March 22 2012 06:52 AM

Hamdi Ulukaya risked everything, and his Greek yogurt is now the nation's market leader.

"You cannot separate dairy products from the farm," said Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani brand yogurts who at one time was an employee on a U.S. dairy farm. "There are life lessons on the farm that you can't learn from a university," he explained to attendees at the 14th Annual Dairy Farmers of America meeting in Kansas City, Mo., earlier this week.

It is on that principle that Ulukaya started producing Greek yogurt in 2005. It is a rags-to-riches story in which Northeast dairy farmers have benefited as Ulukaya grew his yogurt business at a stealth pace. Since 2005, when he bought an 85-year-old processing plant, his Chobani brand sales have skyrocketed and now garner 19 percent market share making it the U.S. market leader. This is nearly $1 billion in annual sales.

Despite all this growth, Ulukaya is a very down-to-earth person who produces his product on one basic principle. "When making yogurt, it takes three pounds of milk to make one pound," he said with great candor. "You don't need a whole lot of additives. If you are good to yogurt, a cup of yogurt can be really good to you," said Ulukaya in a manner that easily related to the nearly 1,400 attendees at the DFA annual meeting.

Like everything about Ulukaya, his business is a no-nonsense operation. That included the selection for his product's brand name Chobani. Traditionally, it is spelled "chopani" which is the Greek word for shepherd. "It is a symbol of safety and good," noted the American immigrant who once called Turkey home.

What does the future hold?

"I think the yogurt story in America has just started," said Ulukaya. The next chapter of his business includes a Greek yogurt plant in Idaho. The plant will be 950,000 square feet and will use 6 to 8 million pounds of milk. Ulukaya admitted it might take two to three years to get to that level.

Since Chobani hit the scene, a number of competing brands have entered the market. "I love the competition," said Ulukaya. "However, don't ruin the yogurt with all the additives."