He is fascinating! Full of surprises! Mysterious! Aloof and familiar. Reserved and warm all at the same time. You don't know how to act at first. At least, that's what happened to me. And another thing - I couldn't figure out if he was poking fun or not. Is he joking around or is he serious? Then I got it - he can outsmart us all! He is in the know and has a good grasp on everything, yet Still, he acts like this isn't the case. You end up being gullible enough to assume that he is gullible!
Murat Ülker is a formidable visionary who doubled Ülker Group's revenues in a span of five years. Despite all this, he is very modest. In fact, he is modest to a degree that makes you think, "Is he serious?" A giant, ranked number three in the world in its field, working with people from all corners of the globe.
A total of 77 plants, 120 general managers, and with a CEO leading each business… They all report to Murat Ülker.
Chairman Murat Ülker’s move to acquire Godiva and United Biscuits brands has placed Yıldız Holding in the league of global giants. We sat down with him to discuss his story, starting with the decision to remove the formal titles of "Mr." and "Mrs./Miss" company-wide, and even going back all the way to his childhood.
You banned the use of saying "Mr." company-wide.
-Yes. I attempted to. I wanted everyone to address each other by their first names.
-This is how it is in many cultures anyway. I didn't see any reason why we couldn't do the same here. After all, each of us is an individual and a human being. Also, we don't have aristocracy in our culture. So, why do we need another title when addressing someone?
But in our culture, we never talk to someone without saying "Mister" or "Miss", that is instilled in us.
-However, this creates an issue when working with the rest of the world! It makes life difficult. Abroad, everyone calls each other by first name. Whereas they try to address me as “Murat Ülker Bey” and going to great lengths to add that "Bey" to my name. It's really not necessary. Just say "Murat" and be done with it.
Is this a necessity, or is it the result of your sense of equality?
-It is a necessity; however, my sense of equality also has a role in that. Calling someone by their first name doesn't seem disrespectful to me. Respect should be shown through one's behavior, not by one's form of addressing someone.
So, what happens when an employee who serves tea says, "Here's your tea, Murat"?
-Nothing. I'd say, “Thank you brother” and drink my tea.
Do you believe this culture will catch on in Turkey?
-Now, that's what the problem is! When I saw the reactions in the press, I realized that it would not be that easy to put into practice. A lot of people criticized it. “How can they do this?” they said. On the other hand, my name is the best thing I've been given. I don't need to add anything else to it. Quashing this prejudice is harder than splitting an atom! People think that this is going too far. It wasn't only the Turks who reacted like this. The Americans we work with also said, "Mr. Ülker, how can we call you just 'Murat'?" You see, this is going to take some time to catch on!
You are a unique character. Some of your art collection is at your office and available to your staff. Anyone can take one and hang it up in their office.
-Yes, and isn't that natural as well? An employee sees something beautiful and wants to hang it in their office. If they want to look at it while they work. Let them… This would only make me happy! You know, sometimes I'm the one who suggests it: “Listen, this would be great in your office,” I say. I explain the characteristics of the painting and the painter. If I am able to purchase a fine art piece, it gives me pleasure to share it. There are so many paintings. Am I supposed to keep them in storage? Will I be the only one to look at them all the time? Everyone should be able to take advantage and enjoy them as much as I do.
You are also addicted to social media
-Yes. My boys introduced me to this world. I began using social media to keep up with them. As a father, you don't want to lag behind your children. So, you try to keep always up to date. At least, I do.
Rumor has it that you tell people, "I want your dreams!" when you hire them. Isn't that a little too much?
-I disagree. If there is one type of person I don't like it’s the: "It's 6 P.M. and I'm shutting down. It's time to go home. I'll sleep on the service shuttle tonight and again tomorrow morning on the way to work as well. Have a cup of coffee when I get into the office, and start working once I'm awake enough” - I don't like that type. I like to work with people who can think about work for 24 hours a day, if necessary. Let them dream about work sometimes, if not all the time! Why do I talk this way? Because I too dream about work. The other night, I woke up and found myself talking about something in English. There was a meeting the next day, and I was thinking about my speech before I went to bed. I gave that speech in my dream. I want people to feel inspired, like I do, when working for this company.
