America sacrifices so much at the altar of greed and capitalism.
What America Needs is an Anti-CEO Playbook
One frigid January day in 2006, Hamdi took a drive which would turn out to be one of the most important of his life.
Just the day before, Hamdi opened a flyer which said, “Fully equipped yogurt plant for sale,” and he tossed it in the trash. Twenty-minutes later, he retrieved it, read it and called the number. Even though the plant was 85-years-old and closing, Hamdi decided to look.
Despite hating business, he owned a small cheese shop. Growing up in Turkey in the Kurdish mountains, his family made cheese and yogurt. They didn’t have much. The moon and starts, simple food, and each other.
On his trip to see the plant, he passed hills and roads which reminded him of home. After passing a road sign which said, “Dead End,” he saw the factory and was hit by the smell. A smell he describes today as a “milk container left out in the sun.”
The outside walls were peeling paint, chipped and faded.
When given a tour by a guy named Rich, the production manager, Hamdi learned about the history of the plant. Rich had worked there for 20-years, his father before him — and his grandfather before that.
Rich felt guilty that the factory was closing.
What hit Hamdi the hardest was this wasn’t just an old factory he was seeing — it was a time machine. People built lives there. They left for wars, they bragged about their children and talked about romances. But now it was closing.
The factory wasn’t just giving up on yogurt, it was giving up on the people. It was like the people weren’t good enough and Hamdi was shocked at the people’s reaction. There was no anger or tears. Just silence.
With unfounded grace they were closing the factory while the CEO was far away in an ivory tower, reviewing the spreadsheets and shutting down the factory.
Spreadsheets are lazy and they lie. They don’t talk about people. They don’t talk about communities, but that is how many business decisions are made.
The Phone Call
Hamdi wasn’t the same person. He called his lawyer from the car and said, “I want to buy this place.”
His attorney said, “Hamdi, one of the biggest food companies is closing and they’re getting out of the yogurt business. Who are you to make it work?”
“You’re right,” said Hamdi. But the next day, Hamdi called the lawyer again and said: “I want to buy this place.”
“You have no money,” said the lawyer. “You haven’t even paid me in six months.”
He was right.
Getting the Keys
But Hamdi got a loan and by August 2005 he had the keys to the factory. The first thing Hamdi did was rehire four of the original 55 people.
He brought on Maria as office manager, Frank, who handled wastewater, Mike, the maintenance man, and Rich.
At their first meeting, the four asked Hamdi what they were going to do now. “We’re going to go to the hardware store and get some paint,” Hamdi told the small group. “Then we’re going to paint the walls outside.”
No one was impressed. Mike said, “Hamdi, that’s fine. We’ll do that. But tell us you have more ideas than that.”
“We’ll paint the walls white,” Hamdi said. That was the only idea he had.
Chobani is Born
The five spent the summer painting the walls. Hamdi was convinced that in two years he would launch a yogurt that Americans have never seen or tasted. Hamdi named the yogurt Chobani which means shepherd in Turkish.
Hamdi’s dream went further.
He planned to hire all of the 55 employees back and 100 more. Hamdi could see the town coming back to life and the company trucks on the roads. With the first money the plant made, he intended to build one of the best Little League baseball fields for the children and become the number one yogurt brand in the nation.
The first four hires wouldn’t have believed Hamdi if he told them, but that’s precisely what happened.
In painting the walls, the five got to know each other and believe in each other. They worked day and night, through the holidays to repair the plant and the same people who were given up on were the ones who built it back better than before.
People Before Profits
Corporate America is all about profits. Mainstream business is about money. The CEO playbook talks about making shareholders happy. America sacrifices so much at the altar of greed and capitalism.
Everyone is hurt. Communities, jobs, factories, and workers. But not CEOs. CEOs have their employees who suffer in their stead and the CEOs’ paycheck gets bigger while workers are left behind.
The playbook which has guided businesses and CEOs for four decades is broken.
New Playbook and Noble Leaders
American business needs a new playbook and noble leaders. America business needs to see people again. America needs to look above and beyond profits and find anti-heroes. America needs anti-CEOs and an anti-CEO playbook.
A business should take care of employees first.
It’s About Community
The anti-CEO playbook is all about community. Today’s businesses ask communities, “What kind of tax breaks and benefits can you give me?” Instead, businesses should go and ask communities and city leaders, “How can I help you?”
Hamdi suggests that businesses find a new way of doing things. He encourages business leaders to search for communities in which they can become stakeholders. Instead of CEOs telling communities how things will be done, Hamdi encourages CEOs to ask for permission, to be open with community leaders and enjoy success together.
“You don't build a business. You build people, and then people build the business.”— Zig Ziglar
There are people and places all around the planet who have been left out and left behind. But their spirit is still strong. They just want another chance, they want someone to give them a chance again, not to just build it back, but build it better than before.
And this is the difference between the return on investment and return on kindness. This is the difference between profit and true wealth. And if it can happen in a small town in upstate New York, it can happen in every city and town and village around the world.