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When Siggi Hilmarsson ’04 first moved from Iceland to New York to attend Columbia Business School in 2002, he quickly found he missed one of his favorite Icelandic staples — skyr, a thick, strained, high-protein yogurt. He started making his own skyr at home with his mother’s recipe, and the winning approval of friends encouraged him to expand to a dairy in a rented space upstate in 2005 and launch Siggi’s Dairy.
The rest, as they say, is history. Hilmarsson quit his job as a consultant at Deloitte, and Siggi’s went from the shelves of just 15 stores in New York its first year to more than 8,800 stores in 2015, including the ubiquitous Whole Foods, which started carrying the all-natural yogurt in 2008. During the last three years, Siggi’s has been one of the fastest growing national yogurt brands according to Nielsen, with 120 percent growth in sales in 2015 versus 2014.
With his own company’s future bright, Hilmarsson is thinking ahead — the entrepreneur was eager to share his thoughts on what’s next for business and for the MBA students hoping to follow in his successful footsteps.
On the future of Siggi’s Dairy and skyr:
We want to grow as much as we can first in the United States and then look internationally for select markets. However, it’s crucial to us that we do this while sticking to our values of simple ingredients and not a lot of sugar. We are not keen on diluting the concept to grow faster, as that would betray our values as well as cost us the loyalty of our customers. We want to build a lasting brand with values our consumer can depend on.
I hope the classic skyr will not change; it was the food of the Vikings and has been around for at least 1,100 years, so another 100 years is not that long. Innovation is always fun and exciting — just as long as a classic cup of plain skyr is always around the corner.
On the next big thing in business:
I'm not sure that I can say with any degree of certainty what is going to be the next big thing. Very few people can. If I could say, I would probably be out there participating in it somehow. In terms of specific sectors, I think healthcare is going to go through a lot of changes, and there will be big things happening there. I'm excited about technology potential in agriculture, where you already see farmers using digesters to create electricity out of waste water and other waste.
In terms of the food industry, I think and hope there are not going to be any big things, because I think we are going—and already have been, to some extent — back to the basics. I think that will continue. People will keep eating more real foods, fruit, vegetables, and fish, and move away from processed food.
On the next 100 years:
The most notable thing that will change in the next 100 years is change itself. The rate of change is only going to increase even faster than it has in the last 20 to 30 years. In particular, large corporations will have to become more entrepreneurial to deal with the changes. Some of the more rigorous or structured business practices will do less well in an environment that’s changing faster.
I also think that we will see a continued shift toward the service sector at the expense of physical goods. We'll see more of the economy taken up by things like experiences, content, entertainment, healthcare, and services. These are things that have more complex revenue models than simply exchanging a good for a fixed price. Lastly, I think we're going to see more pressure on businesses and corporations to factor in externalities — such as social and environmental costs — in their decision-making.
On the future role of Columbia Business School:
The role of the School in educating future business leaders is going to be threefold. First, there’s the classic toolbox of economics, operations, and finance. The basics will probably remain relatively stable in the next century.
The second part is entrepreneurship, which will help business people not just cope with change but understand how to thrive and prosper from and with change. And the third part will be helping business leaders understand how to factor external variables into their decisions — helping leaders understand social and environmental costs, the kind I mentioned earlier, will become increasingly important as the world gets bigger, more populated, and the pressures on resources become more acute.