small Business Administration, he purchased the facility with the hopes of selling Greek-style yogurt to Americans. Two years later, the first cup of Chobani yogurt was sold to a kosher market in Great Neck, on New York's Long Island.

This $1.2 Billion Company Has a Great Product. That's Not Why It's Making Headlines

Now Chobani has two additional manufacturing plants and took in about $1.5 billion in revenue last year, according to Fast Company. It dominates the $3.6 billion Greek yogurt category, beating competitors like Danone and General Mills, and owns 36 percent of all Greek yogurt sales, according to Nielsen. What's more, it employs more than 2,000 people, including about 400 refugees.

"Having different backgrounds and perspectives within Chobani makes us stronger, more innovative and more successful," Ulukaya said in an email. "We're not telling other companies what to do. But for us, it's the only way."

While also championing for refugee rights, the company continues to grow its offerings - it owns nine product lines including Mediterranean-styled dips and Flips, its yogurts paired with nuts or chocolate chips.

"Yes, I built a $450 million plant and all that stuff, but the part I love the most is becoming this hub for building lives," Ulukaya told Fast Company. "Refugees have gone through so much and seeing them smile and full of energy, it's like a new world is created--while you're making a cup of yogurt!"