You have invented a term called “GOYA.” What is that?
Politely it means “Get Up and Don't Sit Around Anymore.” In other words: get up, move, roll up your sleeves and get to work. How do I do the “GOYA”? I walk around the market, pay visits to our grocers. One time a grocer told me off. I was checking out the shelves and he asked, “Which company [are you from]?” I said, “I'm from Ülker. Do you need anything?” “Listen to me,” he said. “Tell those guys in charge at Ülker. Sitting around at Çamlıca hill(Yildiz HQ) and sipping Cafe Crown(Yildiz’s coffee brand) they aren’t getting the job done. Tell them to come here!” “You got it,” I replied. “I'll tell them personally.”
Don't they recognize you?
-It's better they don't! If you don't print too many photos, they won’t. I prefer the anonymity
So, your father sets up the company with your uncle and develops the business. But the company really takes off on your watch. What is your greatest achievement, in your opinion?
-Think of it this way: They built a sailboat and equipped it with everything it needed. Then I took the helm of a boat that was ready to sail away. When the wind blew, we cruised. It's as simple as that!
It probably didn't happen by itself as you have described - We were all very proud when Godiva, a thousand-year-old company, became a Turkish brand. Was this just business as usual for you?
-No. I had made a note to myself in a meeting five years before the acquisition took place. It said, "Let's buy Godiva if it goes up for sale." We foresaw these types of expansions. Then when Godiva was for sale, we went ahead and acquired it. So, it was meant to be, you could say it was destined.
How have you managed to turn Yıldız Holding into the world's third largest company in its field (chocolate, candy, sweets, etc.)?
-Firstly it’s important to say that I haven’t done this all myself. It doesn't and in my opinion can’t work that way. Everyone does something, everyone has a role in it. Whatever it is, it is done together...as a team. I am very proud of this.
Are you the one making the decisions?
- I approve or veto the decisions made by the GMs and CEOs that report to me. Generally, I say when something is wrong; however, I don't like to say how it should be done. I feel it ıs important for them to find out.
How are you so humble after all this success? Wouldn't a person be at least a little proud?
-Do you know how the dictionary defines the word “pride?" “Delusion.” Why would I indulge in being delusional?
So would you say that you have realized your dreams? Or were you not expecting things to go this far?
-I went to visit a friend of my father's the other day. “How is business?” he asked. “Good,” I answered. He paused. “You say good, that's what everyone says. What does good mean?” I replied, “You know, if a genie came out of a bottle and told me that he would give me anything I wanted, it wouldn't occur to me to even ask for any of this!” He said, “Now we're talking - so business is good!”
You don't make many appearances. You keep a low profile. Why do you stay aloof?
-What I sell is Ülker, not Murat Ülker!
OK, I get it. But don't you at all enjoy mingling with the crowd, attending launches or events?
-I don’t even attend any of my own. It's not for me. It’s just not my nature.
How do you manage to pray five times a day and keep it hush-hush?
-I don't keep it hush-hush.
You do it out in the open?
-No, I don't do it that way either. Excuse me, but do you announce it to everyone when you go to the bathroom? .. Of course not.. I go out, pray and come back. People respect other people's faiths. For example, you can check into a hotel room in Paris and find a prayer rug and Qible compass on your bed. The same goes for in China. Naturally, they do that since they know I pray.
OK, let me ask you this since you are the boss. Is it something that reduces productivity? Going to pray in the middle of a meeting...
-Couldn't one go to the bathroom in the middle of a meeting? Am I supposed to say, “Sit down, don't go!?" Look, I get very cranky if prayer time comes and I can't pray. It's better that I do it, for the sake of the meeting. For that reason, I never refuse anyone. I feel it helps.
We live together with a cat, a rabbit, a rooster, the kids and us.
