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Labor Day: A Holiday and a Time to Reflect on the American Dream

Written by Lester Detterbeck.

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Hamdi_Ulukaya.jpgWe hope everyone had a wonderful Labor Day weekend. We certainly did. Labor Day always marks the “unofficial” end of summer. Time for school and work to begin in earnest. It’s also an excellent time to remember the contributions and achievements of American workers and to reflect on their chances of achieving the American Dream, which is “the ideal that every U.S. citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination and initiative.”

Last week, I read a very engaging interview in the NYT about Chobani yogurt’s founder, Mr. Hamdi Ulukaya (pictured above) and his quest of the American dream for himself and others.

Hamdi Ulukaya grew up in eastern Turkey with sheep, goats and cows. He and his family spent the spring, summer and fall in the mountains; herding animals and producing yogurt and cheese. They came back to their village in winter time. Hamdi went to a boarding school, but didn’t like it. He left school, got in trouble and then thought he should leave Turkey. A stranger suggested, “Why don’t you go to the United States?” Hamdi wasn’t sure, but decided to take the plunge in 1994, at age 22, and came to America with $3,000 in his pocket.

After several years of university study and odd jobs, in 2002 Mr. Ulukaya was encouraged by his father to start making feta cheese. Years of hard work and struggle ensued with little success. One day, Mr. Ulukaya saw an ad for a fully equipped yogurt plant for sale. Kraft was closing the operation in the dairy region of NY, near where Mr. Ulukaya lived. His attorney checked into it and reported back, “They’re looking for an idiot to unload this on. They probably have environmental issues. And, if they thought yogurt was a good business, they would not be getting out of it.” This was 2005 and at that time Greek yogurt represented about ½ of 1% of the yogurt market.

But, Mr. Ulukaya was convinced he could make it work. He pursued the deal and, on August 17, 2005, he had the “key” to the factory. Today, Greek yogurt is over 50% of the yogurt market. Chobani, which means “shepherd”, went from no sales in 2005 to over $1 billion per year by 2012. It continues to grow as the #1-best-selling Greek yogurt in America. BTW, it’s my favorite.

Chobani started with a few people and now employs thousands. They are known for offering generous wages and benefits and recently gave away equity to its employees. Mr. Ulukaya tells why: “Look, my background is a working-class background. One of my dreams was to make this company a place where everybody’s a partner, and the employees deserved a portion of what they have helped to build. If you make $7 or even $9 per hour, you can’t have a house. You can’t have good food for the kids. Forget vacations.” He continues: “Especially for rural communities, we (the employers) have to start worrying about our own employees, their families and their children’s well-being, and the school, and the firehouse and the baseball field. You have to get involved.”

Chobani needed people for its growth. Coincidentally, at this time people from different parts of the world were being settled in the Utica, NY area near the Chobani plant. Mr. Ulukaya, an immigrant himself, decided to start hiring them: “These are hardworking people-they’ve gone through a lot.” Today roughly 20% (500 to 600 people) of the Chobani workforce are immigrants from 19 different countries. In April 2016, Mr. Ulukaya gave his employees 10% of the shares of Chobani.

Labor Day is a perfect time for a holiday and perfect time to reflect on the American dream. Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya is a shining example that the American dream is alive and well. Mr. Ulukaya, now 45 years old, is worth $1.7 billion and is an owner, investor and philanthropist. And, as importantly, Chobani is helping keep the flame of the American Dream alive for its employees; by providing generous wages and benefits, including equity.   All 2,500 Chobani employees, some of them newcomers to the United States from other parts of the world and some whose families have been here for generations, could all celebrate in a very special way on Labor Day. The American dream is alive and well, particularly with entrepreneurs like Hamdi Ulukaya leading the way.

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