Chobani CEO: ‘Our reaction was very human’

The yogurt executive tells Boise businesspeople to be honest when handling issues.

adutton@idahostatesman.comDecember 18, 2013 

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With Gov. Butch Otter right behind him, Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya talks about being a daredevil of sorts.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

This story has been edited to clarify staffing changes following Chobani's yogurt recall, and to correct information about the Twin Falls plant's operations.

Owning up to a mistake and acting like a human being are the best ways to respond to a problem like the one Chobani faced this year, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya told Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce members at a luncheon Tuesday.

Ulukaya said his company didn’t have a strategy for a crisis like when its Twin Falls plant produced yogurt that contained mold.

Chobani began pulling certain yogurt containers from shelves by Sept. 1, after customers started to complain of spoiled yogurt. The company issued a recall later that month.

“Our reaction was very human. We acted the way we knew how,” he said. “If that’s your strategy, things are easy. Because you can react to things just like you react in your normal life as a father, as a mother. ... Business decisions are not any different from those.”

Ulukaya said every customer who complained about bad yogurt received a letter or a phone call.

He also bought a house in Twin Falls so he could spend two months at the plant figuring out what went wrong.

The company made staffing changes during and after the recall, hiring new executives to oversee food safety and supply chain and operations, according to the Times-News.

In an interview after his speech to the Boise chamber, Ulukaya said the yogurt recall showed the company its strengths and the “places that we need to improve,” including leadership and procedures.

Tuesday marked one year since the Twin Falls plant opened. Ulukaya said he expects to more than double its production of Greek yogurt next year.

The plant cost $450 million — three times Chobani’s original estimate — and has enough piping to stretch from Twin Falls to Chicago, he said.

Ulukaya reflected on meeting Gov. Butch Otter when he was visiting possible new factory sites. He paid attention not just to what Otter told him about what it’s like to do business in Idaho, but also to what was “under the layer of personality,” Ulukaya said.

He asked himself, “Am I going to find people (in Idaho) I can work with when I have issues?” he said.

Now, years after that meeting, Ulukaya said he tells other business owners, “Before you go to China, you’ve got to stop by Idaho.”

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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