How have you raised your children? Are they like the other children of the rich?
-We didn't raise them that way; however, they are of course children of the rich! Unfortunately, this is a problem that we have. Their grandfather is rich. My father got rich as I was growing up. So, I've seen and experienced poverty and wealth. But my children only know wealth… Yet still, we have certain rules in the house. For instance, we do not have helpers in the house at night. We never have. There is no one in the house when we get up either. Everyone makes breakfast for themselves. Sometimes, I make it for them. It's the same late at night. The helpers are gone by then. We like to be by ourselves at night. Our oldest son receives an income. I tell him, “You can take the revenue from this store.” He saves his money from that and spends it as he wishes. I don't get involved with the rest.
What is the main feeling you wish to instill in your children? To be compassionate or conscientious?
-It is enough that they know and truly understand that they are the humble servants of God! We hold meetings at home. Usually on Sundays. They talk about their agendas, about what's on their minds. Then, the whole family discusses them. The oldest son is 21, and the others belong to the millennial generation. They are twins, aged 15.
Boys or girls?
A girl would be nice for you as well!
-Even the cat is a boy. So is the rabbit. We have a rooster. We’ve even got a chicken as well. Now, we are looking for a companion for the rabbit. The cat likes to go to the neighbor's house.
Are they in the house, the cat and all?
-Yes. even the rooster comes inside the house. He knocks on the door, and we let him in.
What would your children have to do to make you get upset with them?
-They don't do things that would make me upset. That being said, squandering makes me very upset, or being unfair.
Who taught you not to flaunt your wealth?
-No one taught me such a thing. I don't know how one flaunts wealth.
What kind of car do you drive?
-I drive a Toyota. A Toyota 4x4. The engine isn't too loud. I bought a used car for my oldest son.
Why a used car?
-Well, that's how it is.
Some men like expensive watches - do you have any similar likes?
-I stopped using a watch after cellphones began to show the time. My ring kept slipping off, so I gave it to my wife to hold on to. I lost a few of them. Fortunately she doesn't give me a hard time about it any longer.
WHY DID MY UNCLE AND FATHER
SPLIT UP THE BUSINESSES?
Your family is descended from the Crimean Turks. What does Crimea mean to you?
-Not much. My father was born in Crimea. Naturally, we don't have much knowledge about Crimea. I went there some time ago. I invited my father and uncle to come along. They told me, “We don't have any nice memories from there. We don't want to go!” They suffered a lot. Still, it's a beautiful place.
Your father set up this company with your uncle. How does it feel to be this successful by selling biscuits?
-They didn't do this to become successful. They did it to do their job right! With that method, success is inevitable.
How many years did they work together?
-From 1944 to 1986.
Were there challenges to two brothers doing business together?
-They eventually split up. Here is the reason: There is one biscuit factory. And six bosses. The Asım and Sabri brothers took care of the business side. But, they have sons and son-in-laws. So, six bosses is too many for a single biscuit factory.
What did they do then?
-One day my father asked, “What is your job?” “I'm in charge of quality control,” I answered. “How long does it take you to do that?” “I get it done in half a day. If I reach and work more than that, I overlap the other five bosses' work!” He then said, “Go and look for a job somewhere else." That's what I did. I continued to come to the factory for half a day, and did my own work the rest of the time. I started a new factory, a chemical factory. We first set up a laboratory for the business. Then the machinery came after. That's how different a business it was. Then my father said to my uncle, “Brother, if we are to remain relatives, we need to split up the businesses. Otherwise, we will be at odds because of it!” My uncle said, 'OK." So we split up the businesses.
How did you do that?
-My father made a suggestion on how to do it. “Son,” he said, “without deciding who gets what piece, we should split everything into two equal parts. One party will get the business side. The other will get the family's real estate, the money and so on. And a certain percentage of the business.” In other words, real estate, some money, some of the businesses and one-third share of the main business was to be on one side, and the business itself on the other. This is how we created two equal parts. He then said to my cousins, “You are young, and you have learned the business well." “You take this business and move forward. For me, I'll take the real estate.” But my cousins said, “No way! You worked very hard for this business. We'll take the other part, you continue with your business.” And that's what happened.
