Chobani's Hamdi Ulukaya backs Australian food, brands

Chobani's Hamdi Ulukaya backs Australian food, brands


Agribusiness
"Living in Australia, you are leading this opportunity more than anybody else": Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya. Photo: Joe Armao

"Living in Australia, you are leading this opportunity more than anybody else": Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya. Photo: Joe Armao

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Hamdi Ulukaya says he sees Australia as home to the best opportunities for other entrepreneurs to follow his lead.

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Australians are in the prime position to make food and brands that will resonate around the world, the founder of American yoghurt success story Chobani says. 

Hamdi Ulukaya bought a disused Kraft plant in New York state and launched his line of Greek yoghurts in 2007.

A decade later, Chobani has become the highest-selling yoghurt brand in America, with sales of more than $1 billion a year, and is growing rapidly in Europe and Asia. 

Now Mr Ulukaya says he sees Australia as home to the best opportunities for other entrepreneurs to follow his lead and build world-beating food companies from scratch. 

"I'm a brand guy and Australia is an awesome brand," Mr Ulukaya told Fairfax Media on Tuesday during a visit to Chobani's plant in Dandenong South, in Melbourne's south-east.

"One of the biggest opportunities for innovation and brand-building in the future is food. And living in Australia, you are leading this opportunity more than anybody else. You're sitting on a gold mine."

Chobani is held up in the grocery industry as an example of how a small, well-branded company can catch the dominant food giants napping and steal market share with a new product. 

Its Greek-style yoghurt was rare in the US when Chobani launched and it was lower in sugar than competitors, appealing to health-conscious consumers. On-the-go packaging and flavours that moved yoghurt from a breakfast food to an all-day snack furthered its popularity. 

Mr Ulukaya on Tuesday launched an Australian version of his Chobani Food Incubator, which, like a tech incubator, will pluck four small "food start-ups" and help them grow. 

In the US, the program has worked with a low-carb pasta maker, a juice company that uses fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be wasted, and a socially responsible cocoa producer.

Australian participants will receive "no-strings-attached" $10,000 grants and will be the first to use the food labs and industrial kitchens at Monash University's new $3 million "incubation facility" at its Food Innovation Centre in Melbourne's south-east.

Mr Ulukaya, a Turkish migrant who Forbes estimates is worth more than $2 billion, said start-up companies in any industry needed to understand that branding was more important than ever.

Australia had a disproportionate influence worldwide, he said, with respect for brands among consumers here resonating in markets elsewhere.

"The coffee guys are doing it already," Mr Ulukaya said. "But brands cannot be built unless you have a beautiful product in it."

Chobani bought its Dandenong South factory from Gippsland Dairy in 2011 and launched its flagship brand in 2013. 

Local managing director Peter Meek said it was now Australia's second-highest-selling yoghurt brand, selling 17.3 million kilograms of Chobani and 11.3 million kilograms of Gippsland Dairy products a year, and he saw it overtaking Yoplait as the highest seller soon.  

As well as tackling the local market, Mr Ulukaya said the Melbourne factory would serve as a base when the company was ready to push further into Asia. It already exports to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. 

Research firm IBISWorld estimates Chobani is Australia's fourth-biggest yoghurt maker, with 12 per cent of the total market and $77.6 million in local sales in 2017, behind dairy giants Parmalat and Lion, which both sell several brands of yoghurt, and Jalna Dairy.   

Sydney Morning Herald.

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