Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of yoghurt business Chobani, has been awarded Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 in a ceremony held in Monte Carlo.
"This whole plant came to me as a bargain when this big corporation thought it was junk, and I thought it was very valuable," says Ulukaya, who funded the purchase with a small business loan.
Ulukaya, who travelled to America from Turkey in 1994 to study English and business, viewed America as an emerging market when it came to yoghurt.
"The yoghurt market here was full of sugar, full of preservatives. It's not the yoghurt I grew up with in Turkey – I don't know how you call it yoghurt. And they marketed it only for women. For so many different reasons yoghurt in America never took off," he says.
With the mission to distribute healthy yoghurt to supermarkets across America, Ulukaya says he trusted his gut feeling to buy the factory, and says intuition can be the best way to make decisions when you are forging a new market or industry.
"We all have it [intuition] – it's about trusting it. If you get into something really new, there isn't the research or examples to show you [it will work]."
Ulukaya hired four factory staff and a yoghurt master and for two years the small team worked to perfect the Chobani product.
"I didn't have a real plan for what I was going to do. When the guys asked on the first day, 'What's the plan?' I said, 'Let's buy some paint from the local store and let's paint the walls'. That's all I could come up with," he says.
Ulukaya, who was 33 when he bought the factory, remained closely involved with every step of his company's development: from learning how to operate the machinery, to designing the product branding and packaging and perfecting the yoghurt recipe.
"It was enormous amount of attention to every detail. I had one shot and I wanted to make sure it would work," he says.
When the first container of 300 yoghurts was shipped to a New York store two years later, Ulukaya was on the last of his business loan and grant money.
"I designed the price so it would be acceptable for people to buy at a good price, while at the same time having enough margin to come back and support my growth."
In less than six years, this strategy of reinvesting profits into the business has seen Chobani grow to a company that employees 3000 people and sells yoghurt across American, Australia and Europe – while remaining entirely independent.
Ulukaya, who didn't pay for any advertising until 2011, attributes his success to creating a healthy and affordable product that people have shared through social media and by word of mouth.
"The old-fashioned marketing," he says.
Australia has become an important part of this global business after Ulukaya bought a Victorian dairy business, Bead Company, in Melbourne's Dandenong South in 2011.
Ulukaya describes this purchase as another spontaneous, intuitive decision, based on the opportunities he recognised in Australia with gaps in the healthy yoghurt market.
He established Chobani Australia, managed entirely by Australian staff, which officially launched in December 2012, after adding 3000 square metres of wet processing and cool room facilities to the Dandenong plant and creating 50 new local jobs.
Ulukaya is excited about the interaction and shared learning between the American and Australian arms of the business. "The interaction is one of the best I have seen in my life: the best communications," he says, which is facilitated by social media and a new intranet system.
To keep up with rising global demand, the business has since purchased a new US plant in Idaho: a 93,000 square metre facility that is the largest yoghurt plant in the world.
The next phase of expansion is set for Europe, where Chobani is testing the UK market by exporting its products from New York to London for sale in Tesco supermarkets.
Ulukaya, who last year reached the Forbes billionaires list, says his focus has always been on people and not profit, and it is something he urges young entrepreneurs to be mindful of.
"[Mine] is a very humble, simple story. I try and encourage people to bring a new way of doing business: have your 'why', your reasons," he says.
"A business should have its purpose, and if it does, it can make a really big impact.”