WHEN MY BROTHER PASSED AWAY I WAS SIX
You have three siblings, including a sister. Your brother, Ali Ülker, passed away due to tetanus at a young age...
-Yes, it was a tremendous grief. Every single family member was moved by it. My father withdrew into himself. Even though we had a lot of records at home, we had stopped listening to music. My brother was nine, I was six.
What's behind your interest in art?
-Our father had us take lessons when we were kids. Not only for the sake of art. He believed it to be necessary for our business as well. “You need to learn,“ he said. So, I did. In other words, I don't buy art just as an investment. I buy it because I feel it and love it. In fact, there has been an interest in art in the family since my grandfather. The reason why I love modern art is that each person looking at it sees and perceives something else, demonstrating the many different perspectives people have. People may have different opinions, and they should. I love art for teaching me that.
GOOD TASTE IS ESSENTIAL!
I believe in good taste. There is a Yapı Kredi Publications book called "Three Izmirs," which talks about the Levantine, Greek and Turkish parts of the city of Izmir. Regarding the Turkish section, the books says, “The roof tiles and paint of the homes in the Turkish neighborhood were wonderful. The streets were squeaky clean. There would be separate bowls of food and water for stray dogs. The doors of homes would be left unlocked, as there was no threat of robbery in those neighborhoods. You could spot Turkish children by the way they dressed and behaved.” All those wars destroyed this culture. Take us for instance. What do we do? We do something that was prohibited during the Ottoman era. We build mosques with domes in every village. We copy those in Istanbul. In fact, it was forbidden to build a mosque with domes in Istanbul during that time. Only the Sultan could do that. Why? Because he had the means to hire an architect. “I am going to build a building that looks like a mosque!” - You couldn't do that. It was forbidden to build a bad dome. As there was a sense of good taste. Now, there isn't. But good taste is essential. The sense of good taste has to be ingrained for the community to make something of itself, to produce something and to treat each other nicely.
MY BOAT IS PRE-OWNED
You speak Arabic as well.
-Yes. I wanted to learn it, so I did... However, I don't have too many chances to improve it as most Arabs speak English!
Could you really eat grilled Kashar sandwich for two meals a day?
-I love grilled kashar sandwich. I prefer it over many other dishes. Texas Grilled Cheese, that's what they call it in the US. That's nice as well. Every afternoon, they bring meals for everyone, but grilled kashar sandwich for me...
You travel throughout the globe. How do you think they perceive Turks?
-Most of them don't know Turks.
Do you fly in your own private plane?
-No, I don't. We rent it from a company.
You don't want to purchase one as a hobby?
-No. Even if I did, I'd buy a pre-owned.
A pre-owned plane?
-Why not? My boat is pre-owned as well.
Why would a person with all this money, sophistication and good taste buy a pre-owned boat?
-It's enough to know that you can afford it! You don't have to actually buy it. I have purchased, fixed and re-sold nice boats. Take “Umur Bey” for instance. It is the most famous boat next to the "Savarona(Presidential yacht of the Republic, reserved for the use of the President. Was the largest in the world when launched in 1931)". My nephew has it now. I gave it to him.
My children eat Ülker
But they pay for it!
Are you taking a hit from the financial crises? Or do people tend to eat more sweets because of stress?
-As a matter of fact, biscuit or chocolate eating habits don't change.
I, for one, eat more when I'm stressed out.
-Well then Ülker thanks you!
How do you manage to maintain your weight among all this food?
-Unfortunately, I don't. I yo-yo.
Did you used to put a limit on the number of Ülker products your children could eat when they were little?
- Of course. We used to put the biscuits and chocolates in a cabinet that the children didn't know of. We didn't allow them to eat non-stop. We have certain rules now as well: They get it from the Ülker Shop (within Yildiz HQ premises)and pay for it. Sometimes, I bring home new products. But they have to pay for the others.
