Chobani
Chobani 5fa4d837a9836

Building Culture at Chobani

Nov. 6, 2020
The yogurt maker’s supply chain leader talks about the recent wage boost, and the importance of ‘taking care of people.’

Last week, Greek yogurt manufacturer Chobani shared a dollop of good news: it was increasing its starting wage to $15 an hour. With that hike, the average hourly rate at the company’s two U.S. manufacturing plants, in South Edmeston, New York, and Twin Falls, Idaho, will be about $19.

The wage boost is the latest addition to worker-friendly policies at the company, which has more than 2,000 employees, 70% of them paid hourly. Employees can receive tuition reimbursement; in 2016 they were given an ownership stake amounting to 10% of the company. Since the onset of COVID-19 in the U.S. in March, hourly workers have received incremental bonuses for working and paid leave if they did not feel safe coming to work. During the first few months of the pandemic, meals in the workplace were catered to reduce risk from coming and going at lunchtime. And with schools closing, workers received a subsidy for childcare so they could come to work.

Jason Blaisure, senior vice president of supply chain, has helped shape the culture and HR policies at Chobani since he arrived in 2011. That was the year the then-3-year-old company, seeing its demand skyrocket, broke ground on the Idaho plant. (The New York plant was the original, purchased secondhand by founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya after Kraft closed its yogurt business).

Chobani wooed Blaisure away from pharmaceutical manufacturer Covidien, where he began his career on the shop floor running a tablet press and worked his way up to production supervisor. His pharmaceutical experience, and the high regulatory compliance that went with it, was considered a gold standard that Chobani was striving for in food manufacturing. The chance to take a burgeoning company to the next level, combined with the fact that the original plant was a ray of positivity for his hometown, had him eagerly accepting the job.

“I graduated from the high school four miles up the road,” Blaisure says. The adjacent farm that Ulukaya bought to expand the South Edmeston plant had been Blaisure’s grandfather’s farm, “so you don’t get any more local than that.”

Blaisure and two of his colleagues, Barb Ross and Connie Hasko, literally wrote the company’s human resource policies. “When I started, we didn’t even have a robust attendance policy,” he says. “So it’s been everything from attendance policy to building a full benefits package, and what is the vacation gonna look like?”

Up until then, the focus had been “on making as much product as we could because we just could not keep up with the demand.” Going forward, they wanted to develop a culture where the workers felt valued and taken care of.

“In order to have a successful organization, it doesn’t matter if you’re making widgets or what the business is,” Blaisure says. “Your frontline associates are the lifeblood of the organization; they’re the ones that are making and shipping this product every single day. And without them, you don’t have an organization—you’ll never be successful and never stand the test of time.”

In his current role, Blaisure oversees operations (which includes a third plant in Australia), warehouse logistics, procurement, quality and global engineering. “One of the reasons that I decided to join Chobani back then—it was because I’m so passionate about the people,” he says. “I’ve been asked by prior managers, ‘Don’t you want to [lead] outside of operations?’ And yeah, true, I’m responsible for all supply chain today. But that’s really just an extension of the operations, the plants—that’s what makes this company go around. And in order to do that successfully, you have to take care of your employees. We maintain that culture. Now we’ve grown into over a billion-dollar company in revenue, but that is the core of who we are.”

That culture extends to leanin the past five years, Chobani's plants have reduced scrap by 500%and the company’s suppliers, including dairy and fruit farmers, Blaisure says, adding that aside from a few close calls due to worker shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, Chobani has not had any supply-chain issues related to the pandemic. “We have very longstanding relationships with our suppliers,” he says. “When you’re loyal, then the reality is, you’re at the top of the priority list when something goes wrong.” Not having those relationships “can be that hidden expense that some companies kind of miss, when it’s always about driving the initial bottom line.

“Sometimes it’s worth it to show some loyalty to your suppliers, even if it costs you a little bit more. Because in the long run, it ends up costing less because they appreciate and reward that loyalty. It’s not just about placing an order and cutting a check for us with our suppliers. We visit their farms and are on their plant floors, working closely with them.”

Even during COVID, Blaisure and his team are at times making socially distanced site visits. Virtual reality glasses can only go so far. “It can be pretty challenging, to use technology to develop the food that we’re looking for,” Blaisure says.

 “I don’t think there will ever be a full substitute for true boots on the ground. And what we’ve done since March is work with our suppliers to implement the same high level of safety protocols that we have in our own plants. So that when we do visit, we limit the number of people, and follow our own safety protocols whether they had them in place or not—and most of them have been grateful to us for helping develop their safety protocols to mirror ours.”

Got a manufacturing candidate for Profiles in Leadership? Reach out to IndustryWeek Senior Editor Laura Putre.

About the Author

Laura Putre | Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

Focus: IndustryWeek Contributors, Leadership, Automotive
Email: [email protected]
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Senior Editor Laura Putre manages IW contributors and covers leadership as it applies to executive best practices, corporate culture, corporate responsibility, growth strategies, managing and training talent, and strategic planning.

A former newspaper journalist, Laura has written for Slate, The Root, the Chicago Tribune, the Guardian and many other publications.

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