Learning from the protégés
We continue where we left off on Sunday in our interview with Murat Ülker.
Murat Ülker has three young mentors!
This is because the company is launching a mentor-protégé program.
The program consists of two parts. The first part is called "From Protégé to Master." In this part, young people are the ones providing him with ideas. Then, they do the opposite: Murat Ülker shares his ideas with his protégés.
The program lasts six months.
I have to admit, I'm impressed.
Murat Ülker's protégés are very bright.
They look at data and technology as being hobbies.
Bülent completed his education in Japan. He works in the firm's R&D department. Esra is an Istanbul Technical University graduate. She works for the food company. Günseli, a Boğaziçi graduate, prefered to be on the supervision side of things. All of them are very colorful youths who are multilingual and interested in literature.
And Murat Ülker learns quite a few things from them.
By the way, he personally mentors two young people (Murat Bilgiç, Serkan Karadağ) at the director level. He is preparing them to take leading roles in the company's future.
You have three young protégés.
Yes. They are my pride and joy. At our firm, 65 percent of our staff come from Generation Y. And I didn't know much about this "Generation Y." I wanted to get to know them. What they think? How do they feel? How do they live? What do they expect from my generation? How do they see us? I'm learning quite a lot from them.
In what way has it been most useful?
I'm not going to lie: I had some prejudices. I wasn't sure if I could trust them, but now I know I can. I wondered, "Do they have concerns, too? Do they also worry about things?" I used to think they didn't care about much. How wrong I was! I saw that they cared about things, thought about issues, and made an effort to find solutions to them. It filled me with hope for the future. Also, they are well rounded and extremely well educated.
So, how do you motivate these kinds of young people? Money isn't enough. Also, if they find the firm and its culture to be old-fashioned, they leave.
That's true, money alone may not matter. But being a member of a team matters. Achievement also matters. With achievement comes loyalty. These are the areas we're focussing on. This firm has around 60,000 employees. All of them come from different places and cultures, and do different jobs. We are going to determine a point that will bring everyone together and focus on it. Everyone will work toward that goal and see that they have something to contribute.
WHAT DO YOUNG PEOPLE SAY?
*We come together once a month. How does Generation X see our generation? What type of a work life do we dream of? Is it absolutely necessary to work 9 to 6? Is it possible to work from home? What can we do to make our offices more fun? The importance of social media in our lives—these are the kinds of things we talk about.
*Murat Ülker thought we were apolitical, but then he saw this wasn't true. We take current events seriously, but also make fun of things on occasion. Actually, we are a generation that tries to enjoy life.
*We talk frequently about technology and, of course, social media. We get most of our information from social media. Also, we develop marketing strategies for social media.
ENGLISH, THE COMMON LANGUAGE
English is the language of correspondence at the executive level and at meetings. It has to be. Otherwise, how are we to understand each other when the participants are from all over the world? I, too, use English when I write. It is then translated into Turkish as necessary. This is the world we live in now.
AT THE HELM
Women make up 32 percent of the company. I'm the one who took the initiative and said, “Women should be on the board of directors.” But I don't believe in quotas. I don't think this will happen with directives either. It has to follow a natural course. The women sitting on the board are there because of merit. Nobody can remove them. It must start at school level. Children should be taught that women can also do anything they set their mind to, and that they have the right and strength to do so. However, it's meaningless to put them on the board of directors just for appearances' sake, or because it looks trendy. Those positions need to be filled by people who deserve it and who know what they're doing. It doesn't matter if they are female or male. Nevertheless, my target audience is women. This is because my main customers are children, and the ones making the purchasing decisions are the mothers. What do they feel, and what motivates them to buy? Women know this better. I put women in these kinds of posts in the company. For instance, the human resources and marketing departments are made up almost entirely of women.
Hürriyet Pazar (Sunday Supplement) April 5, 2015
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